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A young Iranian helps Syrian refugees adjust to Canada

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The kids hadn’t been here long enough to speak much English. A child pointed to a picture of a clown, indicating that’s how he wanted his face painted. Attar asked in broken Arabic, “Can you tell me what this is?” The little one responded perfectly in both English and Arabic with “Clown, muharaj,” making Attar laugh at himself for underestimating the child.

But even with these very young children, there were sobering moments for Attar. He told me that it scared him, how children’s minds can be patterned so young, when they he asked them what they wanted to become when they grew up, and they answered: "fighters." 

“When I speak Arabic, they look at each other and ask if I’m Muslim.” Attar told me that Iranians are often called fake Muslims. One time staff where he was volunteering asked him to buy some pizza for the Syrian youth and he got them pepperoni pizza with the money they gave him. The youth wouldn’t eat it. At that Attar felt embarrassed he had forgotten Muslims don’t eat pepperoni, especially since technically he is a Muslim. He spent his own money to go back and get them vegetarian pizza. With a smile, he said, “Now I understand why Iranians like me are called fake Muslims!”

One time volunteering, Attar told me he met a Syrian youth named Nizar. As they shook hands, he asked Nizar, “Where are you from?”

Nizar replied with obvious pride, “From Damascus, the oldest capital in the world.” Attar felt it was a tricky moment as he wondered if Nizar was declaring the difference between he as a Syrian and Attar as an Iranian.

Iran and Syria: cultural richness and harmonizing historic rivalry

Even though the media and thus common perception is often that both Syria and Iran are backward and underdeveloped countries, Syrians and Iranians in reality have a strong pride of theirs being among the oldest civilizations of the world, and are taken aback when Westerners see their cultures as inferior.

But those misunderstandings can arise also between Syrians and Iranians, which is what concerned Attar in that moment. “It’s not just historical rivalry between Persians and Syrians, because today the Iranian government is giving political and military support to the Assad regime. Syrians think the Iranian government believes it’s better able to rule Syria than Syria.”

Attar felt an uncomfortable tension between he and Nizar. He told me, in that moment, he considered a commonality between Iranians and Syrians that he as a Persian and Nizar as a Syrian come from cultures that understood human rights, culture and science over a thousand years before the United States existed. “We don’t like the attitude of governments in the West that they are teaching us to be civilized.”

Attar decided to reach out to Nizar in friendship, “not to be nice,” he told me, but because he had experienced directly the same sense of wanting his culture to be appreciated fully for all its contributions. He explained it didn’t bother him whether or not Nizar knew much about Iranian culture.

Nizar had to drop out of high school when the fighting started. His whole family fled Syria and Nizar is still waiting to go back to school. Instead of competing with Nizar about whose culture is better, Attar talked about his parents’ appreciation of Syrian culture which he learned growing up. He shared with Nizar that his grandfather travelled extensively in Syria and even wrote a memoir about his experiences there.

Attar’s grandfather travelled to Syria and wrote a memoir praising the Umayyad Mosque. Photo: © Shane Davis

That broke the ice and Nizar asked, “Did your grandfather include Damascus? Aleppo? Umayyad Mosque?”

Attar replied, “Yes” to Nizar’s questions. Nizar’s two brothers and father were nearby. He and his family invited Attar to their home for a meal and Attar happily accepted. “I wish all people remained young in their minds [like Nizar and his family] and that people didn’t become adulterated and judgmental so often as they get older.”

I asked Attar: “What is the most important thing you have been giving as a volunteer helping Syrian refugees get settled here in Canada?”

Without hesitation, Attar replied that many volunteers are native speakers and can teach English better than he can; and that locals can do a better job of helping with settlement issues. He feels grateful for the opportunity to be in Canada, on neutral ground, where he can begin to practice the work he hopes to make a career.

“The most important contribution I bring is that I’m letting you know as an Iranian youth, that you as a Syrian can be friends with someone from Iran, even while there are such deep conflicts between our two countries right now.”

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