Syria Project: Gaziantep – Day 6

Originally published by Bill Fortier on CTV News Edmonton.

There are certain sentences you don’t expect to hear in Gaziantep, Turkey.

One of them is “Canada is my favourite country.”

Saturday night, our server told us that. He assured me, he wasn’t just saying that because I happened to be Canadian. You might think it’s naïve of me to believe him, as servers work for tips, but hear me out. He spent about an hour talking to us about the country I call home.

Before I go any further, I will warn you that this blog post takes on a lighter tone than the rest.

His name is Abuzer. He has worked a full career in the hospitality industry, including jobs that took him to the U.S. and Canada, and many, many other countries. He is fluent in multiple languages, and his English is much better than most Turks in Gaziantep.

Abuzer tells a story that is so Canadian, you know immediately it’s true, but it will still make any Canadian beam with pride. He was lost in downtown Vancouver (a city he has spent a significant amount of time in) so he approached a young couple to ask for directions. Instead of giving him directions, they offered to take him to his destination. They said it wasn’t far from where they were going, so they walked with him, until he could clearly see the building he was trying to find.

Awesome, right? You’re thinking about whether you would do the same thing if a person of middle-eastern descent, with a distinct accent, approached you. Well… you’re reading a blog about improving human right in Syria through journalism, so I’m willing to bet you would.

We are here working with Syrian journalists, who have escaped (I use that word literally) the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the civil war that rages on in their home country. They’re in Turkey because it’s the best and closest place to go. Here, they have some level of journalistic freedom. The Assad government has never allowed independent journalism, only state-run media; essentially, regime propaganda. Our goal is to teach internationally accepted journalism principles, so these reporters can produce comprehensive, balanced stories that will put information in the hands of the Syrian people and the international community.  The project is a joint initiative between CTV and Canadian NGO, Journalists for Human Rights.

The Syrian people we have been working with are some of the most generous, intelligent, passionate, personable people I have ever met. Many of them have gone through unimaginable ordeals, including death threats, arrest, imprisonment and even torture; actual torture, in an age where the idea is almost unfathomable for the average Canadian.

Regardless, these people will take a Canadian guy they have never met out for dinner at a place in Gaziantep that specializes in Aleppo cuisine. They’ll smile, eat, and do their best to converse with that Canadian. I watch them laugh with a level of happiness I have never seen among Canadians who have no idea the level of freedom we enjoy on a daily basis. Somehow, I feel like they understand the necessity of laughter more than the people who get to experience it daily (us). We talk about Syria openly. We talk about Canada openly. A few of them talk about how nice it would be to be in the place I call home. I don’t know if there is an English word to describe how strongly I hope they can achieve that goal one day. Today, actually.

I guess I wasn’t totally accurate when I said this post would take on a lighter tone. It was a lighter tone in my head when I started. Of course, this is a computer, so I could go back and change it… but maybe the process of writing these post helps you understand my mindset. My point is, this was a fun day. In spite of all they have faced, these people are fun.

The day was already another rewarding one, on the heels of several consecutive rewarding days, when we met Abuzer back at our hotel restaurant.

Sorry to move so far from the first paragraph, but I’m talking about that same guy now.  He’s Turkish, not Syrian. In a way, that was more convincing for me. I have spent the last several days agreeing with Syrians that I come from a pretty good place. It was nice to hear it, in no uncertain terms, from someone from a bordering country; someone who has travelled the world.

He’s right. When you’re born in Canada, you have already won a lottery.

We should never take it for granted. Thanks to a few dozen Syrian journalists and Abuzer, more than ever, I know I won’t.

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