Middle East

Syria's refugees yearning for the lost 'old life'

There are more than 80,000 refugees in Jordan's Zaatari camp Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption There are more than 80,000 refugees in Jordan's Zaatari camp

Since the conflict began I have followed the stories of refugees from Syria's war. I am left with the images of haunted people.

There was the mother in Arsal, Lebanon, who described how she was nearly forced to strangle her own child to stop it betraying the presence of a group of terrified refugees to President Assad's militia.

Now in Lebanon, and cradling her child, she was tormented with guilt because of what had nearly happened.

Others had intervened to help her refuse the demand of the man telling her to kill the child. As we spoke flurries of snow whipped through the window into the bare concrete room where she lived with her husband and another refugee family.

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Media captionDirector of The Primo Levi Foundation Eleonore Morel: "The situation is very tense" for Syrian refugees arriving in France

There was the conscripted soldier who had deserted the Syrian army and tried to flee by sea to Europe from the Turkish port of Izmir. The crossing ended in disaster with people drowning all around him.

He remembered their hands clutching at him as he struggled to swim to safety. He was a classical guitar player and dreamed of teaching in the west. But he had lost his guitar, a man without music stranded on the edge of Europe.

There was the old woman, aged 105, I met sitting on the flinty ground in the vast refugee camp at Zaatari in Jordan.

Born when mighty empires ruled the Middle East Um Atallah told me she simply wanted to die now, though she still kept the key to her home. A few weeks later she passed away.

And there was the young gay man I met in Beirut who had endured brutal rape in one of Assad's torture chambers.

Image caption Um Attallah, who was a refugee at the Zaatari camp in Jordan

Slight, soft-spoken he had been an activist for human rights in Damascus. His anguished description of how the secret policemen had violated his body was among the most harrowing accounts of the Syrian conflict I have heard.

I have met refugees in wind blasted camps in Turkey, in cold concrete rooms on the Lebanese border, in the sprawling camps of Jordan, in half-built houses in Beirut, among the thousands camped out in fields around Calais seeking a passage to Britain.

They are the people of the "old life." It is the phrase I have heard most commonly among the dispossessed and the lost. The "old life" with its home, work, school, orchard, streams, favourite café, familiar streets, neighbourly chat, seasonal rituals.

Searching for work

The countries bordering Syria have taken the brunt of the crisis by hosting millions of refugees. The rest of the world has offered to resettle 50,000 Syrians - more than half of those in Germany.

So far only 7,000 have been able to take advantage of the scheme - an extraordinarily low figure which critics say is symptomatic of the poor international response to the Syrian crisis.

Among the world powers Britain and France - who have the strongest colonial links to the region - are offering to resettle mere hundreds of Syrians.

Image caption A young boy inside the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan

Yahya Khedr is one of those who have fled to France. His family was among more than 100 people I met in a Parisian park where they were waiting for help from the French authorities.

Yahya was a prosperous businessman who was working in Europe when the war broke out. He rushed back to Syria and brought his family to safety after a long journey over desert and sea to Europe.

"I will never get the old life back," he told me when I first met him last March.

I accompanied his family that night as they searched for a place to stay. Eventually, in the early hours, a sympathetic Arab businessman offered to pay for a room in a budget hotel.

Yahya's eight months' pregnant wife, Amoun, sat on the edge of the bed staring into the distance, exhausted by the endless movement.

With anti-immigrant feeling on the rise across much of Europe it is not a good time to be arriving as a refugee from Syria.

Eleonore Morel, Director of The Primo Levi Foundation, a French NGO that helps torture victims, points to the struggle of heads of families to find work during harsh economic times.

"The men can end up feeling useless," she said, "because they are used to being the providers and to protecting their families."

Far from the populist stereotype of migrants and refugees the Syrians I have met are anxious to support themselves and avoid dependence on the state or anybody else.

'I am in chains'

I met Yahya again last week. He was a depressed figure. For the last eight months the family have been living in the eastern border town of Besancon.

The French government provided accommodation while the family's asylum request was considered.

Image caption Refugee Yahya Khedr with his son, Ismail

The good news was that his wife Amoun had been granted asylum and the couple's baby was a French citizen by birth. But because Yahya was working in Europe when war erupted his own claim was taking longer.

Until asylum is granted he is not allowed to work. "I feel torn down within. I cannot provide for my children. I'm in chains," he told me, "I'm really scared of the future. I'm afraid of everything."

Amoun Khedr had already given up mentally on the idea of staying in Europe. Somehow a way would be found to go home.

Cradling her baby son, Ismail, she said: "I hope he will be a good omen. That he will bring us safety so we can go home and start our lives again."

For her the "old life" was still a dream to cling to, a buttress against the misery of exile.

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