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Disturbing parallels in Ukrainian invasion for Syrian refugee living in Central Alberta

The war in Ukraine is bringing back memories for a Central Alberta high school student from Syria of what it's like to be a child refugee.
MVT Roni Ebraheem-1
Syrian refugee Roni Ebraheem misses his old home but realizes he may never be able to live there again.

OLDS, ALTA — The invasion of Ukraine by Russia brings back painful memories and alarming comparisons for Olds resident Roni Ebraheem. 

His family, including older brother Jan and younger brother Mervan, became refugees after fleeing Syria in 2017. The Grade 12 student was about 12 years old at that time. 

Now he sees millions of refugees fleeing war again – this time in Ukraine.  

There’s another parallel. Russia is invading Ukraine with a goal of toppling the current government and installing a pro-Russian regime. Russia also backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad during a lengthy civil war in that country. 

Ebraheem said in his family’s case, their Christian religion – along with some horrific violence – lead to their decision to leave. 

“We were threatened – at school, at my dad’s shop – to kill us,” he said during an interview with the Albertan.  

“Our neighbour's house (was) bombed and it affected us and after that our house was burned down. So it was like, yeah, now we have to leave, we can’t stay anymore because it’s war and at the same time, we were threatened.” 

Ebraheem was asked if he watches news about the war in Ukraine on TV. He does. 

He said when his family left Syria, most of the people leaving were women and children, just like in the Ukraine situation, although his family was lucky. His dad was able to leave with them. 

Ebraheem was asked if he believes his classmates who have lived all their lives in Olds and area really understand what it’s like to be a refugee. 

“I think they respect it, but at the same time, I just think if you’ve never lived through it, it’s just – there's the little things that one can’t talk about that just – no one can understand unless you’ve lived through them,” he said. 

“I try to talk about it as much as I can but there’s just the little things that words just can’t describe and you can't talk about.” 

He said those things include missing friends and his former home. 

"I still feel connected there and still, a lot of times, I still feel disconnected here, even though I am happy here and I don’t think I would go back, just because of how the situation is,” he said. 

"I am blessed that I am here, but also, there’s always that connection back – those feelings of missing back home and friends there.” 

Ebraheem was asked how he feels about the way Russia is conducting its invasion – for example, the targeting of civilians, schools and maternity hospitals, apartment buildings – nothing of military value. 

"Well I think it’s just how war is. War is a dirty thing and I think it’s just how it’s fought. It’s how they do it. Because if they were going to fight a good war, no one’s going to win, so they try to fight it in a dirty way,” he said. 

"It’s just how war is, it’s how the world has been. It’s mostly innocent people getting to suffer the most.” 

During a social studies 30 class on March 11, École Olds High School principal Tom Christensen asked Ebraheem what he was able to take when he and his family left and how he made those decisions. 

“We took a couple of things, just to help us on the road, but we left everything else there, because you can’t just take whatever you want because number 1, there’s no place to take stuff. Number 2, you can’t just carry stuff because that is what’ll slow you down and you want to get out as quick as possible," he said.

“So we just took backpacks of stuff just to help us on the road. Just valuable stuff, that’s all, like passports."

An avid reader, Ebraheem took some books that his father had given him.  

“I took some of these books with me and I took some pictures from my basketball and stuff because I used to play club basketball, so I had some pictures with friends and stuff, so I took those pictures and that’s about all I took,” he said. 

Christensen said during the social studies class: "I feel like I almost need to be giving Roni some of my salary because how could I possibly teach you guys about the plight of Ukrainians as well if Roni wasn’t in here.

“He’s here because of the same end, right? That is leading to the Ukrainian refugee situation.”