Having fled Syria’s civil war, about 120,000 Syrians have found a sanctuary in the UAE between 2011 and last year. Six of them tell of their yearning for their country’s peaceful past and their wish for a better life
Six years ago on March 15, fighting erupted in Syria that would change the face of the country forever.
In 2011, the regime of Bashar Al Assad clashed with anti-government forces in battles that would later involve ISIL, Al Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army, leaving cities in ruins.
Consequently, about 5 million Syrians fled to neighbouring countries in what has become the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.
More than 120,000 Syrians moved to the UAE and were given residency visas between 2011 and last year. That nearly doubled the Syrian population in the UAE to 240,000 as of last September.
Last summer, the Government said it would take in 15,000 refugees in the coming years.
The Syrian families that arrived here have found peace and employment. But most have lost their homes and are unable to return. Some have also struggled to find places for their children in schools and struggled with the costs of living. Here, six Syrians who fled tell their stories.
Homeless and in search of dignity
Name: Mohammed Taha
Profession: He was a butcher and a chef. He is currently jobless.
Lives: On Dubai’s streets and in mosques
“I left my country to escape serving in Bashar Al Assad’s army or any party involved in destroying my country and killing my people. All we saw was bloodshed and I was terrified.
“I was supposed to serve in the army as part of the compulsory military service, but I fled Syria in 2014 when the war became severe.
“Both the regime and the extremist rebels were bombing the country with all kinds of weapons.
“My family’s home in Aleppo was levelled, bombed into the ground – just like many buildings and homes.
“My brother and I left Syria in search of a new life. We were lucky to have escaped the war in our country but our plight continues.
“My brother went to Turkey and I came to Dubai.
“I was lucky enough to find a job in a restaurant serving
Arabic cuisine in Satwa, where I rented a bed space in an apartment.
“The two owners of the restaurant, a Syrian and a Palestinian, had a fight and decided to close the restaurant. My residency visa was consequently cancelled.
“Afterwards, I worked in another restaurant. The owner said he had to test my culinary skills for a month. I accepted and worked with an invalid residency visa. After the test period,the restaurant owner refused to renew my residency visa and gave me half of my salary. That meant that I could no longer stay in Satwa, so I looked elsewhere for a cheaper place.
“I moved to an apartment in Hor Al Anz and lived with some Asians. The bed space cost Dh400. I kept looking for a job. But with my bad luck, the owners of the restaurants I sought employment at asked me to work for a period of time. But after the period passed, they refused to renew my residency visa or give me my pay.
“Many of them said that ‘we don’t renew residency visas for Syrians’.
“I ran out of money and I have been on the streets since last June. I sleep now in mosques in Muraqqabat. Sometimes I sleep in parks, and I ask the restaurants nearby for food and water.
“I have been to charity organisations and people there told me that they only give money to families, women and the elderly.
“I don’t know what to do. I feel like people have stopped helping one another. I go out looking for work daily but I hear the same excuses.
“I only want to work for Dh2,000 or even Dh1,500 a month and get a residency visa. I came here to live with dignity.”
* Nawal Al Ramahi
A family separated by war finds togetherness online
Name: Nauran Al Chalati
Profession: Formerly a student in Damascus, she is now a video editor at a production house in Dubai Media City.
Lives: In Dubai since 2013 with her eldest sister. Her brother and father remain in Damascus.
“Your home country is like your foundation. The moment you leave, especially in a panic, you lose equilibrium. This is exactly what happened to my family. We are all struggling, making our own little worlds far from one another.
“I don’t know when I will be able to have a meal with my siblings and my father that is cooked by my mother. It looks like a dream.
“I graduated from a private university in Damascus in 2013 at the age of 22. I was unable to start my career in Damascus because there was no job or security. Things were getting horrible and my mother realised that there was no future for her family in Syria. Since then, my family has been separated, living in different parts of the world.
“I moved to the UAE in April 2013 when my elder brother, who was working in Dubai at the time, sponsored a tourist visa. All of us, except one of my brothers, came here in 2013. My brother was not able to leave the country and did not want to leave my father alone.
“My family spends a few months together in Dubai. My father applied for jobs here but failed and had to return to Damascus. My mother decided to move to the United States as a refugee.
“She always believed that we would be in safe hands if we settled in the US. My brother in Dubai joined her after a few months. My sister and I still live in Dubai.
“But there are no more family dinners. We don’t celebrate festivals together. We can only see one another on Skype. This is the price my family has paid because of the conflict in Syria.
“I don’t believe that one day things will be OK in Syria. They won’t be, at least not in the near future. I want my family and I to be settled. I want to take my father and brother out of Damascus safely. A peaceful life is my dream but this peaceful life will not be in Syria.”
* Amna Ehtesham Khaishgi
Daughter eases portraits of sorrow
Name: Mohannad Orabi
Profession: An artist in Syria, he now paints in a studio adjacent to Ayyam Gallery in Alserkal Avenue
Lives: In Dubai with his wife and daughter.
“There are emotions that you feel for the things you leave behind. Each day we hear news from my country. I have had bad experiences, I lost people close to me in this war.
“I had visited Dubai three or four times as a tourist, but making my decision to stay was a completely different experience.
“The first impression was that Dubai was a little bit difficult. The lifestyle in Dubai is completely different to those in Damascus and Cairo. I had lived in Cairo for a year and a half before moving to Dubai in 2014.
“It’s very difficult to be outside my country, but it’s difficult to go back to Syria.
“My daughter is happy at school, she has a lot of friends. It has been faster for her to become part of a community than for my wife and I.
“I have two brothers in Syria and we call one another every day. I still have friends in Syria. I try to connect my family there with my daughter. We send pictures and communicate on social media.
“I have learnt from my wife, who is a graphic designer. She was working in Damascus for five or six years, but in Dubai it’s difficult to find a job even though she speaks good English and Arabic. She keeps trying, goes for interviews and sends her resume.
“I left my house, my studio, my car and my paintings. My brother tries to visit my house to check on my belongings.
“I remember a painting I started to draw but didn’t finish. I hope that I will go back to Syria and complete my painting.
“I could feel the sadness in my previous paintings because of what I have left in Syria and what has happened in my country.
“Now there is a little hope in my paintings. This hope perhaps comes from my daughter when I see her smile and being happy.
“Maybe when I see my daughter, this is the image I want to see of my country.
“I know that after all these dark days that we have endured, there is light. It’s coming soon.
“In Dubai, there is a different effect because there is an emotional influence of the place you move into. Dubai is the capital city of art in the Middle East. But the most important thing in Dubai is that I don’t feel strange because there are people from different nationalities and cultures. It’s a global city, it’s made me more open. For me, it’s very important to respect differences between one another. That influences my work.
“I was at a workshop in a university in Egypt and brought my family with me for one or two months. It is now almost five years since I left Syria.”
* Ramola Talwar Badam
Syria in their hearts, gratitude to UAE
Name: Asmaa Kftarou
Profession: She was a civil servant at the ministry of religious affairs. She is currently unemployed
Lives: In Sharjah with her husband and five daughters.
“When I speak about Syria, despite the thousands of broken hearts, the unspeakable killings and the pain and suffering of millions who had no option but to flee in fear of their lives, I remain hopeful that the country will return to its former glory; that its soul is still intact; and that Syria will warmly embrace those people who are longing to return home.
“I’m from a well-known family in Damascus. My family come from a long line of Islamic educators and religious scholars in Damascus. My grandfather was the grand mufti for 41 years. He was known internationally and he spread Islam’s message of peace and love.
“Until 2010, I was working in the ministry of Islamic affairs in Damascus. I engaged in Islamic studies and taught Islam in schools in the capital. We had a stable and wonderful life in Syria.
“In 2011, when the killings started and after my husband, a member of parliament, barely escaped an assassination attempt, we had to leave Damascus out of fear for our daughters’ safety.
“Since then, I have been suffering deeply because I miss my family in Damascus and my country. To see what has happened to Syria saddens me to the core.
“We never once in Syria differentiated between different religions. We are all the sons and daughters of God and there was never anything but love between us. We’ve always tried to be accepting and good to people despite our differences. We tried to look beyond that to live together, and that’s how we had always lived in Syria.
“We found in the UAE a home that promotes peace and love between people, be they Syrian or Danish. There is a unity here that is truly special.
“Nevertheless, I haven’t found work here. I am still waiting to return home and begin to rebuild.
“It has been very difficult. We have five daughters, four of whom are studying. We need to support them.
“My husband has just finished his contract as an academic at Abu Dhabi University. They haven’t renewed it.
“My husband was of great importance in Damascus as a parliamentarian and a teacher. For him to be out of a stable job that befits his status is difficult.
“It’s been a struggle of course, but we’ll always hope for the best. As we all carry Syria in our hearts, we maintain our gratitude to the country that has provided us with a warm adopted home.”
* Naser Al Wasmi
Memories of a decent life … and a desire for stability
Name: Ruba Mousleh
Profession: Currently an employee of Nokia in Dubai where she moved in 2012 after the company closed its office in Syria because of the rising instability. She now lives in the UAE with her brother and family.
“There were bombs going off in the area and access to my house was impossible when things started getting bad.
“Today, almost five years after the conflict erupted, no one is allowed to go to Harasta. We don’t even know what state our house is in.
“There was a lot of fighting between the Assad regime and the Free Syria Army. The situation was bad. There were bombings and fighting but people got used to it.
“I was lucky that I didn’t lose a family member. For those who lost their loved ones, they won’t ever be able to get used to it. I decided to leave because there’s no house to go back to. Our safety wasn’t guaranteed and I was given an opportunity to improve my life and my family’s.
“When I think about going back … I know that living there is extremely difficult. To find a job that can sustain you is close to impossible. Getting food, -water, and having a basic life are extremely difficult.
“Here it’s safe and we’re grateful, but it’s been difficult. I’ve tried to improve my life. I work and I’ve tried to get my family here. I was successful but I faced many complications. Also, I started a business, called Fruit Monsters, to try to make life better for my family and I.
“But my business is on its last legs and getting my parents to stay here is proving to be more difficult each month. We need to find a stable situation that can give us a feeling of permanent safety, not just a temporary solution.
“Life is difficult here. I pursued my master’s degree at Knowledge Village and it’s been two years since I tried to start a business. But the visa situation is difficult.
“Our life in Syria was very decent before the war. My parents were teachers and my brother a businessman. I had a job in an international company and we had our lives full of friends, social events, volunteering at NGOs, and it was safe.
“I don’t know how it is now. I don’t know if I can go back and deal with the level of danger, the corruption, the standard of living, which are definitely more difficult than when we left.
“When I think about going back, I don’t know what to do. I just want stability and safety for my family. I am beginning to lose hope.”
* Naser Al Wasmi
Hardship of life through the lens
Name: F. Saad
Profession: She was a photographer who ran her own studio. She is now jobless
Lives: In Abu Dhabi with her husband and daughter. Her two older children are students in Germany.
“My country has been destroyed. Sometimes we think that even if the war were to stop now, it would take 20 years for Syria to be a country that anyone can live in.
“After the war you need years of construction and to heal the psychology of people who saw the bombings, the blood, the deaths.
“It’s not only about the bombings, the gangs or the arms. No, there is something deeper that has affected the people and children who were brought up seeing that during the past six years.
“My father, stepmother, sister and family are in Syria. I have a sister and brothers here in the UAE. So half my family is there and half here.
“We have an apartment in Syria with three bedrooms and a very big yard. I lived in an area that is now under government control.
“Three years ago, gangs entered the town and destroyed my photo studio and bombed some houses.
“We were there when the armed gangs entered. We stayed in shelters for two weeks with no food, nothing. And more than 100 people.
“I came here with my husband and three children. My daughter and son are in Germany for studies. I cannot go back to Syria and there is no way they will give us visas to go to Germany.
“We came to Abu Dhabi in 2014 in the middle of the school year and it was not easy to get my youngest daughter in school. She was only five, so she stayed at home until the next year.
“Life is peaceful and everybody respects each other.
“We live respectful lives here, but you need money for rent. School fees are a struggle, daily life is a struggle and that is because we don’t have jobs.
“We live with my sister-in-law and depend on her. Without her support, we couldn’t survive.
“She is the only one with a permanent job.
“In Syria we lived well because our jobs brought us good money. My husband was the owner and manager of a garage. He got residency here through a company, but it shut down last month. “I had my own studio and took photographs of events and weddings.
“Here, I have taken photographs for conferences but they have been mostly for free as I try to get connections for work.
“My husband and I are struggling to find any kind of jobs.
“If you are in my situation, you will not think about the future. You think about now.
“I’m feeling numb, the feeling you get when you completely stop being scared of anything.
“We are fragile inside. We are partially broken emotionally because we lost a lot of people we loved. We had to leave our country and have no jobs.”
* Ramola Talwar Badam