Calgary Syrian refugee never gives up hope for his dad’s freedom

Waill Tatari sips tea outside his duplex in northeast Calgary, taking a break from his work as a graphic designer, and thinks back on the journey that brought him to Canada in July 2020.

He says it wasn’t an easy transition when he and his mother fled Syria in 2013. They spent years on the run, living in desperation and fear, but because of so many kind people, he says his peaceful life here was possible. 

Now he wants to do what he can to help his 65-year-old father, Ragheed Al Tatari, find that same sense of peace — and freedom.

His father was an air force pilot in Syria when he was arrested and imprisoned more than 40 years ago by Syrian authorities.

According to a human rights advocacy group, al Tatari is the longest serving political prisoner in Syria.

And no one really knows why.

“I have all these theories and crazy ideas, but I don’t know the truth. I really want him out, so maybe the truth can come out,” said Waill Tatari.

Waill Tatari arrived in Canada in July 2020 with his partner Dana and now lives in Calgary. His father has been imprisoned in Syria since 1981. (Submitteed by Waill Tatari )

Early memories

Tatari, 40, says when he was young, his mother told him his dad was away travelling. 

“I think the default when someone doesn’t want to tell (you the truth), well, yeah, he’s just traveling,” said Tatari.

Tatari says he believed her and would secretly await from his fourth floor balcony for his father’s return.

“Every time I see a guy coming alone, which I don’t recognize, (I thought) ‘could that be my dad?’

“And then I would go to the door and wait. And then nothing happened. And then it got frustrating after a few years. So I stopped doing that.” 

Eventually, he says, his mother told him the truth. Or at least the truth that she knew.

She said his father had been arrested and taken to prison by Syrian authorities in 1981, shortly before Tatari was born, and she hadn’t seen him since.

Tatari says it took years for anyone to finally see his father.

He recalls one visit that really stands out for him. He says it was the only time they could visit without bars and guards in between them. 

And he remembers his dad making jokes and asking him if he had a PlayStation.

“(I said) know about PlayStation? He said, ‘yeah, I tried it,’ and I was like, how? And he said, ‘I cannot say.’

“I was talking with my dad about fun stuff, and I never had that before,” said Tatari.

Decades without a trial

Over the years, Tatari says, rumours have circulated about why his father was taken, whether it was his refusal to follow orders to bomb the Syrian city of Hama, or his failure to report the defection of his friends to the authorities.

But he says he can’t imagine any justifiable reason why his dad has been kept in prison without a fair trial for this long.

The Syrian Campaign is a human rights advocacy group that is trying to raise awareness about political detainees and was recently made aware of al Tatari’s story.

It says based on its research, Tatari is the longest serving political prisoner in Syria.

In a statement, a spokeswoman said:

“Ragheed al-Tatari’s case is important because it serves as a reminder of the ongoing brutality and injustice of the Syrian regime today — particularly as some Arab countries are seeking to normalize ties with the Syrian authorities, and Interpol has recently allowed Syria to rejoin its communications network.

“His case also epitomizes the inhumanity that detainees in Syria often face. He has spent 40 years unjustly detained and denied his right to a fair trial. The Syria Campaign’s aim is to raise awareness of his shocking case by bringing it to the world’s attention, and we are also planning to organize a solidarity campaign calling for his release in the coming months.” 

Former Syrian political prisoner Riyad Avlar hugs his mother after spending 21 years in prison in Syria. (Riyad Avlar)

Former detainee Riyad Avlar, who served time with al Tatari, spoke to CBC News through an interpreter. He is also the co-founder and co-ordinator of the Association of Detainees and The Missing in Saydnaya Prison.

Avlar says he spent 21 years in prison for writing a letter to his friends in Turkey about a notorious prison in Syria.

He says the letter was intercepted by authorities. He was 19 at the time.

He says he wasn’t able to see any family for the first 15 years of his sentence. And he was never granted a just trial.

“Everyday, I keep hope that I would be free,” said Avlar.

Call for release

Avlar says that following his release from prison a few years ago, he continues to get updates on al Tatari from other prisoners.

“He is a very good fighter and a strong man … they never stop fabricating causes to keep him there,” said Avlar.

Waill Tatari continues to hold out hope that one day he will be able to see his father again — before he’s gone for good.

“I want to sit with him. I want to hear more of his dad’s jokes. I know it’s going to make me laugh,” said Tatari.

Tatari is sharing his story in the belief that others will be outraged by what’s happening and it will lead to a groundswell of support for his father’s release.

The Syrian Campaign is also working on a solidarity campaign — whether it’s a petition or activity — in the hopes that the international community will put pressure on the authorities to release al Tatari.

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