ISTANBUL—Jihad Rahmoon sips his single-shot espresso at a Starbucks adjacent to Taksim Square, surrounded by Turks on their laptops and smartphones surfing and chatting with their friends.
“I am wanted in Damascus,” he begins. Rahmoon, 32, speaks softly in near-perfect English. He runs his hands through his thick, curly hair and stares forward.
“I joined the revolution when it started. I worked with some networks inside Damascus to organize demonstrations and provide relief aid to those who suffered from the shelling and the killing,” he says.
Read more of this series on thestar.com:
“Us activists, we were so busy in Damascus. We had planned to hit the regime with demonstrations in neighbourhoods that they didn’t expect to get hit with protests … Someone saw my face. He knew me. He was, like a spy, a double agent, and he reported my name to the Syrian intelligence services.”
Rahmoon cannot return to Syria as long as Bashar Assad remains in power. “If I go back, I will be thrown in prison or I will be killed.”
He remembers the night he and his friends met to discuss his options. “I had a choice. I could join the Free Syrian Army, but all of us refused that as we didn’t want to carry weapons against each other. The decision was to go out of Syria.”
Rahmoon left Damascus on July 3, 2012.
He said goodbye to his parents, his younger brother and sister, his friends, his job as an English teacher, his Mazda and all his belongings.
Like so many fleeing Syrians, he started walking in the dead of night. He eventually joined two women, their children and an elderly man. They hiked over the mountains and crossed into Turkey.
“I’m not legal here. I work as a freelance translator. Work has slowed down. Technically, it is not good to stay in a country where you don’t exist. Where you have nothing,” he says. Rahmoon worked for the Star as a translator.
It is estimated that nearly 1 million Syrians live in Turkey’s urban cities and rural villages. Another 220,000 live in temporary camps and containers run by the Turkish government along the southern border, according to the International Crisis Group.
In Istanbul, Syrians are everywhere. Families live in parks, in crowded apartments, abandoned buildings, with friends or friends of friends. Children in pyjamas ask for sweets in the stores lining Taksim Square. Fathers, hauling their children, beg for spare change from tourists in cafes. Other kids are put to work along Istanbul’s main roadways, selling packages of Kleenex to cars stopped at the traffic lights.
“Turkey is the best place for Syrians to stay. But we are not refugees. I will never say I am a refugee. We are visitors,” Rahmoon says.
Istanbul is the first stop of Rahmoon’s intended journey.
His plan is to cross illegally into Greece and settle in Sweden. There are few countries willing to give Syrians a chance at a new life. According to Eurostat and United Nations data, from 2011, when the conflict began, to August 2013, Germany granted asylum to the greatest number of Syrians, taking in 19,360, followed by Sweden at 15,480. Canada only accepted 512 Syrians from 2011 to the end of 2012, the data shows.
“I will not go there to work. I will go there to study. I will get legal papers and then come back to Turkey,” Rahmoon says.
He will return to Istanbul to be closer to Syria so that he can rescue his 13-year-old sister, Shaza, and give her a chance at having a life.
“My sister needs education. Her future is so vital for me. This is the main reason why I’m going to Sweden. I want to provide my sister with a decent future. Not like my future. Not like my life,” he says.
Rahmoon’s hometown is Yabroud, about 80 kilometres north of Damascus near the Lebanese border. In March, Yabroud came under intense artillery and air attacks. It was the one of the last rebel-held cities to fall to Syrian government troops, aided by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters. “When the military campaign started . . . my family fled to Damascus. They are there now,” he says.
Rahmoon begged his father to leave with the rest of his family but he refused.
“He says, ‘I want to witness.’ I asked him, ‘What do you want to witness?’ He said, ‘I want to witness what will happen to Syria,’” says Rahmoon.
Everyone thought the international community would have stepped in by now, but that has not been the case. Except for a few nations, none has stepped up to help.
“We didn’t expect the world would stay and stand and look at us, without doing anything,” he says.
The journey to Europe is perilous. Rahmoon has two options: he can cross the Aegean Sea on a raft until he hits one of the Greek Islands, or he can leave via the northwestern Turkish city of Edirne and walk, run and hike through the forests of southern Bulgaria until he reaches Sofia.
Both options are dangerous. Hundreds of Syrians have drowned trying to get to Greece.
Every Syrian has heard the stories of the crossing.
“A smuggler, who does his job by land, told me that there was a yacht full of Syrian refugees crossing the sea and they were forced by the coast guard to come back. The captain refused and so (the coast guard) started to shoot,” he says.
There is the story of someone who made it to Greece, only to come back to Istanbul.
“There is the possibility of drowning, of being captured by police and put into a camp. Someone tried it. He was captured and put in a camp. The next day he was served food. It was stinky food. He complained and said, ‘What is this? It is bad, I refuse to eat it.’ And the answer was, ‘You Arabs are lower than dogs. So, you deserve such food.’”
The man was sent to Athens. From there, he returned to Istanbul of his own will, because Rahmoon says he was “humiliated.”
Rahmoon figures he will have to pay smugglers between 1,300 euros and 2,500 euros ($1,980 to $3,800) to leave by boat.
“I just feel it is not fair to be treated like this. Where is the humanity? The dignity of being a human? Just because I have a Swedish passport or a Canadian passport I can go wherever I want? But because I have a Syrian passport nobody wants me?
“There are hundreds of thousands like me. They want to go to Europe but they don’t want to stay there. The majority of them want to go there to have a normal life, like human beings, they want to study and then they want to go back to Syria and build a better country.”
The city ombudsman is preparing to release a damaging report that could cost Toronto Community Housing Corp. chief executive officer Gene Jones his job.
The report, to be made public Tuesday morning, will reveal the results of ombudsman Fiona Crean’s investigation into the TCHC’s hiring, firing and promotion practices during Jones’s high-turnover two-year tenure. Two sources said the report will describe multiple alleged improprieties by senior executives — and that Jones could be at risk of being fired by the board of directors.
The board has scheduled a special meeting for Tuesday afternoon to discuss the report behind closed doors. As a corporation, the TCHC is allowed to hold debates and votes in private without disclosing even the general nature of the matters being discussed.
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Jones has been given a draft of the report and an opportunity to provide a response before it is finalized. A TCHC spokeswoman and board chair Bud Purves said they could not comment on anything related to the investigation, since “the respondent and any others involved in an ombudsman enquiry are bound by confidentiality throughout the process.”
Jones was hired in mid-2012 to overhaul the TCHC in the wake of a 2011 spending and procurement scandal. But his tenure has been rocky, and numerous employees have approached the ombudsman and the media with detailed complaints about the way he and his management team have conducted their extensive personnel shakeup.
A separate ombudsman investigation in 2013 found that the TCHC had continued to needlessly evict seniors who had not paid their rent. In February, the board decided to publicly discipline Jones rather than fire him after an investigation by a law firm found he had “failed to exercise proper management oversight and follow board processes and procedures.”
That investigation looked into two specific allegations — one that Jones unilaterally terminated chief operating officer Kathleen Llewellyn-Thomas, who had been hired only four months earlier, while claiming she resigned.
The ombudsman’s new investigation studied the company’s human resources practices more broadly. In a preliminary August 2013 letter viewed by the Star, Crean told Jones that the investigation would “examine TCHC’s adherence to recruitment policies in the hiring and promotion of staff.” The probe was later broadened to include firings as well.
The report may affect the mayoral election. Mayor Rob Ford is an outspoken supporter of Jones, and he continues to argue that they have together succeeded in turning around the long-troubled company that houses 164,000 people.
One of the four paragraphs on the home page of Ford’s campaign website says: “Faced with a major leadership crisis at Toronto Community Housing Corp. and a broad loss of public confidence in the agency, Mayor Rob Ford acted decisively to remove the board of directors and senior management team and replace them with a skills-based board that has made major progress in restoring public and tenant faith.”
Ford said of Jones in February: “He will not be dismissed as long as I’m mayor.”
The TCHC paid severance to 26 people fired without cause in 2013, Jones’s first full year on the job. The payout, $1.6 million, was up 57 per cent from 2011. Spokeswoman Sara Goldvine argued in February that the firings were necessary to “strengthen the company’s performance and restore its credibility with residents and the public.”
The final desperate thoughts of South Korean high school students trapped aboard the ferry Mokpo as it flipped and began to sink are recorded forever in cyberspace in tweets and texts.
One translated text reads, “If I’ve wronged any of you, forgive me. Love you guys,” according to CBC News.
One tweet said that 34 of the students huddled in an “air pocket” on the ferry, and that others had gathered in the vessel’s cafeteria and two rooms, the Korea Times reported.
Survivors have told Korean reporters that the windows were reportedly too thick for the trapped passengers to break.
The death toll from a Korean ferry disaster was listed at seven on Thursday morning, but there are still 289 missing passengers, many of them passengers from a high school from Ansan, near Seoul.
CBC News also reported a translation of a texted conversation between a high school student and his mother.
“Mom, I’m sending this now because I’m afraid I might not be able to say it later. I love you,” he writes.
His mother sounds a little startled and unaware of the unfolding tragedy.
“Why…?,” she texts back. “I was wondering why you weren’t checking the messenger…”
CBC reported that the student has been rescued and reunited with his mother.
Kim Tae-gyu of the Korea Times reported that a hero has also emerged from the havoc – Park Ji-young, 22, a crew member from a poor family who took the job so that she could earn tuition money to attend university.
She also had responsibilities caring for her widowed mother and young sister.
“When the ship began to list, Park distributed life vests to students,” the Korea Times reported a 17-year-old survivor as saying. “I asked why she wasn’t wearing one herself. Then, she said that the crew should attend to others first.”
“She said she would take care of herself after rescuing all passengers,” the Korean Times reported. “Then, she shouted at the students to leave. This was the last time I saw her.”
The Korea Times quoted a 49-year-old survivor, who also called her actions heroic.
“She was in charge of broadcasting messages onboard,” he told a reporter. “To the last minute, she urged passengers to leave as soon as possible.”
A strong current has hampered searchers and waters are considered cold enough to cause hypothermia after 90 minutes exposure.
Wreckage for the Sewol is about 470 kilometres from Seoul, north of Byeongpung Island and close to the mainland.
The Korean Times reported that families of the students are angry that a false message was sent out by school administrators, saying that all of the students had been rescued.
They are particularly upset with the ferry’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, 69, who reportedly fled the sinking vessel rather than help passengers.
Korean officials said that five of the passengers were foreign nationals – two Korean-Chinese, two Filipinos and a Russian.
With files from Associated Press
Ontario driving instructors have been stripped of their licences due to inappropriate — and in some cases illegal — activity, including selling alcohol and contraband cigarettes to students, visiting a strip club during an in-vehicle lesson and selling driver education certificates to students.
But the Ministry of Transportation says the public, including novice drivers and their parents, has no right to know who these instructors are. Roughly 300 have lost their licence in the past three years.
The policy of keeping the names of these driving instructors secret contrasts sharply with standards for other provincially licensed professions, including doctors, dentists and teachers. The governing bodies for these and other professions publish the names of those whose licences have been revoked.
The Star is seeking the names of driving instructors who have had their teaching licences revoked in the past three years in an effort to determine if any are still getting behind the wheel with beginner drivers.
“I would not want my daughter in that vehicle,” said Anne Marie Hayes, president of Teens Learn to Drive, a non-profit organization with the goal of reducing traffic accidents, commenting on the reasons drivers lost their licences. “Parents put a great deal of trust in driving instructors and, as a parent, I would be very upset to learn that my daughter’s instructor had this kind of a history.”
The Star asked the Ministry of Transportation for the names of these instructors last year as part of an ongoing probe by the Star of GTA driving schools. The ministry refused, so the Star appealed to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario on the grounds that the release of the names concerns public safety.
A Star investigation last year exposed dozens of unlicensed driving schools in the GTA offering in-car lessons to beginner G1 drivers. The probe highlighted the fact that the ministry does not monitor driving schools it does not licence, thereby allowing unlicensed schools to operate without oversight.
In its arguments submitted to the commissioner this month, the ministry revealed for the first time examples of the reasons driving instructors had their licences revoked. These include:
But the ministry goes on to say that the names of these instructors should not be made public because the information is of a “personal nature.”
“Disclosure of the information would be an unjustified invasion of personal privacy,” writes ministry lawyer Todd Milton in the government’s submission. “The fact of the revocation is in itself highly sensitive and may unfairly harm the reputations of at least some of the third parties.”
Milton goes on to say that the health and safety aspect of the Star’s request “should be accorded little weight in this case.”
When asked how his ministry could justify keeping the names of these instructors secret, Transportation Minister Glen Murray did not respond.
Instead, ministry spokesperson Bob Nichols was assigned to handle the Star’s questions. In an email Nichols said the minister and the ministry “take very seriously both the public’s right to know and an individual’s right to privacy.”
Nichols refused to say whether the ministry reports illegal activity, such as selling contraband cigarettes or selling driver education certificates, to police.
“The ministry takes action as soon as possible based on its own authority instead of waiting to respond to the results of criminal investigations and potential court proceedings,” he wrote.
The province’s submission to the Information and Privacy Commissioner reveals that, in the last 18 months, six revocations were made under the “fit and proper” criterion, which states that the ministry may revoke a driving instructor licence if “the licensee is not a fit and proper person to be a driving instructor, having regard to his or her character, integrity and past conduct.”
Thirty-nine licences were revoked due to convictions under criminal statutes or the Highway Traffic Act, including those revoked under the “fit and proper” criterion. A further 50 instructor licences were revoked due to driver licence cancellations, 123 were revoked for accumulated demerit points and 86 were revoked due to driver licence suspensions or cancellations arising from medical issues and unpaid fines, among other things.
Under Ontario’s graduated licensing system, new drivers first get a G1 licence by passing a written test. After a year, new drivers can take a road test to graduate to a G2 licence (this time period is shortened to eight months if new drivers take lessons from a ministry-approved school). After another 12 months, G2 drivers can take another road test to obtain their full G licence.
Students who complete the ministry-approved beginner driver education course can obtain a discount on their car insurance.
The ministry does publish online the names of provincially monitored driving schools that have had their licences revoked, but refuses to make the reasons for the revocations public. The province does not publish a list of individual licensed driving instructors.
“If an instructor circumvents the rules, puts others at risk, or engages any illicit activity, they need to be identified and prohibited from instructing drivers,” said MPP Jeff Yurek, transportation critic for the Progressive Conservatives.
“There are a variety of different licensed professionals that operate in this province. For most of these professions, online databases are maintained that allow the public to verify the status of licences. I don’t understand why such a simple solution eludes the Ministry of Transportation.”
, one of a handful of master driving instructors in Ontario (meaning he is qualified to teach other instructors), said he was “shocked” to learn what some driving instructors had been caught doing and said the ministry has no defence in choosing not to release these instructors’ names.
Like Yurek, Pollock said driving instructors should be treated like other provincially licensed professions, such as doctors and teachers.
“Anybody should be able to go on the MTO’s website, and access a database that can tell them whether an instructor is in good standing or not,” he said, adding that unless the ministry makes the names public, beginner drivers have no way of knowing if instructors who have lost their licences are still teaching.
The Star has until the beginning of May to make its submission arguing for the release of the names to the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
Kenyon Wallace can be reached at 416-869-4734.
CALGARY—The stabbing deaths of five young people this week — the worst mass murder in this city’s history — represent not only five lives cut far too short, but also the loss of enormous talent and potential.
Lawrence Hong, 27, had a passion for structural engineering and urban design, and dreamed of working for the City of Calgary after graduating this year. Kaiti Perras, 23, was devoted to dance in her youth, spending four hours every weeknight at a ballet studio. Zackariah Rathwell and Josh Hunter, 23 and 22 respectively, were part of the popular band Zackariah and the Prophets, and were riding high after launching their EP this past Saturday. Rathwell was also an accomplished visual artist. And Jordan Segura, 23, another popular musician, had that special gift of knowing just what to say to those grieving the loss of a loved one.
They were funny, caring, passionate, fun-loving — just a few of the adjectives used this week by their families and friends, struggling to understand why someone would want to murder them at a house party as they celebrated the end of classes at the University of Calgary, where most of them were students.
As their loved ones begin to prepare for their funerals, hundreds of people with tear-stained faces have poured into campus halls for vigils in their memory. A growing pile of snow-covered flowers near the police tape at the Butler Cres. home, include special objects that represent the victims: ballet shoes for Perras, a candle for Rathwell and Hunter, a drawing of high school memories for Segura, and a small angel statue, elevated above the other mementos, for all five.
Police are trying to determine the motive behind the early Tuesday morning stabbing rampage. Matthew de Grood, 22, a recent U of C graduate and the son of a senior Calgary police officer, is charged with five counts of first-degree murder.
In a small home in suburban Calgary, Lawrence Hong’s mother, Marlene, took pauses and sometimes broke down into tears as she talked about her eldest son on Wednesday.
She had just finished folding some of the clothes he had left in the dryer over the weekend. Later on Wednesday afternoon, she would go see her son’s body for the first time since police knocked on her door Tuesday and gave her the heartbreaking news.
“I have to go. I have to see my son for sure,” said Hong, who was looking forward to celebrating her birthday at the end of the month with Lawrence, who was also born in late April. “We wanted to celebrate everything together as a family. Now it’s all over. . . . I wish I could hug him. I miss him so much. I’ll never get to see him do his graduation march.”
The fourth-year U of C urban studies student was an active volunteer in groups focusing on arts and culture and urban transportation. He was a founder of the Calgary Creative City Collaboration (C4), which aimed to boost the presence of arts and culture in the city, and which held its weekly meetings in the same house where the stabbings took place. His mother was particularly proud of his work with C4, mentioning it often.
His friend, David Cooper, who lives in Toronto but will be travelling to Calgary for the funeral, said you could always count on Hong, no matter how busy he might have been with school.
“It was so tragic and so undeserving for this horrible incident to happen to him because he wanted people to love the city they were in, he wanted to be part of a positive change and the thing that really bugs me out of this is that he would have made an amazing (urban) planner,” said Cooper, an urban planner himself.
For Perras, who along with Segura was a former Mount Royal University student, dance practice was not only imperative, but a big part of her life. Her friend, Kaitlyn MacArthur, said the two grew up spending four hours every weeknight at the Counterpoint Dance Ballet Studio.
“It always came naturally to her. She did ballet, jazz, lyrical,” said MacArthur. “She worked very, very hard and I don’t think I ever heard her say anything bad about anybody ever. She was the most sincere, kind-hearted person.”
The studio’s director, Shannon Hearn, said in a statement Perras had been dancing at the studio for nine years.
“We watched Kaiti grow into an exceptional human being. Her smile and energy lit up the stage and our studio. Dance was an integral part of her life as were the friendships she formed throughout her dance years.”
At a vigil held Wednesday at the Alberta College of Art and Design, where Rathwell was a first-year student, the wailing in the crowd often rose above the voice of faculty speakers at the microphone. People lined up for the chance to sign a note to Rathwell on large sheets of white paper.
Corlia Zaayman, one of his close friends and the organizer behind Wednesday’s event, said it wasn’t difficult to have a “schoolgirl crush” on him.
“He was so caring. He always made you smile, always made sure you were OK,” she said. “And his drawings were amazing. He really had a thing for the ladies, and they were often in his drawings.”
Rathwell was the lead singer in Zackariah and the Prophets, while Hunter was the drummer. Friends have described them as brothers.
Hunter, a second-year U of C accounting student, had the “million-dollar smile,” said a former boss, which proved to be useful in his job as a valet and bellman over the last two years at a Calgary hotel. Hunter had left to study full-time last year, but was planning to come back this May for the summer.
“Everyone was so excited to have him back. I had a uniform ready for him,” said Tania Coleman at the International Hotel Suites.
Hunter’s friend, Jason Baker, said he rarely thought of his own needs, always asking what he could do for others instead. At the hotel, he would drive guests where they wanted to go, and bring up their luggage if they didn’t ask. He would often give free tickets to his band’s shows to hotel staff.
“I always figured I was going to be sitting somewhere when I was old and bragging that I knew Josh the rock star because he was that good,” said Baker. “Now I mourn a man taken way too soon, and four others along with him.”
In a statement issued this week, the remaining members of Zackariah and the Prophets said they were disbanding “because the band was all four of us.”
“We didn’t lose two band mates, we lost two brothers. Their shining shenanigans and shining light will always be with us,” the statement read.
Segura’s death also marks a bittersweet moment for the staff at McInnis & Holloway Funeral Home where the third-year U of C religious studies student worked as an attendant. He was always very sensitive to the needs of those in mourning, said funeral home president Ernie Hagel, adding staff is “privileged” to be organizing his funeral.
“He very much had a way about him. For him it was natural. He knew where to be and when to be there . . . he just realized people were hurting and he wanted to help.”
Hagel said they were eagerly waiting for Segura to return to the funeral home for the summer.
Allan Fay, the lawyer representing de Grood, said his client has been transferred to the Southern Alberta Forensic Psychiatric Centre for an assessment. His next court appearance is on Tuesday. A prosecutor is being brought in from Edmonton to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.
“He’s holding up as well as anyone would under the circumstances,” said Fay. “Obviously, his family is devastated.”
With files from Tim Alamenciak
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