Friday, December 2, 2022
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Friday, December 2, 2022

INTERVIEW | Syria’s astronaut who turned into a refugee

In 1987, Mohammad Faris, a young pilot in the Syrian Air Force, was chosen by the Soviet space program from 40 Syrian candidates to accompany two of their astronauts into space. The destination of the three cosmonauts was the Mir Space Station, the first modular station to be built in outer space that the Soviets had begun constructing in 1986.

In 2012, Major General Faris was compelled to escape from Syria with his family. He was one of the highest-ranking persons to defect. Faris graciously agreed to be interviewed by SYRIAWISE from his home in Turkey.

Astronaut Mohammad Faris

Q: After your trip to space in 1987, you commented on how dark and lifeless it was out there and how beautiful the earth looked in comparison. Are you following the current trend in space travel that is mostly being funded by some of the world’s richest men?

A: Of course. As you know, I lecture here in Turkey. I give lectures in schools, universities, and scientific centers. I might be subject to any questions, so I must keep myself up to date on important achievements in space science.

Q: What would you say to Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who are spending billions of dollars on space travel, with the ultimate goal of establishing colonies on the Moon and Mars?

A: No doubt, they are having two goals in going to space: a materialistic goal and a scientific goal. I would urge them to stick with the second: the scientific goal of conquering space in order to be useful for mankind here on earth and not focus only on a commercial goal. They may benefit and be successful, but they should also focus on developing this science in order to make life better for people on earth as well as in space.

Q: After your trip to space, you returned to Syria and were given a “Hero of Syria Award”. What did that mean to you?

A: In the former Soviet Union, there was a system where every astronaut who went into space would hold the accolade of “Hero of the Soviet Union” because he was considered to have accomplished a big achievement, not only for his country, but for all humanity. There was an exchange of accolades from both countries, Russia and Syria, to all of the astronauts and it is indeed an honor to hold both of them.

Q: You received the award from Hafez Assad?

A: Yes.

Q: And 26 years later you escaped from Syria and became a refugee. How did you handle the transition?

A: For me, of course, I lived in Syria after my trip to space and for a long time I struggled a lot. Most of the Syrian people know of my struggles in Syria. After the uprising of Syrian people asking for freedom, I saw oppression, repression, and random murders of men, women, children, and elders. That’s why I decided to leave my country in order for my word to be free. So that I could express my opinions freely. And of course, even though I came to Turkey as a refugee, my principles and values did not change. It was for the sake of my freedom and dignity. Everything is worth being sacrificed, for the sake of freedom and dignity for my family and my people in Syria.

Q: While you were still living in Syria did you ever think to start an educational center or space institute so your legacy could be passed on to the young people of Syria?

A: When I was in Syria, I was thinking a lot and I suggested to officials to create a College of Space and Astronomy Sciences as well as an Astronomy Center and Planetarium. But unfortunately, I came up against a brick wall with all these ideas because the Assad regime does not want scientific education. The regime wants ignorance for the people of Syria, so they will be easier to control. I even tried to get an Observatory, but there was no support for it from anyone in the Assad regime. During that time in Syria, I was giving lectures on my own to the youth of the Astronomers Association and the Syrian Cosmic Society, in order to encourage and empower them. Unfortunately, the present regime is against education and educated people and wants ignorant people to rule.

Q: The word Mir in Russian means Peace. Do you think peace will prevail one day in your motherland, Syria? If so, how and when?

A: Mir actually means “peace” and “world” and, of course, I’m always optimistic, and anyone who is a good reader of history will know that tyranny and occupation don’t last forever. So that’s why I’m optimistic that Syria will be back, even more beautiful and stronger than ever with its people who asked for freedom and offered many sacrifices for it. Of course, everyone knows that many Syrians were killed and wounded, and millions were forcibly displaced outside the country. For sure those people will make a great future for Syria. How and when? That I can’t predict, but I’m always optimistic about returning.

Q: If you were offered a chance to go back to space, would you go?

A: I wish. Oh, how I wish to go for a second time! But my age is a barrier and the offers now are very limited. I’m here in Turkey, but it is still a dream.

Q: In early November you attended the ASE XXXIII Interplanetary Congress 2021 in Budapest, Hungary. Can you share with us what that meant to you?

A: For me, I now have a wider view of the future of space programs, especially those of NASA and the Russians, who presented programs that offer future solutions to the Earth’s problems. The trip was educational and informative and added to my knowledge. Also, I have been away from such conferences and gatherings for some time now because I did not have a passport. Since I was granted Turkish citizenship and a Turkish passport, I am now able to travel and re-establish relations with my astronaut friends. I was so pleased and happy to be able to make this trip, because it gave me much joy and satisfaction.

Q: If you had a chance to speak to the most influential person in the world, who would that be and what would you say?

A: Wherever I go, I am talking about the troubles of the Syrian people, even on media. I don’t have a specific person because, unfortunately, the decision-maker in this world is unknown. If I were to meet him, I would address a message to him: We Syrian people helped to build history. We built civilization, and the oldest city in the world is in Syria, constructed 12,500 years ago. The word Syria means “lady”. We are not insignificant. I would say that whatever your bad intentions towards Syria are, you will not win. That’s why I wish for you to stand with the Syrian people. We did not raise our uprising just to topple the Assad regime, but also for freedom and dignity. And this demand is for all oppressed people all over the world. It is a moral and humane demand. Again I would address this person and say, if you have any power, enough with the injustice towards Syrian people. For in the end, you will have to stand before God.

Q: I know you miss Syria and Aleppo. What do you miss most about the city?

A: I miss the old historical neighborhoods. I miss strolling the streets of those neighborhoods. Oh, to sit in the street of my old neighborhood and see its simple people. I still have hope to come back to the city and rebuild it together.

Yasser Ashkar
Yasser Ashkar
Former instructor at Istanbul University. Ashkar is a Founding Member of the Association of Syrian Refugees, Human Rights Activist and Journalist. He currently lives in Michigan, USA.

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