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Robert Somerville is waiting to be loaded onto to airplane, destined for Vancouver, after spending the better part of the week in a high-risk immigration detention center in Australia."I guess I have a mean face," Somerville, a native of British Columbia, told VICE News from the Brisbane facility, where he is allowed access to the internet, but cannot go outside without handcuffs.Somerville left Syria last month and traveled to Brisbane this week to visit his father, but he was detained at the airport after he admitted to being in Syria, fighting alongside the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).
"They stopped me, questioned me, and decided that my visa would be cancelled," Somerville said. "The reason [was] I didn't list my Kurdish name, though it's not a legal name. They skirt around me being in Syria. It's not the reason, but it is the reason, if you know what I mean."
Somerville's lawyer told the Brisbane Times that his client failed to fill out a section on his immigration papers asking for any nicknames he used abroad.The Canadian's arrest comes as the Australian government has been cracking down on foreign fighters.Related: John Gallagher Died Fighting the Islamic State. His Story Is More Than TragedyA 2014 law set a 25 year maximum jail sentence for any foreign fighter returning to Australia — whether they're fighting for the Islamic State, or against it. That's bad news for the estimated 110 Australians who have taken up arms against IS since 2014.The aggressive push to end the flow of fighters from Australia has become a matter of debate in Australia."If you are thinking of going to fight in the Middle East, think again," then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in 2015. "Obviously, there's a moral difference between fighting for the Islamist death cult and fighting for those who are doing their best to defend Iraq and the Kurdish areas from the death cult, but nevertheless, this is a very dangerous place and Australians shouldn't go there."
"Generally the Canadians that are going are ex-military who have served overseas. So they know what they're doing."
The Australian government has already started, then paused, prosecutions against Australian YPG fighters.Somerville updated his Facebook status late Wednesday night saying that he had been advised he could challenge Australia's deportation order, but he won't fight it for fear of having to pay the government's legal fees if he loses. "And having had a little taste of the way the Australian Government treats people who have fought against ISIS, I don't doubt they would re-cancel my visa," he wrote.
Somerville's father, Richard, told reporters he was worried the deportation order might mean his son, who served with Canadian forces in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010, could be barred from returning to Australia in the future. His father hasn't seen his son since he moved from Canada to Australia 20 years ago."For someone who would have been treated like a hero in Canada to be treated like a criminal in Australia is shocking," the elder Somerville said in an interview with the National Post.Canada shares little of Australia's worry about fighters joining the YPG. Roughly 20 Canadians have gone to fight with Kurdish forces in Syria — including the son of one former Member of Parliament. The Canadian government does, however, discourage it, suggesting that those willing to fight the Islamic State enlist with the Canadian Forces.Related: Two More Canadian Veterans Are Fighting the Islamic State
Somerville added he wouldn't discourage other Canadians from taking up the cause, as long as they are trained military professionals. "Generally the Canadians that are going are ex-military who have served overseas," he said. "So they know what they're doing."He, however, discourage an 18-year-old Canadian woman he met back in Syria who recently joined the Women's Protection Unit (YPJ), the YPG's sister unit, to fight.
"I said she shouldn't be there," he said.Somerville spoke to VICE News over Facebook chat, so his writing has been edited for clarity.Another Canadian war vet who volunteered with the YPG, John Gallagher, was killed in a suicide bombing in Syria last November — reportedly the first Canadian who has died while fighting with the Kurds. The Canadian Heroes Foundation put on a roadside memorial for him after his body was repatriated to Canada, but others had called for the government to give him a proper regimental funeral.
"They called me to say they can't do anything."
Last week, it was revealed through a classified intelligence report that the Canadian government has hinted it may investigate any Canadians who have fought alongside the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Canada and many other Western nations consider to be a terrorist group.Though it's distinct from the YPG, it's unclear whether or not the two ever cooperate in their efforts.Related: Canadians Fighting the Islamic State Could Face Terror Charges for Helping the Kurds
"Of course not," Somerville said when asked if he came across any PKK elements during his time in Syria. Nevertheless, he still expects that Canadian police and intelligence agents will question him upon his return to Canada.
"I would be surprised if I wasn't investigated," he said. "But I'm not worried about it."Even if Somerville isn't in trouble back home, the Canadian embassy in Australia hasn't been much help."They called me to say they can't do anything," he said.But Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Amy Mills wrote to VICE News in an email: "We are aware of a Canadian citizen being detained in Australia. Canadian officials in Australia are providing consular assistance." Mills wouldn't say whether or not this person is Somerville, citing privacy concerns.
"I love Scotch and women too much to stay long in the Middle East."
Prior to flying to Australia, Somerville had been in Thailand. Before that, it was Syria. He said he has no plans to go back."And I love Scotch and women too much to stay long in the Middle East," he joked.More seriously, Somerville says he felt like his work was finished."The operations are done," he went on."I think I did a lot of good. I fought a lot; helped free Shingal, provided medical care," he said. But, he added, there were moments that were worse than anything he experiences in Afghanistan.Somerville said one push he could have participated in, the effort to liberate the de facto Islamic State capital of Raqqa, didn't interest him: "Too many civilians."He expects to be put on the 17-hour flight from Brisbane to Vancouver on Friday morning, local time.Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_Browne