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Family escapes Syria, safely relocates

Adnan, his wife Ranim and their son Sam prepare to board a plane at the Beirut airport to head to their new home in Canada.
Adnan Alhamdan is a rock musician and music teacher in Canada who lived for three years in exile in Lebanon after fleeing Syria.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Nonbelief Relief campaign has contributed $5,000 toward the resettlement to Canada of a nonreligious Syrian family that ran a “Western” music school in war-torn Syria, and had to flee as “infidels” to Lebanon.

A group in Canada, Roots Immigration Law, which runs the TalentLift Canada program, coordinated the family’s resettlement fund. In addition to FFRF’s fund, the Center for Inquiry’s Secular Rescue has also provided $4,000.

Syrian native and atheist Adnan Alhamdan, his wife Ranim and their 7-year-old son Sam are finally living the dream, safe in their new Canadian home, thanks to TalentLift Canada and donors like FFRF’s NonBelief Relief.  

But it was a long and arduous journey to get there. There were years of facing prison or possible execution in Syria, years of hiding out in Lebanon, years of wondering if they would ever be safe.

It all started back in 2011, shortly after Adnan founded the Solo Music Institute, which attracted students of varying ages from all over the country, and was the first of its kind in the city to teach “Western” music. 

Months later, everything changed for Adnan once the Syrian war began. He tried to maintain political neutrality and did not support the regime or the opposition. But the Syrian regime issued a decree requiring every man capable of bearing arms be conscripted into the army, which meant likely death because new conscripts were sent straight to the front lines without much training. 

On the other side, various militias were trying to recruit men to fight alongside them, and anyone who refused would be considered going against the word of God. The opposition consisted of different militias, including the Free Syrian Army, Al-Nusra and Daish (ISIS), all of which were radical Islamist militias.

At first, Adnan was able to avoid getting conscripted into the regime’s army, but it became challenging to avoid checkpoints and home raids, especially when the Russian army got involved with helping the Syrian regime find new recruits. 

Then, in 2014, a car exploded in town, killing some of Adnan’s students. This event made Adnan and Ranim more determined to keep teaching music and making concerts for the Syrian children. The couple were teaching Palestinian refugees, as well as holding numerous charity concerts to help children and families who were in need because of the war. 

In September 2018, rockets were fired on the area where the institute was located. Adnan went to check on the building and found that it was hit, but he was not able to get near enough to it because the local militia was on site, and he could be detained. Ranim was able to get to the institute’s ruins, but she did not find anything — it was either destroyed or looted. A little more than a year after that incident, they kept teaching students privately as many of them wanted to continue with their music lessons.  

But the radical militias had websites where photos of “regime agents, collaborators and sympathizers” were posted, and Adnan’s image was included. The caption read, “Wanted: Collaborator.” Collaborators are considered to be infidels and, according to Islamic law, they can be executed without a trial. 

Adnan found himself wanted by all sides of the fighting factions because he refused to take sides. When he saw that his face was on the internet as a wanted infidel, he tried to see if there was anything he could do to protect himself. People told him that he needed to join the Syrian Army of the regime, otherwise he would be considered a traitor and could be jailed or executed. During that time, Adnan had started an ambitious musical project in collaboration with 140 artists around the world from 42 countries. It was a rock music project consisting of 30 songs. Unfortunately, the Syrian regime took notice of that and concluded that Adnan was a spy for the West. They knew from the wife of a well-connected person who was close to the regime that Adnan’s name was sent to all border-control officers. They were subsequently advised to flee from Syria but to not go through legal borders because the officers were under orders to detain Adnan.  

So, Adnan asked around and was directed to a smuggler who agreed to sneak him into Lebanon for a hefty fee of $1,000. In Syria, $1,000 is 10 times that of a high-ranking officer’s wage. Adnan had to sell everything he owned except his old laptop and guitar. The trip was one of the scariest ordeals he had to endure, as he was blindfolded during most of the road trip and didn’t know if he would be caught. He safely made it to Lebanon, where he was able to share a small room with a Syrian friend who was legal in Lebanon.  

Adnan’s wife and son followed him a few months later and entered Lebanon legally on a 15-day visa. They all lived in that shared room. Just a few months after they reached Lebanon, the Lebanese civil movement uprising against the government began, followed by the country’s economic collapse, which made their lives even harder. 

Because of the deteriorating situation in Lebanon, Adnan and Ranim ate only a couple of times a week, while they tried to feed their very young son every day. 

Their lives finally got some good news when they were put in touch with TalentLift Canada. 

“As artists and entrepreneurs, Adnan and Ranim had a visa pathway to Canada,” writes Dana Wagner in her article, “Rock musician entrepreneurs arrive from refugee circumstances to open their new music school in Canada,” which was posted on the TalentLift web site on May 9. “Canada courts world-class artistic and athletic talent through the federal Self-Employed Persons Program. TalentLift’s Legal Director Veronica Wilson connected the dots, realizing they were model applicants.”

It was the break they had been waiting for.

“Adnan and Ranim dreamed of reopening their music school in Canada,” Wagner writes. “Unlike traditional applicants to an entrepreneurship visa, Adnan and Ranim had no savings to demonstrate start-up capital for their business in Canada. But they had everything else, and donations in lieu of savings. They laid out their business plan for the new Solo Music School in Parry Sound as a hub for kids and young adults to learn music and express themselves ­— it would be an inclusive space, teaching vocals and instruments, celebrating the diverse sounds of everyone.”

Adnan’s dream has now been realized, which is to “live in peace, and free without fear from anything. Like any normal person,” Wagner writes.