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Syrian astronaut turned refugee, the story of Muhammed Faris

At first glance, it’s easy to mistake Muhammed Faris as just another one of the millions of Syrian refugees seeking asylum around the world. But there are a few distinctions that set him apart from most ordinary people.

Faris is the first, and only, Syrian astronaut and the second Arab to have been to space. Now living as a refugee in Turkey, he also happens to be the highest-ranking defector from the Assad regime.

Back in 1987, Faris, who is fluent in Russian, accompanied a Soviet crew on a trip to the Mir Space station, the largest satellite in orbit until 2001. He spent a week in space conducting experiments and taking photographs of Syria. 

Born of humble origins, Faris qualified as a pilot only two years before he beat out 60 other Syrian candidates at a training program in Moscow for allies of the Soviet Union.

Faris’ days in space changed his perspective on life. “When you have seen the whole world through your window there is no us and them, no politics,” Faris told the Guardian.

Referred to as the “Neil Armstrong of the Arab world”, Faris became a national hero among Syrians when he returned to Earth. An airport, school, and streets were named after him.

Faris wanted to educate more Syrians in space and astronomy but the Syrian President at the time, Hafaz al-Assad (Bashar al-Assad's father), denied his request to create a national space science center to help other Syrians become astronauts.  Instead, he ended up training men to fly jet fighters at the Air Force college, rising to the rank of General.

After anti-government protests turned violent and the government started attacking civilians, Faris made the decision to flee the country 

Since then, nearly 500,000 Syrians have died in the conflict.

Faris has refused support from Russia and NGOs, whom he claims want to use him for their own political gains.

The 69 year old now resides in Istanbul’s Fatih or “Little Syria” with his wife and three children. He hasn’t given up on his dream of returning to his home of Aleppo, Syria one day.

He regularly consults with the Turkish government on refugee rights to help the nearly 3 million refugees that reside in Turkey. He is also a member of the Syrian National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, an anti-violence, anti-Assad group that meets in Spain.

“My dream is to sit in my country with my garden and see children play outside without the fear of bombs" said Faris.

Faris knows firsthand that an “us and them” mentality perpetuates conflict in Syria and other countries throughout the world and how innocent civilians end up suffering the most. From Istanbul, he continues to advocate for democratic change in Syria using “words, not weapons” in the hopes that future generations can experience the Syria he once knew.

“From afar, when the Earth was so small, I really felt in my heart I could make a big difference in the world. It has not been easy,” he said. 

Although Faris has been to outer space and back, dealing with the conflict in Syria and supporting fellow refugees has been his hardest mission yet.