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Syria strife sends Somali refugees on the run

Many are being forced to flee conflict again, years after having sought refuge in Syria from civil war back home.

Last Modified: 22 May 2013 12:51
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Somali refugees in Syria are leaving the country to escape civil war in their new homeland [Getty Images]

San Diego, United States It has been a strenuous 9,000-kilometre journey across the Atlantic to the US for Amal Kahim Jama and her Somali family. Fleeing civil war in Syria, they were recently forced to leave everything behind and rebuild their lives - yet again.  

Buildings she used to walk by in the heart of the Syrian capital, Damascus, have been reduced to rubble: a vestige of what once was a vibrant metropolis. It is an all too familiar image for Jama and the thousands of Somalis who fled to Syria in the 1990s to escape their own civil war. Jama and her five children left the capital Mogadishu in 2005.

As threats to their safety increase, the wait to be transferred to another host country for the second time is raising fear and uncertainty among the Somali community in Syria.

"We were welcomed in Syria. It was a great place for the Somali people," Jama said, recalling a time of peace and stability. "The kids were enrolled in school and there were no problems. Life was normal."

We can't forget about them, we need to help them. They have nowhere to go.

Amal Kahim Jama, Somali refugee

That recollection stands in sharp contrast to the violence that has engulfed Syria over the past two-plus years. Her homeland, meanwhile, has been plagued by fighting for the past 20 years, though a relative calm has recently prevailed.

Since the ousting of former dictator Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has been viewed by the international community as a failed state. The armed conflict has put civilians in the middle of the clash between rival warlords, the interim government, and al-Shabaab fighters with ties to al-Qaeda.

Jama said she and her family were relocated to Syria, where visas were not required for citizens from Arab League nations. However, one drawback was that the Syrian government did not grant work permits to the refugees.

In recent reports, the UNHCR documented 3,000 registered Somalis living in Syria - a decline from the previous 5,000 registered before the onset of the armed conflict.

"The Somali community in Syria consists mostly of women and children. Although some are fortunate enough to receive remittances from their families living abroad, the rest of us rely on aid from the UN," explained Jama, who now lives in San Diego, California.

Their limited sources of income were all they had to buy food and pay rent, but the Somali refugees did have access to higher education.

Another Somali who fled the Syrian conflict, 26-year-old Zahra Mohamed, lived in Syria since she was five-years old. She fled to Damascus with her grandmother, mother and four younger siblings in 1992. Mohamed left Damascus for the first time in 2012 as the violence escalated.

She said leaving behind friends she cared deeply about brought great sadness, even as she settled into her new life in sunny San Diego.

"I can't be happy without feeling guilty. Just thinking about them [friends and neighbours] takes away my happiness … I pray for my neighbour of 20 years every day," said Mohamed.

She said she never thought the conditions, similar to those that forced her family to flee Somalia, would also drive them out of Syria - the country she calls home.

Mohamed didn't graduate university, leaving the country before completing her final semester. But what is most troubling for her is the thought of what is happening to the "good people of Syria", she said.

Bob Montgomery is the executive director of the International Rescue Committee in San Diego, which relocated Mohamed and her family and helped them settle into life in the United States.

"There certainly is a traumatic impact on people who have suffered and been through such an experience," Montgomery told Al Jazeera. "There are still people there that are pending to come to the United States. A lot of them have to lay low until it is time for them to leave."

Escalating violence

According to the UNHCR, "the incidence and severity of security and protection incidents affecting refugees rose perceptibly in mid-2012, with reported killings, kidnappings, domestic violence, threats, and harassment".

Jama recalled when the violence directly affected a prominent member of the Somali community named Abukar. "He was with his young son and daughter when a nail bomb exploded," she said. The shrapnel from the bomb killed Abukar and seriously wounded his two children.

The rebellion to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime has forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge elsewhere. But the lack of travel documents has prevented Somalis from entering neighbouring countries in order to escape the violence.

And returning home is still a difficult option. Despite the formation of a new government in 2012, the UNHCR has stated: "Somalia may not yet be fully conducive for returns."

Spotlight
In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria

As remaining Somali families wait to be relocated, others have become internally displaced as a result of the civil war. Somalis living in remote parts of Syria were forced to congregate in the Masaken Barzeh neighbourhood on the outskirts of Damascus, where the vast majority of Somali refugees are now concentrated.

According to UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards, a minibus carrying a Somali refugee family of 11 were caught in crossfire on the way to the village of Hurnah, while attempting to flee the conflict in the southern town of Menin. A nine-year-old boy was rescued by a group of Syrian men and taken to the Somali community in Hurnah. He is believed to be the only surviving member of his family. 

In August, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent relocated 70 Somali refugees from Hurnah to live with Somali host families in Masaken Barzeh.

However, the burden has become too much as the number of internally displaced Somali refugees increases. There were even reported cases by the UNHCR of Somali families being evicted by landlords for hosting displaced refugees.

Exodus to Turkey

Because of the drawn-out response from the UNHCR and the sharp rise of violence in Syria, any attempts to enter Turkey - legal or illegal - is a risk Somalis are willing to take instead of idly waiting.

With just the clothes on their backs, countless Somalis left behind what took them more than two decades to establish, and embarked on the arduous journey to the Turkish border to seek asylum.

Jama is also concerned for the wellbeing of her Somali neighbour who still remains in Syria. She said the neighbour's 21-year-old son died after the Syrian government allegedly detained him and two other Somali men.

Many are fleeing the violence to refugee camps [Getty Images]

The 21-year-old diabetic was denied the medication he regularly took to control his disease. He died in the arms of his friend while in captivity, Jama's neighbour told her.

"His mother wasn't allowed to give him a proper burial," Jama said.

In the weeks before she left Syria, daily life was becoming an eerie reminder of the conditions that forced her to leave Mogadishu.

"Food must be purchased during the day. It doesn't matter if you're Syrian or Somali, the streets are empty by 6pm," said Jama. "The fighting erupts in the late hours of the night and is at its worst on the weekend."

Fortunately for Jama and her family, the UNHCR was able to relocate them to the United States, but she said it is imperative to help Somalis stranded in Syria.

In December, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, warned the international community against the threat of Syria becoming the "new Somalia," if the civil war failed to subside.

"We can't forget about them, we need to help them," said Jama. "They have nowhere to go."

Follow Mona Kosar Abdi on Twitter: @MonaAbdiSD

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Al Jazeera
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