Once A National Hero, Syria's Lone Cosmonaut Is Now A Refugee In Turkey

May 31, 2016
Originally published on June 15, 2016 2:33 pm

More than 2 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, driven out by the fighting that erupted in their homeland in 2011. But none can claim an odyssey quite like that of Mohammed Faris.

As Syria's first and only cosmonaut, Mohammed Faris rocketed into orbit with two Soviet colleagues in 1987. He conducted experiments and photographed his country from space. By the time he returned to Syria, most everyone in the country knew his name.

Yet Faris is now a refugee himself, fleeing to Turkey after speaking out against the government's efforts to crush the 2011 uprising. He ended up in Istanbul, much better off than most, but a refugee all the same.

Faris' jet black mustache is showing some gray as he welcomes visitors to his son's office in Istanbul. The 65-year-old still has the trim build of a former fighter pilot, though, and he's easily recognizable as the astronaut in the painting that hangs on the wall.

After his trip to the Mir Space Station nearly three decades ago, Faris returned to national acclaim.

He received the "Hero of Syria" award from the late President Hafez Assad. He says he soon learned that it wasn't a good idea to upstage the ruling family.

"Hafez al-Assad, dictator, said, 'Mohammed, sit down in your house!' recalls Faris. For eight years he collected his pay as a Syrian general, but didn't work. All, he says, because Assad couldn't stand for any Syrian to be as famous as himself.

A Fan Of Russians, But Not Of Putin

As someone who lived in Russia for two years while he trained for his mission, Faris remains fond of the Russian people. He's stunned, however, by what he's seeing the Russian and Syrian militaries doing to his country today.

"I like the Russians, but I'm very upset with the dictator (Vladimir) Putin," he says. "How can he destroy children's houses, slaughter civilians?"

Faris says the Russian leader "thinks he can do to us what he did in Chechnya — the big dictator is helping the little dictator."

By "the little dictator," Faris means Hafez Assad's son and successor Bashar Assad, who responded with force to a 2011 uprising that was initially nonviolent. That soon led to a civil war, he adds.

Before fleeing Syria in 2012, Faris says he saw firsthand the carnage inflicted by the Syrian air force.

"As a fighter pilot, I know they can't distinguish between military and civilian targets, men from women and children," he says. "How can they do such things?"

Faris places primary blame for the war with the government in Damascus. But he says the attempt for a pro-democracy revolution has been betrayed at every turn by many countries, from the U.S. and Israel, to Europe, the Gulf Arab states and Russia.

Impossible though it may seem, he says getting back to Syria remains his wish.

"I have hope of returning," he says. "We are all doomed to hope, as they say, and so I hope to see my home again."

Faris has made a life of sorts in Istanbul. He lectures in schools and at conferences, and his son manages a language school.

When he talks to students, he tries to pass on some of the wonder and excitement he felt as a boy dreaming of space travel. He never fails to mention the feeling he got when he first saw Earth from space.

"There's nothing more beautiful than the Earth," he says. "I've seen it; it's our mother and it deserves to be kept in peace. I've said it many times, and I will always say it: Earth is so very beautiful, and it should be saved."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Refugees from Syria include Syria's only cosmonaut. Mohammed Faris is in Turkey now. He rocketed into orbit in 1987, conducting experiments and photographing his country from the Russian space station. He fled Syria four years ago, after speaking out against the government's efforts to crush protest against the Assad regime. And he ended up in Istanbul, which is where NPR's Peter Kenyon found him.

MOHAMMED FARIS: (Foreign language spoken).

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Mohammed Faris' jet-black mustache is showing some grey as he welcomes visitors to his son's office in Istanbul. The 65-year-old five still has the trim build of a former fighter pilot, though, and he's easily recognizable as the astronaut in the painting that hangs on the wall, from his days when he was invited to fly with the Russian space program. That voyage was commemorated in a YouTube video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: The video shows Faris and two cosmonauts pausing to wave at the cameras as they enter the Soyuz TM-3 capsule. When asked by mission control if he's ready for the voyage to the Mir space station, he says yalla - let's go in Arabic.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

FARIS: (Speaking Arabic).

KENYON: Back on Earth, Faris received the Hero of Syria award from the late President Hafez al-Assad, but he soon learned that it wasn't a good idea to upstage the ruling family.

FARIS: Hafez Assad, dictator, said, Mohammed sit down in your house. Eight years I am sit down in my house.

KENYON: It wasn't house arrest, but he was ordered not to work, becoming an air force general with nothing to do. As his anger at the memory recedes, Faris returns to his native Arabic to describe what's happening to his country today. He's fond of Russians after living and training there for two years prior to the space mission. But as a former fighter pilot, he's stunned by what the Syrian and Russian air forces are doing to Syria now.

FARIS: (Through interpreter) I like the Russians, and I'm very upset with the dictator, Putin. How can he destroy children's houses, slaughter civilians? He thinks he can do to us what he did in Chechnya. The big dictator is helping the little dictator.

KENYON: By the little dictator, Faris means Hafez al-Assad's son and successor, Bashar, who he says responded to an initially nonviolent uprising in 2011 with brutal force, eventually turning it into a devastating civil war. Since then, he says, Syria's pro-democracy revolution has been betrayed by the U.S., Europe, Gulf Arab states, Israel and Russia. Before fleeing Syria in 2012, he says he saw firsthand the carnage inflicted by the Syrian Air Force.

FARIS: (Through interpreter) As a fighter pilot, I know they can't distinguish between military and civilian targets and men from women and children. How can they do such things?

KENYON: Faris has made a life of sorts in Istanbul. He lectures in schools and at conferences, and his son manages a language school here. Impossible though it may seem, he says getting back to Syria is still his wish.

FARIS: (Speaking Arabic).

KENYON: "I have hope of returning," he says, adding, "we are all doomed to hope, as they say, and so I hope to see my home again." When he talks to students, he tries to pass on something of the wonder and excitement he felt as a boy dreaming of space travel, and he never fails to mention the feeling he got when he first saw the Earth from space.

FARIS: (Through interpreter) There's nothing more beautiful than the Earth. I've seen it. It's our mother, and it deserves to be kept in peace. I've said it many times, and I will always say it - Earth is so very beautiful, and it should be saved.

KENYON: Mohammed Faris - a Syrian with a rare perspective on the conflict destroying his country. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.