Proposed travel ban poses difficult questions for Syrians in Canada

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. We’re a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH here in Boston. The heartbreaking photo of Alan Kurdi has been on our minds all week. He was the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach. He and his family were trying to get from Syria to Europe when their crowded boat overturned in the Mediterranean. The family was from Kobane, the town in northern Syria that was besieged by ISIS. Alan’s aunt, Tima Kurdi, lives in Vancouver and had apparently been trying to help the family make it to Canada. She told Canadian TV what it was like when she visited her brother last year in Turkey.


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Werman: Trips like the one Kurdi describes taking can be seen as suspicious by authorities in the West. That’s because people visiting family in southern Turkey, or Syria, or Iraq and people wanting to join ISIS often take the same routes. This has actually become a talking point in the upcoming Canadian elections, as we hear from Emma Jacobs in Montreal.


Emma Jacobs: When his father died in April, Samir Salloum’s family in Latakia, Syria asked him to come back for the funeral. Salloum has been living in Canada for 21 years. But he was afraid about what would happen when he returned here to Montreal.


Samir Salloum: I'm not afraid to go there in Latakia because it’s relatively peaceful right now. But I’m afraid when I come back here they ask me, “Why you go there?” a million questions, so I may not be able to prove where I was.


Jacobs: Salloum is sitting in the basement of his church in Montreal after taking his daughters to sunday services. He’s a Syrian Christian, a pretty unlikely ISIS recruit. But he worries about a question mark for law enforcement, which could affect his job in telecom. If Prime Minister Stephen Harper is re-elected, Salloum could have more to worry about than his reputation. Harper wants to ban travel to certain areas controlled by terrorists, likely parts of Iraq and Syria.


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Jacobs: The concern here, like in other countries, is about Canadians leaving to join ISIS. There have been at least 50 so far. Counterterror experts say that the idea behind a travel ban is that it’s easier to prove someone traveled to a certain place than it is to prove someone took part in terrorist activity overseas. But they still question whether the mandate can be enforced. There are more than 22,000 Syrian immigrants in Canada, almost half of them in the province of Quebec, and Afra Jalabi says they have many personal reasons to visit their home country.


Afra Jalabi: It would be so short-sighted to think that you could create a law that would deal with the complexity of traveling to Syria.


Jacobs: Jalabi is a Syrian expat also in Montreal. She doesn’t trust the Canadian government to identify what is or isn’t a legitimate reason for visiting Syria. She says pretty much all people traveling to dangerous parts of Syria keep a low profile for their own safety, and she worries all those people will seem suspicious.


Jalabi: If you're going to start sorting between all these people: the formal and non-formal and the journalists and the aid workers and the human rights and the visitors, I mean that's a huge process and you can't do it really. On top of that, to criminalize anybody going there, that's just a sweeping generalization and you’re basically isolating the Syrian people further.


Jacobs: Australia enacted a law like this in 2014 and is currently pursuing its first prosecution against a nurse named Adam Brookman. He claims he was driven across rebel lines when he himself was hospitalized and conscripted to ISIS. So, things can certainly get complicated. Samir Salloum, the man originally from Latakia, agrees that the Canadian government’s concern is genuine. But he wants to know how the government would institute the proposed travel ban fairly.


Salloum: We have to distinguish between the people, they go there just to go with ISIS “” or the people they go to see their family or for legal reason. So we have to pay attention to this to know who is going there, why is going there and prove this.


Jacobs: It’s not easy, he says, but nothing is with a war like this. A representative of Harper’s campaign said that the legitimate reasons would be laid out in the regulation, and he said the government would review each traveler individually. For The World, I’m Emma Jacobs in Montreal.