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Syria: The journey to safety gets more dangerous by the day, but refugees keep coming

Telling the Human Story, 3 September 2013

© UNHCR/G.Beals
Hamid (left) with three of his children at Za'atri Refugee Camp on Monday after crossing the border from Syria at night.

ZA'ATRI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan, September 3 (UNHCR) Before there was war, Hamid and his family lived just outside the city of Homs in western Syria. Their foremost concern was the sheep and goats they herded and the land they had lived on for generations. They had no time for politics and they avoided conflict.

But in March 2011, war came. And when the combatants started to fight and the shells began to fly, Hamid and his loved ones did what so many other Syrian families have done they fled from the battlefield, but not from their country.

"We would move from village to village, from place to place 50 kilometres in any direction," Hamid explained. "We would always come back to our village, hoping things would get better." They didn't, and the fighting and killing became more bitter and horrendous.

Several months ago, Hamid and his family arrived at a village where he had hoped to stay with relatives. But the place had been attacked and the houses burned down. Three of his uncles and a cousin had perished in the carnage, along with 23 other members of his extended family. He began to think of leaving the country.

As of today, more than 2 million refugees have fled across Syria's borders to find shelter in Jordan and other countries. This figure includes a massive leap of 1.8 million in just the past year. A further 4.25 million are displaced inside Syria, according to UN figures.

But the journey for those seeking shelter abroad is getting more perilous with each passing day. Families are taking longer and more arduous routes to reach countries like Jordan, sometimes traversing one end of Syria to the other in a bid to skirt the violence and find a place to cross to safety.

Like Hamid, those fleeing to Jordan are often arriving from the cities of Homs and Hama and from the Damascus region. They are moving with the aid of smugglers, who charge 25,000 Syrian lira (about US$250) per person. For families that have had little or nothing in the way of an income in many, many months because of the conflict, such sums amount to a fortune.

For Hamid, the decision to leave came quickly and culminated from an avalanche of troubles. Each night there was bombing and shelling and, on many occasions, the fighting was so intense and so loud that the entire family spent days in a hole in the ground. This was their makeshift shelter, dug hastily in the places where they stayed.

For as long as possible, they would return home to see their house still standing in a village where others had been destroyed. The building represented a fixed point, a place that they knew they would return to. But then one day during the fighting, Hamid realized that the very fact that the family house still stood made it more of a target and more dangerous.

"We ran away because we wanted to live," he said in a soft, thoughtful, tone. "There were a lot of things that could happen to us in that house. Not only could we be bombed, but we could be looted, killed and have our home taken away from us."

Hamid had to sell all his goats to raise the money to pay the smugglers to take his family across to Jordan. He said it was at that moment that he knew he would not return to Syria until there was an end to war. The family boarded two dump trucks, each carrying 64 people.

They moved only during the night, with the lights of both vehicles turned off. During the tense journey, they passed through villages where they saw the flash of explosions and heard machine gun fire. And even though they were used to these things in Homs, it still felt like some version of hell. "Once we crossed those areas where there was fighting, we felt like we were reborn," Hamid said.

Finally, last Sunday, they crossed into Jordan and were taken to the sprawling Za'atri Refugee Camp, home to more than 120,000 Syrian refugees. They slept in an open area that night before being given a tent to live in. They had nothing left, but somehow felt a sense of relief. "I slept well for the first time in two years," Hamid said. "We all slept well."

By Greg Beals in Za'atri Refugee Camp, Jordan




UNHCR country pages

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UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie returned to the Syrian capital Damascus on 2 October, 2009 to meet Iraqi refugees two years after her last visit. The award-winning American actress, accompanied by her partner Brad Pitt, took the opportunity to urge the international community not to forget the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who remain in exile despite a relative improvement in the security situation in their homeland. Jolie said most Iraqi refugees cannot return to Iraq in view of the severe trauma they experienced there, the uncertainty linked to the coming Iraqi elections, the security issues and the lack of basic services. They will need continued support from the international community, she said. The Goodwill Ambassador visited the homes of two vulnerable Iraqi families in the Jaramana district of southern Damascus. She was particularly moved during a meeting with a woman from a religious minority who told Jolie how she was physically abused and her son tortured after being abducted earlier this year in Iraq and held for days. They decided to flee to Syria, which has been a generous host to refugees.

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Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

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By mid-September, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had crossed the border into Turkey. UNHCR estimates that half of them are children, and many have seen their homes destroyed in the conflict before fleeing to the border and safety.

The Turkish authorities have responded by building well-organized refugee camps along southern Turkey's border with Syria. These have assisted 120,000 refugees since the crisis conflict erupted in Syria. There are currently 12 camps hosting 90,000 refugees, while four more are under construction. The government has spent approximately US$300 million to date, and it continues to manage the camps and provide food and medical services.

The UN refugee agency has provided the Turkish government with tents, blankets and kitchen sets for distribution to the refugees. UNHCR also provides advice and guidelines, while staff from the organization monitor voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Most of the refugees crossing into Turkey come from areas of northern Syria, including the city of Aleppo. Some initially stayed in schools or other public buildings, but they have since been moved into the camps, where families live in tents or container homes and all basic services are available.

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