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Syrian Refugees Say They Aren't Angry After Pepper Spray Attack in Vancouver

"It is a hate crime against people who have newly come to this country, that's a pretty serious thing," the Vancouver police chief told reporters Saturday after an attack that drew condemnation from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Refugiados sirios abordan un autobús en Vancouver. (Imagen por Chantelle Bellrichard/VICE News)

Two weeks after arriving in Vancouver as one of thousands of Syrians to find refuge in Canada's open arms, Shahadi al-Rady found himself in a cloud of pepper spray.

He and a group of fellow Syrians had just left a welcoming event on Friday when, as they waited for a bus to take them back to their downtown Vancouver hotel, a man on a bicycle rode by and started spraying them, young children included. A chaotic scene ensued, with people choking and children screaming as organizers with the Muslim Association of Canada (MAC), which hosted the event, scrambled to figure out what had happened.


Less than a day later, a group of men gathered in the lobby of their downtown hotel. But it wasn't the attack — which has drawn widespread condemnation in Canada and is being investigated as a hate crime — that al-Rady talked about, but the speed with which police and paramedics arrived — and the respect that the refugees have been shown.

"To them it was a big thing," translated Tarek Ramadan, a volunteer event organizer with MAC's Vancouver chapter. "It's like 'Oh, okay, we're in a country that takes care of its civilians.'"

Ramadan returned to the hotel on Saturday to check in on the refugees. He brought a bouquet of flowers for one of the families whose child was hit particularly hard by pepper spray. A 15-year-old boy sporting a pair of Real Madrid track pants quickly offered to deliver the bouquet to the family in their hotel room as Ramadan continued to translate for the group in the lobby.

"They say that they don't want anybody to worry that they're not okay. They're not regretful that they made a decision to come to Canada. They're still happy to be here," Ramadan said.

Hazaz al-Shel, a man who fled from his hometown of Homs, said he doesn't think any less of Canadians for the attack and that he is ready to move on.

"We express our gratitude to the prime minister and especially after he sent a condemnation and apologies for what's happened," Ramadan translated.

I condemn the attack on Syrian refugees in Vancouver. This isn't who we are - and doesn't reflect the warm welcome Canadians have offered.

— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau)January 9, 2016


Messages of condemnation have been flooding in from across the country. From every level of government and Canadians alike.

Last night's pepper spray incident was a disgusting display of hate - and Vancouver won't stand for it. — Gregor Robertson (@MayorGregor)January 9, 2016

Community support is also pouring into the MAC centre in Vancouver where the attack occurred.

Children ran around the now cleared out ballroom as volunteer Heba Rushdan greeted visitors on Saturday. A man who had just wandered in handed her a box of Timbits as a gift and quickly left.

"We actually had some people from the community show up today with flowers, and like you saw Timbits, some cards and stuff," said Rushdan.

Over 400 people packed into the building Friday night for the Syrian welcoming event. Ramadan says MAC has been fundraising and fielding donations for the incoming refugees for months. But he soon realized that aside from things like clothing and money, they really needed to get together.

"Really their most urgent need is human connection - is to be connected to their community, to society, especially the Arabic speaking society."

Local politicians and members from the Muslim community were in attendance. Kids got their faces painted and were given balloon animals.

Related: The Year Canada Woke Up to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

"Mainly the thing was to make them feel this is their place and to make them feel they have a community here to rely on," said Heba Rushdan who brought her young children to the event as well.


Rushdan say the event was a success and people left with good feelings all around. The Syrians were picked up by hired buses and taken back to their hotels. At around 10:30 pm the last group was waiting for their bus to arrive to take them downtown.

"The bus was delayed so they waited a little bit outside and that's when it happened," said Ramadan.

He figured there were about 70 people on the sidewalk when a lone man wearing a hoodie passed them on a bike and sprayed the crowd.

"It was chaotic because we had people who were choking, and people who had difficulty to breathe," said Ramadan.

"It was so strong and people could smell it on the stairs … children were screaming. And then the ones that were in the front got it the worst. They got really swollen eyes — red eyes — and red marks on their faces."

Emergency crews treated people for exposure on scene as police searched for the suspect.

"The whole block was blocked off by the police and the paramedics," said Ramadan.

At a press conference Saturday afternoon, Vancouver Police Chief Constable Adam Palmer made a direct appeal to the perpetrator.

"It is a hate crime against people who have newly come to this country, that's a pretty serious thing," he said.

"It's not something we're going to tolerate. The person that committed this crime, who knows what their motivation was … if they're watching or listening, I'd ask them to turn themselves in and explain themselves and let's get to the bottom of this."


Ramadan says he thinks the person police are looking for knew what he was doing and who he was targeting.

"Because what's the chances of somebody arriving at a particular place, at this time of night, being prepared and thinking of having some form of a pepper spray or maybe a bear spray to spray in people's face," he said.

"This is not a random act."

When asked what he'd like to see happen to the man responsible, Ramadan spoke passionately about what he sees as a much bigger problem of media coverage of Muslim people and recent statements about them by US presidential candidate Donald Trump.

"What I'd like to see happen [to the man who did this] is get him educated … because he's a victim of the wrong teaching. He's been told the wrong things. He's been told that Muslim are terrorists and they want to run the world, and Islam is taking over and al Qaeda, Bin Laden, and and and and."

Follow Chantelle Bellrichard on Twitter: @pieglue