A Syrian refugee’s view of the unrest at York University

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrators clash in the halls of York University in Toronto on Nov. 20. (Alex Rose/The CJN)

When I came to Canada a little over two years ago, I wanted one thing above all else: not to stand out. Not to be singled out. Not to be made to feel different from anyone else. As a former refugee, I had had many occasions to be made to feel different since leaving my home city of Homs, one of millions of Syrians displaced due to the civil war. The fact that I could live my life in Toronto like any other inhabitant was a miracle I cherished every day. Before Canada, I hadn’t always been so lucky.

So it was with high spirits that I made my way up to York University on the evening of Nov. 20, to attend an event organized by Herut Canada, a Toronto-based Jewish organization. It was hosting members of the Israeli NGO Reservists on Duty, an organization consisting of soldiers who have served in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

I was always interested in meeting former soldiers of the IDF. Back in Syria, socializing with any Israeli whatsoever was the ultimate taboo. But I was in Canada now, browsing through the York University student cafeteria. Syrian President Bashar Assad could take his taboos and shove it. In Toronto, I was like anyone else. I could go where I pleased, when I pleased. And meet whom I pleased.

Or so I thought.

Shortly before the event started, a large group of people waving Palestinian flags, shouting anti-Israel, pro-intifada slogans through speakerphones, made its way up to the floor where the event was to be held. During the event, they proceeded to bang on the doors to the auditorium and to use speakerphones to drown out the event being held inside. Several times, the event was interrupted by hateful, angry individuals who had come in with every intention of being as disruptive and disrespectful as possible. Outside, their friends made sure to cover every exit from the auditorium and blare their slogans non-stop.

I was astonished at the number of police officers and private security guards that were required to keep the angry crowd outside away from those inside the auditorium. Assad, when he triumphantly drove into the formerly rebel-held Damascus neighbourhood of Ghouta, hadn’t required such a large security detail.

The effect on the mostly Jewish attendees of the event was understandable. Rather than talk about the planned topic – the experience of former Israeli soldiers and their efforts to combat the falsehoods of the BDS movement – the event turned into an anguished discussion on how unsafe the attendees felt as Jews.

They felt singled out. They were made to feel unsafe in their own city because of who they are. It was the very thing I had prayed I would never be made to feel in Canada.


One lady compared the happenings of that night with her experience under the KGB in the Soviet Union. KGB, Syrian intelligence – their the same thugs. Policing and imposing an orthodoxy of thought. No dissenting opinion to be tolerated. Just as the angry crowd outside were not about to tolerate any opposing opinion.

At the end of the event, it was decided that the attendees would require police escorts back to their cars. In 2019, in Toronto, Jews are not safe enough to walk alone back to the parking lot at one of the city’s institutes of higher education. My fellow attendees were angry, apprehensive, but even through the banging on the doors, and the non-stop slogan shouting, they carried on with the event. It was an act of defiance.

And that was the very reason for the anger outside – the defiance of the Jews. The survival of the world’s only Jewish state. Israel had won.

So what is a rabid Israel-hater to do? Bang on doors, shout slogans, wave flags – and tell themselves that this is a “victory.”