“I am betraying my revolution, I am betraying my homeland,” said Karam, when he declared that is immigrating to Germany after surviving over four years of war. Originally from the eastern side of Aleppo city, he relocated to the rebel-controlled western side when the regime took control of the city.
“Between getting arrested by Assad forces or bombed by them, I chose the latter,” he said. There, he worked as a fixer for opposition forces, accompanying rebels to the front lines, guiding them through the streets of his childhood and providing the coordinates of military targets so that rebel forces avoided shelling civilians. Civilian protection has always been his priority, and so he would photograph for a news agency and provide medical aid to the injured on the front line, when needed. His work with armed groups never stopped him from taking part in demonstrations against the regime and opposition groups that committed violations against civilians.
As the war dragged on, though, he lost hope of ever liberating his beloved city. This past summer he immigrated to Germany, but instead of finding peace he found himself ridden with guilt Despite the war, he misses his time in Syria, “even the horrific bits where you are frightened of a nearby barrel bomb. I feel more vulnerable here, and I often wish I could be with my revolutionary friends.” So strong is his desire to go back that he is already planning his return after finishing his university degree.
Since leaving, Karam feels that he has lost the right to post online about the revolution. “I am away now and don’t have the right to comment or tell those whom I left behind what they should or shouldn’t do.” When he posts a picture of Berlin, his former companions criticize him for leaving, saying, “Do you really want all those defending Syria from Assad and the Islamic State to join the beautiful land you are in now?” When he posts on Facebook wishing safety for friends who are making the dangerous trek to Europe, those still in Syria accuse him of encouraging others to join him in Germany so he, “won’t feel the guilt for leaving the revolution half-way through.”
Those that do leave find it best to stay engaged and maintain some level of activism, out of a desire to enact change but also because if they do not, they find themselves depressed and frustrated as Karam described. Arriving in a Western country is a chance to raise awareness about what is happening in Syria and advocate to support Syria. The head of a Syrian relief NGO posted on his Facebook, “Dear Syrians, invade the European Union in as many numbers as possible, fill their streets and occupy their public spaces. we don’t exist to that cold world until we are in their faces, only then, when we are all over [their country], they’ll decide to interfere and stop the Assad’s against civilians and give us all the choice to come back home, to Syria.”
Despite the media attention given to refugees and the difficult journey they face going to Europe, Syrians who remain in their country have no sympathy for them. A mother of two who refused to escape to Turkey and stayed in Aleppo said to me, “Whatever they are going through, it can’t be compared with our daily suffering. At least they are choosing [to leave] for personal gain for themselves and their children, while we are risking our lives and our children for our country, [a country] that once was theirs too!”
A movement against leaving Syria has started to take root. Activists graffiti walls with messages like, “Our town is more beautiful than Europe, do not immigrate.” It started in Binnish, a small town in northern Idlib, before reaching the walls of Aleppo and other rebel held areas.
Fleeing to Turkey provides immediate relief from the shelling and fighting, but Syrians feel they are in permanent limbo. Syrians cannot legally register their personal affairs, such as marriages and births, making children born in Turkey essentially stateless and born out of wedlock. Those who flee because they are on the Syrian government’s wanted list cannot get new passports or renew old ones, putting many of the 2.2 million refugees in Turkey onto the path to statelessness. The recent EU-Turkey talks might provide Syrians the right to work in Turkey and financial support for schooling, but until a formal agreement is signed, Syrians remain leery of raising their hopes.
Syrians who make short trips to Western countries find themselves in a surreal situation. On the one hand, their passports carry US, UK, and Schengen visas, which are seen as easing the immigration process if their holders ever desire to seek asylum. On the other hand, they are counting down the days until their passports expire. Those that do not take advantage of having these visas and refuse to seek asylum are seen by their friends as throwing away a golden ticket. Despite that criticism, many Syrians refuse to leave, instead preferring to continue working and utilizing their visas to travel abroad and advocate on behalf of Syria.
For activists and fighters most involved in conflict, leaving to a neighboring country is bad, but traveling to Europe to build a new life is even worse. “To whom are they leaving their county? Don’t they belong to it too? Isn’t it our [country]? No wonder extremists and the regime are winning, because we are becoming less and less as people leave, and then when peace comes and those of us [who stayed] are killed or disabled they claim they want to come back to rebuild the county?” said Hamza, a doctor at a field hospital in Aleppo. Others, though, see no difference once they leave Syria. “We are away from our homes anyway, what is the difference between southern Turkey and Amsterdam to me, but better opportunities and a future for my little girl?” said Abdul Rahman, a 25 year-old activist.
Our revolution-turned-war is nearly five years old, but the “refugee crisis” is framed in the media as a Western problem. The personal aspect of the worst humanitarian crisis of our time is forgotten in debates of national security and United States’ and European Union’s willingness and capacity to absorb refugees. What is missed in these discussions is the contradictory feelings, the desire to survive and provide a better future for one’s family and oneself, but also the desire to stay and contribute. The fact is, most Syrians are choosing to stay in their country, or as near to it as they can, despite bombings, arrests, kidnappings, and lack of basic infrastructure.
The article is published in The Atlantic Council on the 9th of Dec.