Mansour Najjar’s arrival story was published in the June 2020 edition of the New Brunswick Anglican. This is a follow-up.
One night during Syria’s civil war, Mansour Najjar and his family went to sleep as usual in their historic city of Aleppo.
“We went to bed and woke up, and Aleppo was gone,” he said.
The largest city in Syria, with a population of 4.6 residents, was devastated. That was 2013, and he and his family fled as refugees to Lebanon.
Mansour learned their home was destroyed once they left — intentionally, because they are Assyrian Christians.
“We left with nothing,” said Mansour. “They burned our house as soon as they learned we were Christian.”
In fact, they marked it with the Arabic character NUN, representing Nazareth, to show who lived there, and then burned it as they have other Christian homes.
Today, sitting in a Tim Horton’s restaurant in Saint John, those horrible memories are still fresh for Mansour. How he got here has everything to do with his tenacious nature, the kindness of a priest and the hand of God.
For refugees, life in Lebanon is not pleasant. The country has been inundated with Syrian refugees, and it treats them badly to discourage their presence. They are blamed for taking jobs from the Lebanese, yet they aren’t allowed to have jobs legally. Mansour remembers a social media campaign that directed residents to beat up any Syrians they see on the street.
“They know us by our dress, our accent, and because we walk everywhere,” said Mansour. “Syrians aren’t allowed to own cars or businesses.”
Mansour began forming a plan to get out of the country that did not want him, even if it meant leaving his mother and brothers behind.
“I was looking to travel anywhere. I just wanted to get out. I tried going to Europe and Australia,” he said.
He also tried Canada. He found the Canadian immigration website, and discovered a list of sponsoring agencies that help refugees. It was divided by province and listed alphabetically, so he began with Alberta.
He’d read the sponsoring agency’s name, copy and paste the information and use Google to find the contact information. Then he’d call or email, asking for help. He went through Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Newfoundland before someone responded.
“Honestly, I called so many churches,” said Mansour. “I had given up — almost. A lady answered and Paul called me back. It was very good.”
That was in January 2017. The Rev. Paul Rideout, then a priest in Newfoundland, called Mansour back and struck up a conversation which became a friendship.
“He told me the heartbreaking story of how his once beautiful country was ravaged by ISIS and other extremist groups as well as the spread of civil war; of persecution for being Christian; of friends and neighbours who were killed; and of hopes for his future that were crushed,” said Paul.
“It was a desire to start a new, peaceful life away from the horrors of war and terrorism that led him to reach out desperately to churches in Canada, looking for someone to help.”
When Paul relocated to the Parish of Rothesay, he shared Mansour’s story with the Missions Beyond team. They reached out to the Catholic Diocese of Saint John, which had a sponsorship agreement with the federal government. The two agreed to partner to bring Mansour to Canada.
Once the paperwork was filed, it was only a matter of months until Mansour was preparing to leave Lebanon — in February 2020.
“When I left at the airport in Lebanon, they said, ‘we are banning you for five years.’ I said, ‘No, ban me for life.’
“Another one said, ‘You’re from Aleppo, you should be going to hell, not Canada.’”
That was his departure, and he’s never regretted leaving.
Arriving in a strange new country, “I had nobody but my friend, Paul,” he said. “I wasn’t scared. Honestly, I got to the point where I don’t care if I’m alive. I had nothing to lose. But it was exciting and I’d do it again.”
“I got here and I couldn’t believe it,” said Mansour. “I honestly didn’t care about the weather.”
He stayed with Paul for a few days, and then moved into his apartment in the city’s uptown. Since then, he’s discovered a city he loves.
“I like how organized everything is — the traffic. They let you in,” he said. “I like how nice people are. I’ve been treated well.”
He’s taken the opportunity to volunteer with Inner City Youth Ministry, run by Paul’s wife, Erin. He’s also found a girlfriend, Emily, whom he describes as his best friend.
What he doesn’t like is the crime he’s seen. His car was broken into, as was his neighbour’s apartment. He doesn’t like the drug use he sees, either. And he’s found it’s difficult to find a job at times.
“I worked at Crosby’s [Molasses] for six months,” he said. “As a foreigner I didn’t expect to get promoted but I was moving up.”
During his off time, he delivered packages, a great way to get to know his new city, although he was working day and night six days a week. Then he was laid off from Crosby’s. He got a security job working nights, and is now licenced to work security, but recently got laid off as COVID rules have relaxed.
He’s now doing odd jobs as he finds them. Mansour is seeking more steady work in Saint John. If you can help, please contact the editor who will pass on your information.
Despite some setbacks, he supports his family in Lebanon, without which they would be destitute. He’d love to be able to bring them to Canada eventually, because he has no plans to return to either Lebanon or Syria.
“Never!” he said. “I don’t want to go somewhere that reminds me of my old life.”
Mansour, now 26, has two messages he’d like to share.
“I want to be helpful to my generation. I meet a lot of young people upset with what they have. I tell them ‘you live in heaven.’”
Second, he does not want the world to forget about the torment and danger of what he left behind.
“I would like people to know — there are still people suffering there.”
Early in the civil war, ISIL began marking the homes of Christians in Syria with the letter NÜN — ن — for Nazarene. It demanded that Assyrian Christians convert to Islam, pay tribute or face execution. Many abandoned their homes and fled.
Outraged, Christians began an international social media campaign of support and changed their profile photo to ن
The letter has become known as the "Mark of the Nazarene." Mansour knows Assyrian Christians who have had the letter tattooed on the backs of their necks.
From Wikipedia: Assyrian Christians are an ethnic group indigenous to the Middle East. Modern Assyrians are Syriac Christians who claim descent from Assyria, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, dating back to 2500 BC in ancient Mesopotamia.
Most adhere to the East and West Syriac liturgical rites of Christianity. The churches that constitute the East Syriac rite include the Chaldean Catholic Church, Assyrian Church of the East, and the Ancient Church of the East, whereas the churches of the West Syriac rite are the Syriac Orthodox Church and Syriac Catholic Church. Both rites use Classical Syriac as their liturgical language.
Traditional Assyrian territory includes parts of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Many wars and massacres, throughout the ages and more recently, have scattered Assyrian Christians throughout the world.
1. Mansour changing a tire in New Brunswick.
2. Emily and Mansour
3. Mansour voluteering at Christmas with Inner City Youth Ministry in Saint John.
4. Mansour in Lebanon on a rare wintry day.
5. The leter N in arabic. NÜN has become synonymous with Nazarene, hence Christian in ISIL-led territory in Syria and around the world. Homes of Syrian Christians are maked with it and burned.