Syrian refugees grateful for support in wake of pepper-spray attack

VANCOUVER - Ahmad Hwichan gestures to his throat and grimaces as he talks about coughing up blood and hearing children screaming in the chaotic aftermath of last week's pepper-spray attack in Vancouver.

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The newly arrived government-sponsored refugee from Syria was one of about a dozen people who were sprayed by a man on a bicycle outside a welcome ceremony around 10:30 p.m. on Friday.

Despite the suffering, the unsavoury incident has failed to temper the enthusiasm and gratitude Hwichan and other refugees feel toward their adopted country and its citizens.

"This doesn't change my point of view of Canada. It will never change," Hwichan said through a translator on Tuesday, four days after the attack.

"This was probably one guy who was drunk or, I don't know, crazy."

He added in English without the help of a translator: "I love you Canada so much."

The pepper spraying prompted universal condemnation from political leaders, including Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

Syrian refugee Youssef Ahmad al-Suleiman, also hit in the attack, recounted how he and his fellow newcomers were stunned after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to Twitter and apologized on behalf of himself and the Canadian people.

"We're not used to this back home in our own country," al-Suleiman said, using a translator. "(Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad killed around 300,000 people and did not apologize once.

"Canada stays Canada - Canada of dreams," he added. "One individual does not represent the whole Canadian people."

Al-Suleiman recalled seeing a man wearing a helmet cycle up to their group, which was waiting on the sidewalk outside a Muslim Association of Canada centre for a bus to return to their residence. The man sprayed something once or twice toward the crowd and quickly left, he said.

Hazaa Sahal and his son were also struck by the spray.

The 44-year-old father of three described resorting to a strategy used by protesters in Syria, who would pour Pepsi or Coke on their faces to counteract the effects of tear gas during anti-government demonstrations.

But he said the technique proved ineffective against pepper spray and actually worsened the stinging.

Sahal explained how immediately after the incident some refugees wished they had never come to Canada.

That feeling quickly evaporated when they saw the overwhelming positive response from police, health officials, the government and the Canadian public, he added.

"There is always good and bad. But in this country the good is more than the bad," Sahal said in Arabic.

"We felt like nothing bad happens here and goes without being punished, or the actor being held accountable."

Shadi al-Radi said the entire experience actually strengthened his faith in his new country.

"We saw the attention that was given by the prime minister himself. Now we have more confidence in Canada and more confidence in the government," said al-Radi through a translator. The 30-year-old came to Canada with his wife and one-year-old child.

"We immediately forgot about what happened when we saw all of this attention."

Vancouver police spokesman Sgt. Randy Fincham has said officers are investigating Friday's incident as a hate crime.

Canada has committed to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of next month.



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