'It's therapy for me': Syrian refugee draws on horrors of war for one-act play

Majd Al Zhouri thought three times that his father had been killed in the Syrian civil war, even watching a bomb hit their house with his dad inside.

Shrapnel pierced Al Zhouri's own body in an arm, a thigh and his torso, just millimetres from his heart. And he saw the mangled body of a friend he'd been talking to only minutes before, torn apart by an explosion.

The 21-year-old, who will be starting engineering at St. Francis Xavier University in the fall, said he feels the pain inside him as he thinks about wartime in the city of Homs. Yet he's never sought therapy since he arrived in Canada as a refugee in January 2016. When he arrived, he didn't speak a word of English and decided he didn't want to speak about his trauma through an interpreter.

Now, with his English well on its way to fluency, he's trying a different way to heal. Al Zhouri performed the one-act play, To Eat an Almond, Friday night in Antigonish, receiving a standing ovation. 

'Sometimes I have nightmares'

"It's a play for the people, but it's therapy for me," Al Zhouri told Radio-Canada in an interview before the performance at the 2017 One Act Play Festival at Theatre Antigonish.

Al Zhouri's family owned a farm with hundreds of almond and apple trees in Homs, a city ravaged by the six-year-old war. He, along with his father, mother and sister and brother, came to Canada last year.

The play is called To Eat an Almond because he and his father fled Homs for the capital Damascus on foot, eating nothing but almonds for six days. Now, Al Zhouri can't bear the sight of an almond, let alone imagine eating one.

"It's ... just haunting me," Al Zhouri said. "Sometimes I have nightmares. I can't sleep. So I wanted to just let this pain just go away. I want to find a way to deal with it."

The project started as a lesson from an English teacher who asked him to write about something he couldn't forget. Al Zhouri wrote about his harrowing experiences for three months, picking up lots of English along the way.

"It's been really hard to write about all of that, too. Make yourself remember all of this suffering, all of that small details, to come up with a shape, come up with a story," he said.

Putting a human face on tragedy

His friend Brendan Ahern helped him transform it into a play, making it a learning experience for both of them.

"It's certainly put a human face on [the war] for me," said Ahern, who shares a writing credit.

St. FX literature professor Joseph Khoury pushed Majd to get on the stage.

"I, too, was a refugee 40 years ago now," he told Radio-Canada in French. "For me, the experience, I understand it more than non-refugees. [Majd] agreed that if he talks about his story, there is a better chance of understanding what happened with his family."