Exclusive: Joe Canning on perspective, crazy rumours, and gunfire in Aleppo
JOE CANNING doesn't believe everything he hears, or reads in the papers, or sees on social media.
It's knowledge hard-won: the 29-year-old hurler has been one of the most talked-about sports people in Ireland over the past decade.
Instead, he likes to do a little digging, and maybe experience things first-hand before making his mind up on issues important to him. This approach can sometimes take him to unusual places.
"I wanted to find out for myself what the real story is," he says of his six-day trip to war-torn Syria with Unicef Ireland.
"We live in Ireland, I play GAA, I hear lots of crazy rumours and untrue stuff the whole time about different things. I find it very hard to trust what the real story is unless I see it myself. And it is different in Syria from what was portrayed, in ways."
Different in what way?
"There's an idea that refugees just want to flee and go live wherever," he says. "There are those that claim the floodgates will be opened, or whatever.
"Last year, it seemed some back home in Ireland were scared about refugees coming, concerned by the numbers. That's fine, but really they only want a place they can get refuge - obviously - for a while before going back to rebuild. Syrians want to be at home."
The Galway star says he was repeatedly struck by the resilience of the people he met, and their determination to build a future - in Syria.
"We saw in the last few days that people are rebuilding - their houses, their shops, whatever was destroyed in the war - and they're looking to the future again," he tells Independent.ie.
"All the kids are positive about their education and making career plans. That's pretty inspiring."
The multi-sided conflict in Syria has claimed 500,000 lives and pushed a scarcely-credible 12m people out of their homes since 2011. Although Islamic State is retreating rapidly, the conflict between government forces and opposition groups continues in many areas, including outside Damascus and Aleppo where Canning spent his trip.
"You don't often get opportunities like this to help people out," he says.
"I don't know if I'm a bit naive that I didn't see any danger in it or whatever but I felt that I needed to try to make a difference, to try to tell the story of these people. If I can make just 1pc of a difference to people's lives over there then that's all the better."
Among those he met was Saja Habbal, who turned 15 on Friday.
She is originally from Bab Al-Nairab in eastern Aleppo and was caught up in heavy shelling in 2014. Four of her best friends died at the scene, while her brother also later succumbed to injuries. Saja, a keen gymnast, lost her leg.
"In the beginning part of coping with my injury I felt desperate," she says. "I thought I wouldn't be able to walk again."
She played football with Canning this week, after her gymnastics background coupled with her determination helped her master the game while on crutches.
"When I play football on my own I feel sure I'm no good at it, but when someone plays with me, like Joe, I feel like Messi," she says.
"I would like to be a gymnastics coach," Saja told Canning. "I know it will be hard, but I can do it."
Canning, who is involved in his family's hurley-making business in Portumna and in the running of a Camile Thai restaurant in Limerick, says the apocalyptic destruction of the former rebel front line of Saif al-Dawla in east Aleppo provided a reality check.
"We're in a world back home that perspective is lost in everything. Sensationalism and stuff like that is rife now in Irish society," he says.
"You'd hear lots of things about how you're feeling bad about yourself - and everyone's got problems now - but when you actually go to a place like Aleppo you realise that our problems are very, very small."
"We've heard gunshots over the past few days and bombs going off and you look around and people don't flinch here whereas we're running scared, and rightly so," he adds.
"It's scary to think that this is normal life for them. How can normal life be gunfire and bombs going off within a couple of hundred yards of you? That's not real life in my book anyway."