Mohammad Al Masalma is pursuing his dream in Nova Scotia while paving the way for other immigrants to do the same
One of the first times Mohammad Al Masalma was inspired to pick
up a camera and capture a moment from the world around him was to dispel propaganda the leaders of Syria were spreading to the world about its citizens.
“It started back home in Syria when the whole revolution started,” Al Masalma says. “The way the government showed us, the people of Syria, represented us on national TV as terrorists and I was like, ‘That’s not who we are.’ They showed us as this bad image of we’re destroying the country and we’re traitors. This is not what is happening; it’s actually normal people, they’re just fed up with the system and they decided to go to the streets and protest.
“Because of that, I wanted to show the actual image of these people, so I started taking photos on my phone, and videos, and publishing to social media,” Al Masalma says. “From then, the photography passion started. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to capture special moments that actually reflect the true story.”
Al Masalma found refuge from the Syrian crisis along with his younger brother and sister in Jordan. He eventually wound up
in Nova Scotia in 2016 thanks to a Facebook post promoting free English courses. Those English courses turned out to be prep courses for a scholarship offered by the Student Refugee Program from World University Service of Canada. Despite missing the application deadline, all three got in thanks to a little luck, according to the recruiter he spoke with.
“She said, ‘Well, today’s your lucky day. Because we didn’t have enough applicants, we extended the deadline,’” Al Masalma
says with a light chuckle. “I applied with my brother and sister and the three of us got accepted.”
His sister wound up finding a different path studying in pharmacy and his brother attended Dalhousie University, but Al Masalma was accepted at NSCC and was soon in Canada, sooner than he
even had time to process, only learning of the move mere days before it happened.
Stranger in a Strange Land
With so little time to prepare, Al Masalma found himself as a stranger in a strange land with hardly any clue how to get started. He didn’t know where to find the nearest grocery store and he’d ask
anyone he could for advice.
“For example, getting my driver’s license; I didn’t know where to go or how to do that,” he says. He wound up learning the answers to that query from librarians at the NSCC library.
Merging Career and Passion
However, one thing he did know was he wanted to keep taking pictures and maybe even do it for a living, something he wouldn’t have even considered possible in Syria.
“I didn’t have the means or the financial [security] to buy the equipment. Back home, I was just a student. I was finishing
my undergrad in English literature. I was just doing it on my phone. It didn’t start until I came to Canada, where I had access to the technology and saved up some money to buy a camera.”
Here in Canada, he finally got his first exposure to that technology.
“My friend actually, who was my roommate at the time, he owned a camera; I used to borrow that camera from him,” he says. “That was my first time putting my hands on an actual camera. I kind of taught myself literally from scratch how to handle that camera.”
Al Masalma taught himself pretty much everything about taking and editing photos, not to mention how to run a business, from watching tutorial videos online. He started an Instagram account to share his work, taking on free gigs to build a portfolio. Eventually, people
started taking notice of his work and paying for it.
“I ended up saving some money and actually bought that camera from my friend,” Al Masalma says. “That camera changed my life, honestly.”
Launch of Mosy Photography
By 2018, Al Masalma had launched Mosy Photography, which today is considered one of the top 10 photography studios in Halifax, having recently received two Platinum Awards (one for
photography, another for videography) from CommunityVotes Halifax 2022.
No matter the gig, Al Masalma still approaches each photo like he did
documenting the truth of the crisis in Syria; he aims to capture genuine moments.
“In my photos, I try to tell a story. I first of all chat with my client, see what they’re interested in. What do they want to achieve from this photo shoot? I try to take them to a location where, first of all, they feel they’re in their element. Something that represents their story,
or their culture.”
Al Masalma believes Nova Scotia is rife with opportunity, which in part is what helped him achieve a career doing something he loves. But he also recognizes how much of getting there involved him
figuring things out on his own and how much success relies on who you know in such a small province.
“What’s helped me to grow my business is the fact I’ve had connections,” he admits. “I’ve spent zero dollars on my marketing. All my business is word-of-mouth. Honestly, it’s all about who you know. Nova Scotia is very small in the sense that almost everybody knows
everybody. If they don’t know you or have never heard of you, odds are, they won’t hire you.”
Rather than leave the refugees and newcomers that come into the country behind him to fend for themselves, Al Masalma is also devoted to sharing his experience and knowledge with others so they can have a head start on building their own dreams. He does this
in part through his other job, as an orientation services coordinator with Immigration Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS).
“I do a course that’s called An Introduction to Nova Scotia,” he says.
“We talk about how to open a bank account. We talk about how to register for education, whether it’s for your kids or for you. We talk about law, about entertainment. Things around Nova Scotia, places to visit. We cover all aspects of life in Nova Scotia.”
Laurent Bafukisa, a 24-year-old refugee from Uganda, came to Canada in 2018 and met Al Masalma through his work with youth at ISANS. Bafukisa works at Manulife at the moment, but he sees Al Masalma as an aspirational figure.
“I followed his Instagram, and saw that he was doing photography,”
Bafukisa says. “Back home, I was also doing photography, but not really very good. He gave me an idea of what camera I should buy and how to use the camera, how to take pictures. It’s just a hobby right now, but I would like to have a company.
“He has been my mentor,” he says, explaining how crucial Al Masalma’s advice has been to him. “As immigrants, it is so hard to integrate into the community. But when you find a mentor, that will make it easier. He’s already tried. He knows the road. It shows you that you can do that.”
Al Masalma is touched that he has been able to help anyone, let alone so many, either through his work at ISANS, as a mentor, or even through his YouTube channel where he gives advice to viewers
around the world thinking of moving to Canada. He hopes that by paying his experience forward, he’ll encourage more people to settle in the province he’s come to love and make it better.
“This is a huge responsibility, but at the same time, honestly, it makes me proud that my content actually benefits people,” Al Masalma says about urging young newcomers to give Nova Scotia a chance instead of moving to bigger cities in the country. “I always say that Nova Scotia is improving and it’s growing. And it’s growing very fast. Grow with the province. Rather than just go to a whole new big city, fighting to find a spot… why not stay here and be part of the growth?”
Sidebar: Photography in a time of COVID
Little did Mohammad Al Masalma know at the time, but the 2020
COVID-19 pandemic lockdown was just around the corner. With
in-person staples like weddings, events, and family photoshoots effectively shut down for months on end, Al Masalma’s fledgling business was at risk. Luckily, the two years of service before the
pandemic taught him to be adaptable.
“When I experienced the market in the first year or two years in business, I realized the market comes and goes in waves,” Al Masalma says, pointing out that while in-person gigs dried up, the
pandemic created new opportunities where photographers were needed.
“For example, real estate is very busy, so I’ll do that. In the summer, weddings pick up, so I do that. So, I can avoid being basically jobless or having zero gigs during certain months. I decided not to specialize.
[During COVID], nobody wanted to go see people and see houses anymore. So virtual tours for houses and property was a big thing. That helped me to survive during COVID.”
Now that things are settling back to pre-pandemic business-as-usual,
Al Masalma does admit he missed the human touch.
“Photography is something physical; you have to do it in person,” Al Masalma says. “Whether it’s COVID or no COVID, it’s the same industry. I don’t think anything changed except the technology
itself. I missed the human factor. A building is a building. There’s only so many things you can do for that. But when there’s a human factor in that, that’s when there’s the story.”