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