BREAKING NEWS
This content is not available in your region

Syria’s war at 10: Meet two escapees who rebuilt their lives in Europe

Access to the comments Comments
By Rachael Kennedy
Millions of people have been forced to flee their homes as the conflict erupted
Millions of people have been forced to flee their homes as the conflict erupted   -   Copyright  Hassan Ammar/AP
Text size Aa Aa

Razan Ibraheem had no idea that when she packed up her life to move to Europe in the summer of 2011 that this would be the last time she would see home. She only intended to stay for a year to get her masters degree in English language teaching. What happened in these 12 months, however, rendered it impossible to return.

Five months before she departed, in March 2011, pro-democracy demonstrations had begun in Daraa, a city in southern Syria now widely known as the birthplace of the revolution against President Bashar Assad.

Protesters had been inspired by similar uprisings against other oppressive rulers in the Middle East, which ultimately saw governments overthrown in the likes of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In Syria, though, Assad responded with a brutal crackdown on those who spoke out. This just stoked anger further, sparking protests nationwide - and as the protests grew stronger, so too did the government's response. The country was soon embroiled in an all-out civil war.

"I never thought I would be here ten years later," said Razan as she spoke to Euronews last week from her home in Dublin. "I never thought when I came to Ireland that I would come to stay. Never in my life did I think that the violence would escalate and turn into a war.

"When I left I thought I was going to stay one year and go home. I had a plan to open my own business - a language school in Syria - but all my dreams collapsed and were destroyed."

Razan's situation is not unique. For a conflict in which more than 400,000 people have been killed, millions more have been displaced.

According to the United Nations, there are 6.6 million people displaced inside Syria itself; 5.6 million people have fled as refugees. Many have escaped to neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon, while others, like Razan, have worked to rebuild their lives in Europe.

So far, Turkey has received more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, which is the most in Europe and the world. Germany, meanwhile, has taken in around 570,000; Sweden, 113,000; Austria, 51,000; the Netherlands, 31,000; Greece, 26,000; Denmark, 20,000.

Switzerland, France, Bulgaria, Belgium, Armenia, Norway, Spain, UK, Cyprus and Italy have all received fewer than 20,000 Syrian refugees each.

Ahmed Barakat
Ahmed Barakat wrapped in pre-Baathist regime Syrian Flag with 3 starsAhmed Barakat

Ahmed Barakat, who was a student of English at Aleppo University when the conflict began, now lives in Turkey after staying on initially to report on the protests. He told Euronews: "I decided my part was to be documenting these moments and share it with regional and international media, and on social media, to show how Syrians are peacefully demanding basic rights in the streets and how the regime and its security forces are responding to them with fire, detention and torture."

Barakat said he tried to continue his work even as extremist groups such as Al-Qaida and Islamic State began to crop up around the country. But that's when disaster struck.

"In February 2015, after almost four years and after a lot of direct threats by the extremist groups, I was injured by Al-Qaida fighters while documenting one of their attacks in the liberated area (a sector of Aleppo that came under the control of the anti-government Free Syrian Army) and had to spend the most difficult months of my life in hospitals, hoping to recover.

"After eight months of suffering, I was able to walk my first steps again in Turkey where I concluded it was no longer safe for me to go back and hold my camera again, given the fact that we (Syrian people) were not in control anymore."

Hassan Ammar/AP
Large swathes of the country have been destroyed during ten years of conflictHassan Ammar/AP

Europe is home

Both Razan and Ahmed have since gone on to pave successful respective lives in Europe, both noting that they now call the continent home; although, both noting the journey to settle wasn't easy.

"When I came to Ireland, I didn't know anyone and I was on my own," said Razan, who has since become an Irish citizen and has spoken at the UN about the migration crisis, as well as being named Irish Tatler's 2016 International Woman of the Year.

She also works as a journalist at a Dublin-based news agency, verifying social media content coming out of Syria and other parts of the Middle East.

"It was hard at the start, hard to integrate and to understand the society - and for society to understand me! It's a mutual thing.

"But I honestly feel I belong here. I belong to Ireland. It's my homeland [...] This country gave me a lot of opportunities and I took these. The society was inclusive in general.

"I managed to change my dreams with my new situation, new life and new country."

For Ahmed, he began looking for work at the end of 2015 after recovering from the injuries that saw him leave Syria for good. He said: "Leaving everything behind and all the dreams we hoped to come true was a very difficult decision.

"I started a part-time job with a French association to remotely manage a small project in northern Syria, which conducted creational and psychosocial activities with children in camps, kindergartens and schools."

Ahmed now works for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the UN's migration agency, where he is helping vulnerable refugees in Turkey. This is alongside other consultancy work with international NGOs.

"I plan to eventually reunite with my wife in the UK," Ahmed said, adding: "Europe is home. Wherever I feel safe; am not threatened for my political opinions; my basic rights are guaranteed; and my future children would not have to go through the things I’ve been through, that would be a home for me."

Petros Giannakouris/AP
Scores of refugees have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to European shoresPetros Giannakouris/AP

'A woman counted her children ... one was gone'

Razan explained to Euronews that she feels haunted by the ongoing violence in Syria, which has led to her volunteering and her activism. She has repeatedly travelled to Greece to help refugees who arrive by boat, having made a perilous - and often deadly - journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Witnessing this, she said, marked a "turning point" in her life.

"I used to wake up every day at 2-3 am in the morning and go down to the shore to wait for refugees as they would come to land. We would give them food and blankets.

"But the shocking thing is that they arrive depressed and sad. They had seen so much death before their eyes.

"One of the saddest things I saw while volunteering in Kos was a woman who was counting her children as she arrived. She counted her first, second and third child - but her fourth was gone. There was nothing they could do.

"Another family had to bury their child as they washed to shore."

Some of the people Razan met on that Greek seafront have since contacted her to say they safely started their lives in other countries such as Germany, Sweden and Switzerland - but these stories, she added, are now fewer and further between.

This is due to an EU-Turkey containment agreement made in 2016 that prevents refugees arriving in Greece from continuing their journey further into Europe. As a result, thousands have been held in overcrowded camps with poor living conditions as they await processing and deportation.

"At the UN, I spoke about these people and talked about how important it is for them to travel in safety and dignity," Razan said.

"Even though there are now 1 million refugees in Germany and Sweden and other countries, the scale of the humanitarian crisis is still huge. What is happening right now in the refugee camps is something beyond your beliefs.

"They are living in appalling conditions. And this is on European soil. They are stuck. They can't move. I know people who are still there, and have been there for the last four years."

Turning to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed 2.6 million people worldwide, Razan added: "The basic thing to protect yourself is to wash your hands - but there's no water and no soap in the camps. This is the basic, minimum requirement to protect yourself from COVID-19, and people can't do it.

"There is going to be another huge crisis if we see more outbreaks in the refugee camps."

Ghaith Alsayed/AP
Thousands have been stuck inside refugee camps since a containment policy came into effect in 2016Ghaith Alsayed/AP

What can we learn about the last decade of conflict?

"The world should know the failure of the international community," said Razan. "The UN Security Council - it is an example of how the community failed to stop the war and save what is left in Syria.

"Shame on the international community to leave people killed; children and women killed and raped. To leave a country with deep civilisation and great history; to leave it like that: shattered, destroyed.

"The suffering is still there. The refugees are still there. The humiliation. It is all still there.

"They turned a blind eye to all this devastation in Syria."

When asked if she could ever see herself returning to her homeland, Razan said: "I see myself going home if there is peace and that’s the most important. I definitely see myself going home only to help.

"Only to be able to create projects to help women and children. They are the real victims of the war."

Ahmed shared a similar sentiment, but only after he sees what feels to him as acceptable justice. "Not in the short term. Maybe in the very long term," he said.

"Yes, in a case where the world decides that the current Syrian regime should be changed and the criminals who committed the most horrible crimes in this century are held accountable and prosecuted for what they have done."

Every weekday at 1900 CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It's available on Apple and Android devices.