Zafer Mamilli, 24, is a classically-trained violinist and a University of Guelph student currently finishing his bachelor’s degree in microbiology. He is usually a glass-half-full kind of guy who has a smile for everyone.
But reading the news every day presents a unique challenge.
“It has kind of become a daily ritual for me,” he said. “Looking at the news, I just don’t feel so good. I would be sitting in the comfort of my own home, having a coffee in the morning and I would be learning about people who have just lost their homes; and sometimes I would see just bodies, dead bodies.”
Today, Mamilli lives in Guelph, but before he moved to Canada at the age of 17, he grew up in Damascus, Syria, where his mother still resides.
March 15 marked two years since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, which has turned into a civil war that has killed over 70,000 people. More than a million Syrians, about 5 per cent of the country’s population, were forced to escape their wartorn country, and more than a thousand people cross the border every day. About one in three children have been injured and Save The Children estimates that two million children have been affected, suffering trauma, malnourishment and disease.
“There have been a few times in the news reports when I would see streets that I recognize, that I have walked on many times, and in the background somewhere there would be a dead body. And it would be really shocking for me to see something like that,” Mamilli said.
The Syrian revolution was one of the many uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa fuelled by a revolutionary wave of demonstrations, protests and civil wars that began after a fruit-stand owner set himself on fire in Tunisia in December 2010 after police confiscated his fruit cart, beat him and the governor refused to see him about having his items returned.
In mid-March 2011, a week before the Syrian uprising began, a group of at least 15 boys in Daraa, Syria spray-painted graffiti on school walls. The slogan, which is chanted in many protests, translates to, “The people want to topple the regime.”
These children, between 10 and 15 years old, were then captured by the police, under the leadership of a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, jailed for two weeks and tortured. The boys were part of big families in Daraa, so the uprising grew as the citizens raged on the streets and the government tried to suppress the protesters by killing them.
Over the past few years, Syria has been in a state of unrest with killings, tortures and arrests on the streets.
“I feel like because this has been going on for two years, I can’t be trapped in the mentality of it and it’s something I have no control over; but it’s hard for me to disconnect myself from it since my mom is there,” he said. “I’d be having lunch with a friend and at the most unexpected time, something would trigger, like a memory from home; and all I could think about is the people who are living in fear right now or the people who are living in refugee camps and I would find it hard to eat,” he said.
“It’s a unique challenge to be living in such a good place when your home is in shambles and people are really unhappy. So I would say that’s the biggest challenge so far since I moved here.”
About two months ago, Mamilli’s mother was sitting in her office, when an explosion that occurred a few metres away from her work shattered her office’s windows and doors.
“She got a few minor cuts, but needless to say that was really frightening for me to hear about. Every now and then there’s a new blast like that, like some car with explosives in it and we don’t know who’s doing these things, every different side points the finger at someone else.”
As a child growing up in Syria, Mamilli recounts mottos he would have to repeat in school from his principal, mottos that honour the government.
“I would remember on a daily basis the humiliation we would get for no reason, like if someone is not co-operating perfectly, like kids who are below the age of 12 would be called animals by the teachers and by the principals on a daily basis,” he said. “That’s exactly why I never thought anyone would ever go out and protest because everyone is very well conditioned to not speak up and I remember that conditioning very well. When I was a kid I never made anything out of it, that was my life on a daily basis. You repeat these mottos, you hear all of these derogatory comments being made, and you just accept it.
“If I was given a time machine back then and saw what was happening now, I would have had a hard time believing it.”
Mamilli calls his mother every day to put his mind at ease. “There are times when I’m on the phone with her and I can hear explosions in the background, I can hear gunshots in the background,” he said. “Definitely, if I didn’t get the chance to speak with her every day I would be a lot more worried.”
But throughout these tough times, Mamilli’s mother still finds reasons to smile.
After the explosion at her office, she and her co-workers had to leave the building.
Mamilli said, “There were constantly fragments of car bits flying up in the air. The way she was describing it was really surreal, but the whole time she was kind of laughing it off and telling me the thrill she got out of it. So I’m glad she’s taking things with that kind of spirit.
“It doesn’t help to be frightened. Sometimes the best coping mechanism is to just laugh things off and to poke fun at them even when they’re not very funny.”
Just like his mother, Mamilli remains strong and positive, seeing the good news alongside the bad.
His close friend, Iman Sheriff, said, “He’s an amazing person, really fun and super hilarious.”
Despite the hardship in the country he has left behind, Mamilli foresees new opportunities. After finishing his final school year in Guelph, he plans to follow his heart and his passion to the music scene in Montreal.
“It’s my favourite city. I fell in love with it since the first time I was there and every time I find it really hard to leave, just heartbreaking.”
He hopes to be able to perform more of his classical music where it can be appreciated.
“I’ve been playing violin for 14 years now and I’ve only been getting more passionate about it over the years,” he said. “For now I would like to take some time to live in a place I really like and make music and somehow get by.”
The situation in Syria also allows him to perceive life in a different way.
“One thing about the conflict back home is that it has been a very educating experience for me. I feel that it has kind of shifted my perception of the world. It also got me to realize the privilege that we have as Canadians or as people living in the west and it makes me realize that the lives of other people around the world are not perceived as equally valuable,” Mamilli said.
He added this imperfect world has given him a purpose.
“I kind of do want to change the world in my own little way and I would like to live in a world where everyone’s lives are equally as valuable as one another.”