A new generation of Syrians adapt to life in exile

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 23, 2012 

AMMAN, Jordan — Rima Flihan, a 36-year-old screenwriter and mother of two, is finally adjusting to life outside Syria.

"We used to have a normal life," she said. "I never dreamed we'd be refugees."

A Syrian television channel is presently airing a series she wrote last year, and another was filmed last month, she said, making the fact she is no longer in the country even more surreal.

"We are learning what depression is," she said. "At first, when I would go to sleep, I would wake up and wonder where I was. For four months I refused to remember my (Jordanian) cellphone number."

Flihan left Syria in September, after the government issued a second arrest warrant for her because she had participated in anti-government protests. She already had been arrested and beaten once.

Flihan is just one of the tens of thousands who have fled Syria to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq since demonstrations against Syrian President Bashar Assad began a little more than a year ago. The peaceful demonstrations now have been supplanted by an armed insurgency; some groups put the number that have fled the country at more than 100,000. The United Nations has said that more than 200,000 Syrians have been displaced inside the country by the fighting.

Exile for Syrians who have dared to oppose their government is nothing new, but the last wave of migration out of Syria on this scale took place in the early 1980s, when the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood led armed uprisings against Hafez Assad, Bashar's father. That period culminated with the government killing at least 10,000 people and destroying much of the city of Hama, just north of Homs, the city that has become the center of the current uprising.

Even knowing the price of dissent, Flihan said it was hard for her to leave. She sent her children out of the country legally before illegally crossing into Jordan herself.

"When you cross the border, there is a small hill, three meters (nine feet) high," she said. "When I got to the top, I froze. I got caught in the (barbed) wire. There was a voice behind me shouting, 'Run, run!' but I couldn't breathe. All I could think about was that this might be the last time I see my country."

Flihan fled with little, though she has managed to put her children, 13 and 14, in private schools.

"I don't want to feel guilty," she said. "I don't want them suffer. My daughter is coping well, but it is taking my son longer. He is very shy."

Flihan, a fierce defender of women's rights, belies the Syrian government's accusations that the opposition against it is made up of hard-line Islamic militants.

So does a 26-year-old former music engineer who identifies himself as Salam al Basha, though he acknowledges the name isn't really his; he asks that his real name not be used to protect his parents, who remain in Syria.

Basha said he was finishing his mandatory military service in the southern city of Daraa when the uprising began. His service was supposed to end last April but was extended as the military battled to put down the demonstrations. Then in November, he was arrested by military police for allowing a group of soldiers to defect while standing guard.

Basha said he supported the rebels and had used leaves from the military to help friends record revolutionary songs. He broke into tears as he described his imprisonment — not while describing the psychological and physical torture he endured, but when he read a poem he had composed to his mother while in prison.

"I didn't know if I'd ever see her again," he said.

"I didn't think I would ever leave the prison," he added. "After being released from prison, people's personalities change 180 degrees. They become paranoid. I know people who committed suicide. They've been psychologically broken. They play with your nerves. It's really hard. It's harder than the physical torture."

Basha was released in January and told that he would join another military unit and be sent to another part of the country to fight the rebellion there. He went to visit his parents for a day, not telling them he had been arrested or that he was planning to leave. He now lives in a house in Amman with others who support the rebellion. They are friends of his from Damascus, all about the same age.

"My friends here in this house — our conditions are just the same. We're away from our own families," said another 26-year-old activist who lives with Basha and asked that his name be withheld. "We're accompanying each other — when we cry, we cry together."

The young men make up one of the many small groups scattered around the countries adjacent to Syria who collect money and other aid for the demonstrators and activists inside, as well as refugees who are less fortunate.

Last week, Basha delivered aid to a camp in Jordan that houses 250 army defectors who've so far been unable to find sponsors in Jordan, a requirement to be let out of the camps.

In part, the aid work is a coping mechanism.

"I'm meeting other people who have really suffered, and if you see the other's problems it makes your problems tiny," Basha said. "It's telling us we're not alone. People are really suffering from this regime. Every family has been touched by the rebellion in some way."

The trip to the camp was also a window into the men's tenuous status here. It required the approval of wary Jordanian intelligence agents who guard the area, though the cargo the activists carried was innocuous: blankets, tracksuits and tennis shoes.

But the Jordanian government itself is walking a fine line, giving shelter to what it says are more than 80,000 Syrians while at the same time attempting not to anger the Syrian government. Some of Basha's housemates have less politicized siblings also living in Amman, but they are careful not to involve them in case their work runs afoul of the government or they are discovered by Syrian government agents here.

The Jordanian government's fine line was also on display Friday, as hundreds demonstrated outside the Syrian Embassy in Amman. The crowd was peaceful, though dozens, if not hundreds, of Jordanian police were on hand to prevent it from demonstrating directly in front of the embassy. The demonstrators were relegated to an enclosed space across the highway from the building, which already had been preemptively ringed with razor wire. No Syrian Embassy staff could be seen, but someone had set up large speakers on the balcony that mockingly blared pro-government pop songs at the demonstrators.

Two of Basha's housemates said they were looking for routes to leave Jordan, either to the U.S. or Europe, for study or as refugees.

"We met with some Syrians who left the country 30 years ago, and they have been here, and they told us that when they left the country at that time, they didn't know they would stay out for so long," one said. "They just advised us to go on with our lives, and to establish lives here. They said don't waste all your time on the revolution, take care of yourself."

Increasingly, the situation inside Syria appears to be untenable for even those not wanted by the government.

"I'm not just going to wait for a missile to hit my house, and I can't hold a weapon to fight," said Mohamed Abdul Kareem, a 29-year-old actor from Homs, which has been shelled heavily by the government in recent months, killing hundreds.

Adbul Kareem said he was afraid he would be drafted into the military despite having completed his mandatory service. His 20-year-old brother was set to begin his own mandatory military service.

"We crossed illegally," Abdul Kareem said. "The week before we came, 26 people were shot while trying to cross. I think we were lucky."

"I didn't know how ugly the refugee life is," he said. "When you walk in the street, you feel it's not your place. I want to build a new life, but I feel that wherever I go I am a stranger. But that is better than being in Syria. Even when I was talking with my siblings, if one of us brought up politics, we would look around at each other and ask, 'Which one of us is the spy?'"

Flihan, however, disagreed. She said that whether things in Syria improve, she is planning to go back in a few months. A divorcee, she said her children could go live with their father if anything happened to her.

"It's better to die in Syria than live in Jordan," Flihan said.

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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