Suheil, a soft-spoken 23-year-old, sees no hope for the future in Syria. The video engineer is scraping together US$2,500 (RM10,975) or so to finance a perilous journey to seek a new life in Europe, fleeing what looks like a war without end.
In his baseball cap, checked shirt and jeans, Suheil would not stand out in a Damascus crowd or among the hundreds of thousands of his compatriots crossing the border to Lebanon. From there they are scrambling on to planes to Turkey, and then boats, buses and trains to reach Germany or other safe havens in the biggest movement of people the world has seen in 70 years.
“I want to do something with my life and there’s no way I can do that here,” he says, detailing his plans to follow the route so many others have taken before him.
Suheil was 18 when the uprising against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, began in March 2011, so his adult life has been dominated by a brutal conflict that has already claimed 250,000 lives. Four million Syrians have left the country and 6.5 million more are displaced internally. In government-controlled Damascus, rebel mortar bombs kill a few civilians every week. In mid-August, government forces bombed the souk in nearby Douma, killing 250 people – almost two years to the day since a chemical weapons attack killed 1,300 in the same area.
In many ways, Damascenes say, the abnormal has become normal. Hollow-eyed children beg outside restaurants and cafes that hum with the chatter of shisha-smoking customers. Just a few miles away, the Islamic State (IS) is fighting the army and government militias; typhoid has broken out in the Yarmouk refugee camp. Beheadings and barrel bombs are part of the landscape of a disintegrating country.
“The main thing is the economic pressure,” explains Suheil. “I earn 100,000 Syrian Pound (RM2,239) a month but I need double that to get by. The second factor is that life in Damascus is restricted because of the war. I’m trying to get together a group of five or six friends to get to Germany. Yes, it’s frightening. But it’s more frightening here.’’
Three of his close friends were killed while serving in the army. As an only son, he is exempt from compulsory military service, though he did consider responding to the latest call for volunteers – “to save our country” – displayed on posters all over the city. Receiving call-up papers is often a trigger for departure – and arguments.
Nur, a 21-year-old student, wants to leave. But his twin brother wants to stay put.
Anas, a nurse, had wanted her children to stay but she relented and sold her gold jewellery when her son Salim found a way to get to Brazil, where he now has asylum after failing to reach the United States.
“I didn’t want my boy to leave,” she says, “but I heard of my neighbours’ children being killed by mortars or car bombs, so I caved in and agreed he could go.”
The swelling exodus is the subject of endless conversations – and some off-colour jokes. “I’m offering free swimming lessons for any Syrians planning to leave for Europe,” one woman posted on her Facebook page. Another crack talks about friends meeting each other more easily in Germany or on Greek islands than in their Damascus neighbourhoods.
Wry humour is an obvious way of staving off depression. “Every week, one of my colleagues leaves,” sighs a middle-aged businesswoman. “They sell their houses, or land, or their cars to finance the trip. This is a country that has lost its youth.” And the pace appears to be accelerating. “This wave of emigration,” argues Anas Judeh, a lawyer who is urging the West to cooperate with Assad to defeat IS, “is just the beginning.”
Those leaving are not motivated by their political views – rather by a situation in which few see realistic prospects for change. Suheil believes Assad is the best person to lead Syria. Wahib – hoping to make it to Germany or Sweden and get his wife and children to join him later – blames Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the West for supporting “terrorists” – the catch-all term for any opposition to the government.
“Everyone wants to leave, and it’s even worse in the areas held by Daesh (IS),” he adds. “They are fanatics and killers. They will whip you if you don’t pray.”
In Damascus, there is a new breed of “facilitators” who offer advice to Syrians who want to get out. Adnan, a lawyer, has helped 16 people in the past few months and has 22 on standby waiting to go. The biggest group are 17- to 25-year-olds, including students who are about to graduate but have no job prospects. But he has wealthier clients, too, like a 30-something head of department living in a safe part of Damascus and another man who sold his car for US$5,000 (RM21,950), which is enough for a comfortable trip.
Swelling numbers mean more information is available so people are getting less dependent on smugglers. Friends follow each others’ advice. It now costs on average US$2,400 (RM10,536) to get to Germany.
“The road out of Syria is getting easier,” Adnan says. “The costs have gone down and the factors driving people to go have not changed.” Following clients’ progress is part of the service: his WhatsApp timeline includes GoogleMap images and this exchange with a man named Adam sailing to a Greek island:
“It won’t sink.”
“Go ahead, it only takes half an hour.”
“Can you see the lights?”
Adnan also has a handwritten diagram detailing the route from Izmir, via Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, along with the cost of trains, buses, cheap hotels, documents and advice on key points. At the end of the journey in Germany, a tiny stick figure waves a flag in triumphant celebration.
Not everyone is planning to seek refuge in Europe. Mayassa Deeb, an archaeologist at the National Museum, regrets the fact that so many of her colleagues have already left.
“But I am optimistic,” she says with a brave smile. “And that’s why I haven’t gone.” Adnan, making a living from helping others find a better future, says: “As long as I can afford to stay in Syria, why should I leave?” – Guardian News Service/Ian Black