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As Syrian war nears end, some can never go home

Anchal Vohra Beirut, Lebanon
January 8, 2018

The war in Syria may be coming to a close, but many young Syrian men have little hope of returning, especially those who fled to avoid fighting. In Beirut, DW's Anchal Vohra met three such men who spoke candidly.

Sami reads a book on Syria in a Beirut café
Image: DW/A. Vohra.

Biting his nails in anxiety, Sami [name changed] is distraught to be separated from his family in Aleppo and fearful at the thought of going home.

"I want to be with my parents," he says, "but if I return, the government will force me to join the army, and I don't believe in armed conflict."

Sami, aged 23, fled his home in regime-held west Aleppo for Beirut, Lebanon, in early 2017 not so much to escape the war but fighting in it as a Syrian soldier. He had been exempted from service in the army during his studies from 2012 to 2016. But after university, he didn't have the option to stay in his hometown. His alternatives were either to fight for President Bashar Assad, with little chance of survival, or to leave Syria.

In Syria, men above the age of 18 must join the armed forces, barring a few exceptions, such as the lack of another son in the family. Many young men have left the country out of fear for their lives and not wanting to be used as cannon fodder in a war they believe ceased to be about Syrians a long time ago.

"The people dying are Syrians, but the war is not for them," Sami says, furrowing his brow and narrowing his eyes. "The war is for Assad, the Saudis and Iranians, the Russians and America."  

Seven years of war and little possibility of political change have left young Syrians skeptical. A protest for democracy was hijacked by Islamist terrorists, some say, leaving the regime even stronger than before.

Once it became a playground of regional powers that funded militias on both sides, it was not a war Sami wished to give his life for:

"Both sides were committing crimes. I just wanted to move on with my life."

Aleppo residents queue to buy bread in a rebel-held neighborhood of Aleppo
From mid-2012 to December 2016, Aleppo was divided between government control in the west and rebel control in the eastImage: Getty Images/AFP/K. Al-Masri

Since the Syrian war began, the number of those serving in the armed forces has fallen from 300,000 soldiers to under half that, military experts say.

Syrian youth on the run

Sami has managed to dodge what he sees as certain death, but for a life without much of a future. 

"I can only be a cleaner in Lebanon," he says of his options.

Read more: Syrians in Lebanon: 'They treat us like we are dirty'

Sami does not have a local sponsor, a requirement to obtain a residence permit. The Lebanese government requires sponsors to provide guarantees for Syrians, to confirm where they live and work and take responsibility for them. Furthermore, Syrians may only be hired for jobs that Lebanese can't or won't perform. That leaves few opportunities for young, educated people like Sami, who are coerced to opt for unskilled or semi-skilled jobs as cleaners or in agriculture or construction.

With his Bachelor of Arts from Damascus University, Sami could apply to do a Masters in Lebanon, but afterwards he would be obliged to return to Syria and join the army. He's concerned that he could be considered a deserter and punished or even incarcerated.

"There was a way out," Sami says, explaining that he was offered a job in Germany by a large international company, but the German state denied him a visa. "The Western nations do not consider us to be a priority for refugee status," he says. "Where are we supposed to go?"

A young Syrian man works in a restaurant in Beirut
Khaled is one of the fortunate Syrians who was able to find a sponsor and get a job in Beirut Image: DW/A. Vohra.

Unwanted by the nations providing refuge and scared of joining the Assad regime, Sami is stuck in Lebanon illegally.

'I won't fight for Assad'

Khaled [name changed] was lucky. He found a Lebanese sponsor in 2013 and has been working at his restaurant ever since.

"The Syrians are so needy they opt for any job on any salary," he says. "But my boss treats me nicely," he adds.

Read more: Beirut's League of the Camps

Like Sami, Khaled's family is still in Aleppo. But he is more cautious about revealing personal details, including whether he comes from the regime-held west or formerly rebel-held east, for fear of a backlash from Syria.

"First I supported Assad, but then they started arresting anyone from [any] neighborhood under rebel control," he answers reluctantly. "I would have fought for Syria, but I won't fight for Assad; the regime killed so many people."

Khaled saw many of his friends die in the war, mostly in bombings by the regime. That is what destroyed his trust, he says. Unwilling to partake in the bloodshed, Khaled fled.

He had just started studying law at Aleppo's university when the war intensified, in 2013, when he was 19. He left, initially for six months, but has not been back since.

"There is nothing there for me. It is not my Syria anymore. And Lebanon has just begun feeling like home," he says with a wan smile.

Buying freedom from the Syrian regime

Bassam [name changed] has been waiting for two years to be accepted as a refugee in Germany or Canada. His sister has been granted asylum in Germany, while his parents continue to languish in Damascus.

"I left because I didn't want to die," Bassam says. After a long pause he adds: "Our family is split. Maybe one day I will go to Dortmund to meet my sister."

Bassam walks past tower blocks in Beirut
The only answer for Bassam is raising enough money to buy his way out of military serviceImage: DW/A. Vohra.

Bassam has the right to live abroad for a maximum of four years, but then he must join the Syrian army. That is, unless he pays a whopping $8,000 (€6670) to the Syrian government.

In September, Bassam enrolled at the Lebanese American University. He is determined to move on, to study and work hard to save up the cash.

After long hours at college, Bassam teaches Arabic to foreigners in Beirut. He charges $10-$15 an hour, which barely covers his expenses in a city where the currency — and effectively the cost of living — is pegged to the US dollar.

"It is a large amount, but I have to do this," he stresses.