The Syrian Refugee Crisis began after the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011. Anti-government protests and demonstrations had emerged in the Middle East and in North Africa, leading to a wave of conflicts in countries like Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Tunisia. Tensions escalated as younger generations fought against oppressive authoritarian governments in hopes for an exchange for a more democratic political system. Issues between the violation of basic human rights, political corruption, and extreme poverty were some of the many prime instigators of the conflict. As the uproar of the Arab Spring continued, the conflict in Syria had mounted into a full-scale civil war. The Syrian Civil War ultimately led to a multitude of consequences; for instance, the resignation of the Government and Parliament, major clashes between soldiers and defectors, and an emergence of several jihadist militant groups such as ISIS (BBC). However, in regards to the Syrian civilian population, an exodus of people leaving Syria had surfaced. Thus began the ongoing Syrian Refugee Crisis which has amassed a magnitude of approximately 6 million internally displaced persons and 5 million refugees, according to the United Nations.
The exodus has created a ripple effect into the economies and societies of countries who have accepted the movement of refugees and asylum seekers across and within Europe and the Middle East. Refugees have migrated out of Syria often illegally through the sea crammed in small boats or through miles of war-ridden land on foot (Pew Research Center). If they are able to sustain their passage out of Syria, their journey has only just begun. As many refugees attempt to gain asylum and legal residency in the countries they arrive in (mostly European or Middle Eastern countries bordering Syria), only a few attain the grant. Confronted with the loss of their homes, families, and livelihood, refugees are confronted with immense difficulty to conform and transition to a foreign society.
During my travels to Europe towards the end of 2017, I had the privilege of actually conversing with a Syrian refugee who had received legal residency in Innsbruck, Austria in 2016. In order to maintain his privacy, I will use the name Mohamed to describe him.
In 2010, Mohamed was a proud owner of a restaurant and house in Syria. He had a university degree in hotel management and his wife was a mechanical engineer. Mohamed’s journey out of Syria began in his village in West Ghouta, Syria. It was midday when his village congregated at the local mosque to pray. In the Islamic faith, mosques are a holy place of peace and worship where Muslims often convene five times a day to formally pray. However, as men and women started to slowly exit the mosque after their prayers, that peace and sanctity were brutally interrupted. As Mohamed recalls, just as people were beginning to go home from the mosque, a brigade of armed men from the Assad army surrounded the premises, trapping innocent civilians in their control. That afternoon, six people were shot and killed.
During the weeks following the start of the militant occupation in Mohamed’s village, Mohamed planned to take his family out of Syria entirely. At the time, Mohamed had the responsibility of taking care of his wife, mother, and two young children. He was able to leave his village without much difficulty or interference from the militant group, as tensions were only starting to intensify. In 2012, Mohamed moved his family to Lebanon, a neighboring state, where they lived in an underground facility packed in a single room for one year.
Mohamed and his family were out of Syria and seemingly out of harm’s reach. Leaving his home, friends, occupation, and community, Mohamed made the decision to uproot his life in order for the safety of his family. However, due to the pervasive impact of the Arab Spring, Mohamed had only moved into another region of the Middle East’s shatterbelt. While living in Lebanon, Mohamed was taken by the militant group Hezbollah twice, without any formal charges against him.
“In Syria, the Assad says “you should be with me, if not, you’re against me.” ”
Mohamed explained that there “was no system to protect Syrian refugees in Lebanon.” Instead, refugees were met without schooling, without work, and without basic human rights. Mohamed’s mother had passed away in Lebanon and it was becoming more and more dangerous for his daughter and son, 7 and 5 years old at the time. So, he was on the move again; adamant and determined in his search for a safe place for his family to live.
From Lebanon, Mohamed travelled to Turkey and Greece. According to Mercy Corps, Turkey has taken in almost 3 million refugees, while Greece is also experiencing a major influx of migrants and refugees arriving by sea, reaching over 1 million in 2015 (UNHCR). With the dangers of the journey proving deadly (UNHCR has reported over 15,000 missing or dead over the last four years), Mohamed left his family in Lebanon before venturing into Europe. After arriving in Greece, Mohamed walked through the forests of Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia for over two weeks to finally arrive in Austria. Doing so without a cellphone, without contact with his family, and without even a map, Mohamed had found a safe haven for his family.
“It’s hell or paradise, it’s life or death.”
After 5 months of both Mohamed and his wife working in Austria, they were granted legal residency.
The Syrian Refugee Crisis has unleashed immense adversity in the lives of millions of innocent civilians. While organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Mercy Corps, the International Red Cross, and Doctors without Borders are working towards securing the safety of refugees and their families, there are still almost 50 million refugees and displaced persons globally.
Mohamed’s story is just one account of the effect of the Syrian Civil War and furthermore, the global refugee crisis found beyond Syria in countries like Yemen, Libya, and Myanmar. Although his story identifies the stress and hardship that refugees may face, Mohamed’s story exemplifies the hard work, determination, and hope that refugees embody throughout this crisis. From Syria to Lebanon to Turkey to Greece and finally to Austria, Mohamed and his family have endured years of uncertainty and pain. However, above all else, they have surpassed the dangers of their journey, the terrors of war, and the evils of conflict.