Muhammed Faris is a beloved national Syrian hero, with streets and schools named after him. As the first Syrian—and only the second Arab—to travel to space, he’s been described as the “Neil Armstrong of the Arab world.”
Now, the 69-year-old is trying to overcome an entirely different set of challenges: living as a refugee in Turkey.
Faris was apart of a Soviet crew that spent seven days in space in 1987. Faris spent two years training and preparing in Moscow for the trip. Thousands of people flocked to see Faris returned from his historic trip to the Soviet Union’s Mir space station, which operated from 1986 to 2001. It wasn’t dissimilar to the hero’s welcome that Scott Kelly received after the American recently returned to Earth after spending 340 days in space.
“It would take me days to describe the feeling of going up there, seeing planet Earth, seeing Syria from above, and that sense of pride of accomplishing something historic for my country and for the Arabs,” Faris told The National last year.
He went on to serve as a general in the Syrian Air Force, but he was deemed a traitor after he joined in with protests against Bashar Assad’s government. After witnessing the Syrian army kill children and civilians, Faris fled Syria in 2012 and drove to Turkey. He remains one of the highest-ranking defectors from the Syrian government.
Though Faris speaks fondly of his Russian cosmonauts and is fluent in Russian, he’s blasted Russia for its military involvement since last year in Syria to back the Assad regime (paywall). He told The Guardian that he refused to engage with Russia as “they have blood on their hands of more than 2,000 civilians.”
Faris, who was previously awarded the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union, has refused to accept any help from Russia or apply for asylum there.
Faris has also refused support from NGOs, accusing them of trying to use him for their own political gain. For now, he’s content consulting with Turkish authorities to help the near 2.7 million refugees currently residing there.