Many of you may have heard the stories and struggles of Syrian refugees around the world, but what many don’t know is that Syria also hosts over 462,000 refugees and asylum seekers from different nationalities (438,000 Palestinian refugees under UNRWA’s mandate and over 24,000 refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR’s mandate).
In fact, Syria was once the third largest refugee-hosting country in the world hosting more than a million Iraqi refugees at the end of 2009.
Despite not being signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, Syria has always been a generous refugee hosting country, welcoming refugees from many countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia.
To mark World Refugee Day 2021, UNHCR spoke with some refugees who are still living in Syria today. These stories offer a glimpse into their lives as refugees in Syria, their challenges, resilience and courage to survive despite immense challenges.
Refugees & Asylum Seekers inside Syria
20 June 2020
“I never imagined that one day I would leave my country Yemen and become a refugee in another country.”
Wadah is from the port city of Aden, Yemen. A city blessed with a pristine coastline and abundant sunshine. He lived a comfortable life with his family and ran his own dental practice. He never imagined that one day he would have to leave everything behind and run for his life. But when war reached his doorstep, Wadah felt he had no option but to leave.
Although he says he was warmly welcomed in Syria, he had never imagined that he would one day be labelled a refugee. For some time, he felt lost and alone. Eventually, he decided that he wanted to try and go back to university to build on his qualifications whilst at the same time doing his part to help people in his community. He organized initiatives to provide free dental care to refugees and applied to study at the Department of Maxillofacial Surgery at Damascus University. Recognizing his potential, the university granted him a scholarship and a few months ago, he completed his Masters and graduated with honours.
“Completing my Masters represents a step forward towards my future.”
Whilst studying, Wadah was also volunteering at Al-Mouasat Hospital in Damascus. As this coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he quickly sprung into action and played a vital role in raising awareness and sensitizing people about COVID-19 safety measures.
The Syrian crisis has caused unprecedented displacement. Millions of people in Syria including refugees were uprooted and forced to flee for their lives. More than 6.7 million people remain displaced inside the country today.
South Sudanese Refugee
“People see a refugee as a burden on the world, and a burden on society. No, a refugee just needs an opportunity and hope…these people can make a difference in the world.”
For Dr. Jouma, family means everything. His wife, Nada, and newborn baby, Ibrahim, are the most important part of his life. In 2004, at 17 years of age, he became separated from his family when he fled the war in his country looking for safety. He left everything behind, including his beloved mother. The only possessions he managed to save were his academic certificates.
Driven by the shortage of doctors in his country and his deep desire to help people, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. Upon arriving in Syria, he applied to the Ministry of Higher Education in the hopes he will be given a chance to continue his education. He was granted a scholarship to study medicine and in 2014, he graduated from medical school.
Soon after graduating Dr. Jouma joined UNHCR’s outreach volunteer programme to put his skills to good use. Since then, he has dedicated his time to helping people in need in his community.
Despite his success, Dr. Jouma was not spared the troubles of the last ten years. The onset of the crisis brought with it additional challenges and painful memories for the doctor. He was more determined than ever to do all he can to give back to the country that welcomed him so generously. Today he is specializing in internal medicine and volunteering at a hospital in Damascus.
“I have always wanted to help people. I find happiness in helping others… When I see what people in Syria are going through, I feel pain. I have lived this pain myself in my own country. I wanted to help refugees and Syrians who have been displaced.”
The humanitarian needs are deepening and showing no signs of reducing. Today over 13.4 million people in the country need humanitarian assistance and 90 per cent of the population in Syria are living in poverty.
Nail, 16 and Naila, 11
“I want to live a peaceful life filled with positivity.” Nail.
This musically gifted duo get their love for music from their father; a talented Oud player and singer. Twenty years ago, their father fled conflict in his country Sudan and headed to Syria looking for safety. He has not been able to return home since.
And so, Nail and Naila were born into a refugee life in Syria. Life as a refugee child is filled with uncertainty. For Nail and Naila it was no different. Despite their parents’ best efforts to give them the best life possible, the last decade has been particularly challenging. The onset of the Syria crisis brought with it additional struggles and fears of an uncertain future.
For these siblings, music is their way of escaping the harsh reality of life. Inside the walls of their humble home in Damascus, they have created their own world filled with music and dreams of performing on stages around the world. Nail has been playing the piano and Tuba for eight years. He is also a singer in the only Jazz band in Syria called ‘Dixieland’. Although he is the only refugee in the band Nail says that his band mates have never made him feel like he was anything other than one of them. As for Naila, her inspiration is her brother, who is both her mentor and biggest fan.
Together the siblings dream of one day showing their talents to the world.
At the start of the crisis, UNHCR scaled up its operations to support Syrians and refugees in need. UNHCR has also continued to exercise its mandate for refugee protection in Syria by ensuring continuous registration, Refugee Status Determination procedures are in place, documentation is issued, legal protection and response to basic needs is provided, and durable solutions for refugees are identified.
“Our whole life is about looking for peace.”
Fawzi, or Amo Fawzi (uncle Fawzi) as he is known to his students has been giving free art classes to children in his neighborhood everyday for the past eight years. He started this initiative as he noticed the neighborhood kids curiously hovering around his modest studio in the city of Homs, western Syria.
Fawzi believes that art is inside all of us. He has been painting for over 40 years and wanted nothing more than to pass on his love for art to the younger generation. His aim was to help children bring out their inner artists.
“I taught them not to listen to their fears. To believe in themselves and just paint. They will then discover how talented they all are.”
Fourteen years ago, Fawzi fled his country Iraq to neighboring Syria. Four years after arriving in Syria, the crisis started. Like millions of people in Syria, he was displaced and had to flee once again leaving behind his small workshop and 26 beehives he had been keeping.
He was eventually able to get back on his feet and set up another studio where he now works and teaches.
Although he longs for his country, he believes that he has found a second home in Syria and its people. His greatest treasure he says is the love of his students and the people around him.
“My country and people will always be dear to me, but now I have two homelands. One that lives inside me which is my country Iraq and one where I live which is Syria.”
Despite the many challenges Syrians are facing today, the refugees we spoke to told us they continue to feel welcomed and embraced by their Syrian hosts.
“Gymnastics is my favorite hobby. I feel like a bird flying in the sky.”
Shaza has always dreamed of becoming a gymnast, a dream inspired by a TV show she watched. But for this young girl with big dreams, life has not been easy.
Shaza was born to refugee parents in Syria, two years before the start of the Syrian crisis. For her already struggling parents, the crisis brought with it additional challenges. For years, her father has struggled to find stable work and the family are barely making ends meet. But despite their modest means, the family have done everything in their power to encourage Shaza to pursue her dream of becoming a professional gymnast.
With the help of a generous donor, Shaza was able to enrol in a sports club; the first step towards realizing her dream. But with the onset of the pandemic everything changed. Her sponsors moved and the academy closed. But Shaza has not given up. Despite her difficult circumstances, this young girl is the definition of determination and optimism. She is still practicing at home with the limited space and techniques she has learnt.
“If you have a dream, keep chasing it until you achieve it.”
The needs in Syria remain immense today. Only 58% of hospitals are fully functional across the country and 74 per cent of available basic socio-economic infrastructures are damaged.
“As a refugee, you are not less than anyone, at all. You are not a burden on any society.”
Qamar fled Iraq in 2006. She was only 15 years old.
As a refugee in Syria, Qamar was starting a new life from scratch. Her priority was her education. As public schools are free for refugee children in Syria, Qamar was able to enroll in school. For this ambitious young girl, education was her ticket to a better future. She was determined to pursue her dream of becoming a dentist. But the challenges she faced were nothing short of extraordinary.
After completing her high school education with distinction, Qamar was faced with the harsh reality that her family’s modest means could not cover her university education. But a scholarship from UNHCR put her back on track. Shortly after starting her studies at the Faculty of Dentistry at Aleppo University, the Syrian crisis started. The security situation in Aleppo quickly deteriorated and the university was forced to close its doors. At the height of the crisis, she had to return to Damascus where she risked her life to attend classes at her new university.
In 2016, Qamar graduated from the Faculty of Dentistry. Today, Qamar is working and studying to become a specialist orthodontist.
“If it wasn’t for the scholarship I wouldn’t have been able to pursue my dreams…The scholarship changed my life.”
Over the past 18 months, Syria’s economy has experienced an unprecedented downturn. Syrians and refugees alike are struggling to get by. Food prices have reached a record high with millions of people unable to buy the most basic items. A staggering 12.4 million people in Syria – nearly 60 percent of the population – are now food insecure. The current socio-economic situation represents some of the most challenging humanitarian conditions experienced in the past 10 years.
“A homeland is like your soul. To have a homeland is to belong. I wished I could stay in my country. But the circumstances and difficulties I faced forced me to leave.”
Talal fled his country Sudan 17 years ago. Even after all these years, he cannot talk about home without chocking up. For him, home is where his mother is. Since leaving Sudan, he has not seen his mother. His biggest fear is loosing his mother and not getting a chance to hug her again.
Syria welcomed Talal all these years ago. He met his wife in Aleppo, where he now resides and together they had five daughters. Today, Talal is a proud girl dad in pursuit of a bright future for his children. His daughters are enrolled in public schools and are excelling.
“I spend most of my time with my girls. My daughters mean the world to me. I teach them and invest a lot of time in their education. Thank God they are all star students.”
Talal enjoyed many years of peace in Syria until the crisis started ten years ago. The father of five found himself fleeing once again, except this time he had a family of his own. Worried for their safety, Talal left his home and was displaced multiple times with his family, seeking shelter in abandoned schools and living with friends. For years, Talal struggled to provide the most basic things for his family and relied on aid and donations.
Despite his own struggles, Talal decided to join UNHCR’s outreach volunteer programme to help other refugees in his community.
“Volunteering with UNHCR to serve people is a beautiful thing. The most beautiful thing is the world is to be able to serve your brothers, to serve people.”