Exiled to Purgatory
The fate of Syria’s undocumented refugees
A few months ago a message arrived from a good friend in Beirut. Houssein described how, three months earlier, he had lost his job as an architectural engineer. He had been applying for jobs every day since then, not only in Beirut, but also in Switzerland, Germany, Egypt, and the US. He had forwarded his portfolio time and time again. He told me he had a hundred dollars left and his rent was due in a week.
He cannot return to Syria to stay with his parents because of the now-regular shelling and mass killings, which have reached even his neighborhood in Damascus. Houssein is also deterred by an arrest warrant with his name on it, waiting for him at any government border checkpoint; he is wanted for political subversion. Since escaping Syria over a year ago, he has been making just enough money to get by, sharing a string of different apartments in Beirut, sometimes housing six or seven other Syrians all trying to find the cheapest rent around.
Recently, he ran into a streak of good luck and is grateful to now have found a regular job. Even so, he says, “I feel that I’ve gone backwards five years. I have seven years of work as a designer and I used to run my own studio in Damascus where I had younger architects draw my designs. Now I work in an entry-level job as a draftsman.”
Syrians have worked in low-skilled migrant labor and service jobs in Lebanon for decades. However, as more educated, middle- and upper-class Syrians make their way from Damascus and Aleppo to Beirut, they cannot find jobs commensurate with their training. “It’s already difficult because it’s a bad job market,” explains Houssein. “You can find foreigners in some companies but Syrians in Lebanon are a special case. The majority of Lebanese don’t like Syrians. There are some places where it’s not even safe to speak with a Syrian accent.”
Syrians who have managed to avoid or escape the violence in Syria by moving abroad have often found their lives are only somewhat less difficult and precarious than they were within. The stories of harsh conditions endured by refugees in the camps in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey tell just part of the story of Syrians in exile. There are now more than 576,721 registered refugees as of 31 December 2012, according to the latest UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report on Syria. In reality, the reported numbers of refugees reflect just a fraction of the estimated hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have fled.
Many Syrians who left have refused to register as refugees, sometimes because of a sense of shame or oftentimes from the stories heard from the refugee camps. Scattered and undocumented, facing slowly deteriorating conditions rather than shocking poverty and trauma, their tragedies are less public than those of Syrian exiles living in camps. However, whether they left legally or were smuggled across Syria’s increasingly porous borders, Syrians abroad face unemployment and discrimination, legal challenges to their residency, and the threat of deportation back to Syria.
Just a few years ago, Iraq’s upper-middle class watched substantial life savings dwindle down to nothing the longer they stayed abroad, unable to work legally. Just like them, moderately wealthy and educated Syrians who have made it to Beirut, London, Cairo, and elsewhere found their wealth, coupled with under-the-table jobs, has done little to compensate for the high living expenses they face in their new homes.
The challenges facing Syrians living abroad are both financial and legal, with one often compounding the other, in myriad, interconnecting dilemmas.
Those who left at the beginning of the conflict are finding themselves stranded in whatever country they happen to be in when their Syrian passports expire, with no way of rejoining extended family members who may have ended up somewhere else. Young students studying in Europe or the US on Syrian government-sponsored scholarships have lost their funding. They must either find a way to fund continuing studies to extend their student visas, or hope to hear that their asylum plea was granted. Moreover, it is not uncommon to hear of young men who completed their studies in Syrian universities, but were unable to obtain their degrees from their schools because they did not complete training for mandatory military service.
Though Syrian Kurds were officially recognized as legal citizens in April 2011, a recent independent report suggested that the actual number of stateless Kurds who obtained national ID cards following the decree does not exceed six thousand, leaving the remaining three hundred thousand stateless Kurds living in Syria without papers that would facilitate immigration. The problem of missing papers is not unique to the Kurds. Even third-generation Syrians may have no proof of citizenship if their paternal grandfather happened to have immigrated to Syria from somewhere else (only Syrian fathers can pass on their nationality).
The United States granted a window for Syrian nationals who have continuously resided in the United States since 29 March 2012 to apply for temporary protected status until 25 September 2012. Those who failed to apply or arrived in the United States after 29 March must find other means to stay, such as extending their studies to remain on a student visa or applying for asylum.
However, immigration lawyer John Ovink notes that asylum in America is not granted solely on the basis of arriving from a war-torn country. He explains, “If you cannot establish that you are personally targeted by the government or other groups on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, you won’t be granted asylum, and the applicant bears the burden of proof.” By this standard, activists who could prove they were arrested or targeted for political organizing may be granted asylum, but Syrians merely trying to flee from general instability and danger in the country will not.
One refugee, Wirad, was working as a teacher in Syria before she went to the US a month ago. She is on a student visa for a three-month-long course she is taking in New York City. “My dad was determined to save up money. He wanted me to keep studying and pursue a master’s. But even so, I can’t afford the master’s degrees here. They’re very expensive,” she said. When Wirad’s course ends, her visa situation will have to be renegotiated. “I hope I can find a cheaper master’s, so they will extend my student visa. I’ll have to move somewhere less expensive and find a way to work.” On the same day I talked to her, a car bomb had exploded at a gas station behind her home in Damascus, killing a number of neighbors and shaking the house where her parents still live.
For now, Syrians in exile are stuck in purgatory. They may have escaped the threat of violence themselves, but they wait to hear from family still inside. No longer needing to wait in Syria’s growing bread lines, they lack the financial safety nets of family and friends, and struggle to find employment. Many are barred legally from returning to Syria for having dodged military service, or they face arrest warrants—but their legal status abroad is frequently precarious.
Unsure of how long the violence will continue, unable to establish themselves abroad, and uncertain whether there will be a Syria worth returning to, Syrians who have escaped find themselves at an impasse—living neither here nor there.