Mohammed Faris. (Photo: Leuband/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The only Syrian to ever go to space has faced some intolerable living circumstances here on Earth. He fled to Turkey, one of thousands of refugees that have left a country that has plunged into civil war. 

It’s striking that such a national icon has had to leave his home country. Mohammed Faris became Syria’s first cosmonaut in 1987 during a Soviet-led mission. He spent seven days in space then as part of the Interkosmos space program, returning via the Soyuz TM-2 space ship

After landing, he was named a Hero of the Soviet Union, the country’s highest honor. Now a retired general, Faris fled Syria in 2012 and joined the opposition trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad. 

Faris gave a recent interview to the Associated Press about the ongoing conflict in his home country, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and helped spawn a refugee crisis across Europe. 

“I tell Europe if you don’t want refugees, then you should help us get rid of this regime,” Faris tells the Associated Press

He has also criticized Russian interference in the country’s ongoing civil war. Faris spent two years in Russia training to go to space. 

“I am very sorry about the Russian interference, which has stood on the side of dictator Bashar Assad, and has begun to kill the Syrian people with their planes,” Faris tells the AP.

Faris has given lectures about space since arriving in Turkey, while also advising opposition leaders. 

“The earth is like one ball, it has no borders,” Faris tells the AP. “And that’s wonderful, because in outer space, there are no gates between countries. From there, the earth is one home, one family.”