A resident of ISIL-controlled Raqqa dreams of his hometown prewar and pre-ISIL.
Syrians are permitted to enter the country without a visa and, once there, enjoy the same rights and services – such as access to state education and healthcare – as a local. And, unlike the citizens of many other Arab countries, Syrians also get special treatment when it comes to securing residency permits – the result of an agreement between the two countries that dates back to the 1960s.
But Mohammed never imagined that, just a few months later – after revolution and then war came to his country – his family would be forced to follow him and that Syria would, as he says, be “lost”.
‘Guests, not refugees’
“After the revolution in Syria, life became tougher there,” the 26-year-old explains. “My family had to escape, especially after ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] took over our city.”
Now his family is among the 60,000 Syrian refugees that are, according to Ali al-Sadiq Ghandour, a Sudanese foreign ministry spokesperson, residing in the country.
Syrians are guests in my country, not refugees. One day hopefully they will be able to go back. But as long as they stay here they are just like us.
For them it was an obvious choice: not only because Mohammed was already there, but because they’d heard that Sudan was more welcoming than other countries.
Relatives who’d made their way to Turkey spoke of being given aid but being made to feel unwanted. But in Sudan, Mohammed says, he doesn’t feel like a refugee.
That may, in part, be because the capital, Khartoum, already hosts an established community of Syrian migrants whose presence is perhaps most keenly felt in their popular restaurants, cafes, beauty salons and clothing stores. But it’s also a reflection of the hospitality for which the Sudanese are well-known.
Sudanese shopkeeper Khalid is a typical example of that hospitality. Standing among his shelves stacked with powdered milk, chocolate and biscuits, he explains: “They are welcome here.” The old marble floors are cracked and covered in dust, but the shop was once something to be proud of.
“Syrians are guests in my country, not refugees. One day hopefully they will be able to go back. But as long as they stay here they are just like us,” says Khalid.
According to the UN’s latest estimates, by the end of 2015, there could be a total of 460,000 refugees and asylum seekers from various countries in Sudan.
But for all the generosity of their hosts, life in Sudan is still tough for Mohammed and his family.
Life on hold
“Sudan has its own troubles,” he reflects. “It’s an expensive and tough country to be in if you aren’t economically established.
“The people don’t look down on us and we are allowed to open our own businesses and carry on with life, but for those like us, who don’t have any strong income, life here feels like it’s on hold.”
Still, he says, they are at least “treated like humans here … in comparison [to how Syrian refugees are treated in] other Arab countries”.
Mohammed now lives with his twin brother Ali*, their mother Leyla*, their 17-year-old sister Mariam* and their 10-year-old brother Hassan* in a tiny two-bedroom apartment in the capital.
Their father is still in Raqqa, unable to escape or to settle the debt he accrued in order to pay the smugglers who got Mariam, the last of the family to flee, out of there.
“It wasn’t easy,” Mohammed explains. “We’re in a spiral of debt.”
The constant payments along with the high cost of living in Sudan make life hard. But they are grateful to have their sister with them.
Mariam joined her family at the start of this year. Shy and soft-spoken, she listens as her brother talks, but doesn’t say much herself.
“My daughter has seen a lot,” says her mother, Leyla. “It’s too much for a child her age.”
Mariam doesn’t want to talk about Raqqa or life under ISIL. As her mother speaks, she buries her head in her hands as she remembers things about life back home, and then sneaks away to her bedroom.
The teenager, who wears her hair short and her jeans fashionably tight, now works with her mother in a ladies’ hair salon, where Egyptian music plays loudly and images of fair-skinned, heavily made-up models obscure the view from the street.
Back in Syria, Leyla used to own her own beauty salon. It wasn’t easy to adjust to working for somebody else, but as Mohammed explains, “My mother, twin brother and I have to work in order to survive.”
“Life is very expensive here. Rent is expensive. Meat and fruits are very expensive,” he says, adding: “I have been craving fruit for a few years now. It’s a luxury we can’t afford right now.”
The family’s monthly rent is $1,700, Mohammed says. The cost of electricity, water and transportation is also steep.
“Everything is overpriced. If [we] don’t work we will not survive in Sudan.”
He wishes he could send his younger siblings to school, but there is no state school nearby and they cannot afford private education.
“Their future is ruined. They will grow up to be uneducated,” says Mohammed, who now works as a bricklayer with his twin brother.
“Healthcare here is not free,” he says. “Even the public hospitals require extra payment.”
There is no Syria left, our country is gone; it's lost.
It is very different from what they were used to in Syria.
“In Syria, everything used to be free. Education and healthcare used to be free. And here we have to pay for everything.”
Now, Mohammed and Ali start their working day at 5am and work through until 5pm. If they miss a day of work, the financial consequences for their family would be dire.
“You have to struggle in order to make ends meet here,” Mohammed says. “It’s hard for the locals and we don’t expect them to make exceptions for us. But at least they don’t humiliate us for being Syrian refugees.”
‘We are dead, regardless’
But Mohammed and his family don’t want to settle in Sudan. They hope to save enough money to pay smugglers to get them to Libya and, from there, to make their way to Italy.
“If we die, we die,” he says. “At least we will have a life if we make it.”
Then, with just the trace of a tremble in his voice, he adds: “There is no Syria left, our country is gone; it’s lost.”
He wonders if his life isn’t lost, too.
“I am 26 years old. I didn’t plan my life,” he says, growing tense. “I can’t get married, I can’t do anything.
“All I do is work [and] collect money so I can go away.
“As Syrians we think that we are dead regardless. It’s better to die at sea than to continue to live like this, without a future and stability.”
Plus, he adds: “I might be one of the lucky ones that will make it to Europe.”
‘We didn’t receive a penny’
When Leyla first joined Mohammed and Ali in Sudan, they used to receive support from an organisation set up by Syrian businessmen in the country.
Abdulrahman Aldimashqi is one of the Syrians who founded the organisation. He says that when Syrian refugees first started arriving in Sudan, a few would beg in the mosques. So a group of well-established Syrians got together to do something to help them. They now provide food parcels and financial support to the new arrivals.
They classify the refugees into three groups. The first are those in need of food and money to help to pay their rent. The second are those who only require food assistance. And the third are those who need help finding a job.
Leyla says the organisation helps many families, but when she started working, they classified her family as no longer being in need of support.
“They considered us as a fully abled family because we are working,” she says. “But what we earn goes towards the rent, transport and basic needs. We can’t afford private schools … [and] we don’t have a nearby state school suitable for them.”
Mohammed and his twin brother have been registered as refugees with the UN for five years. But he says they provide little in the way of emotional or financial support.
“They have done nothing for me,” Mohammed says. “They don’t give us money; we didn’t receive a penny from them.
“I met different contact people from the UN; one from Italy, another from Sweden, another from Germany and [one from] the UK. They keep promising me that they will follow up and do something for us, but so far there is nothing. No resettlement elsewhere or answers,” he says.
‘We are refugees, not beggars’
And when they go for a meeting with the UN, Mohammed says they can be kept waiting for up to five hours.
“We are refugees, we are in need and they are supposed to help us, but they are not,” he says, his tone growing increasingly agitated.
“Every time I have to go to these interviews I lose money. We have to take time off work which means loss of earnings, we take transportation that costs a lot of money, and in the end they don’t do anything to help us and they treat us like beggars.
I am saddened for the lost Syrian generation… I hurt … for the children that will never grow to know our history, our culture and our traditions.
“We are refugees. We have no choice. We are not beggars,” he says.
Elnaiem Mohamed works for the UNHCR in Sudan. When Al Jazeera put Mohammed’s claims to him, he stressed the relatively good position in which Syrian refugees in Sudan find themselves.
“Syrian refugees in Sudan are not living in camps like [they are in] other countries. They are free to live in the residential areas in Khartoum.
“They are given access to services,” he said, adding that the UNHCR’s offices are open to any refugees who feel in need of counselling, assistance or support.
But for Mohammed and his family, such reassurances do little to alter the reality of a life of struggle far from home.
“If we don’t work we will die,” he says. “So we have to work. And our mother must work if we are going to survive here.”
A lost generation from a lost land
In the living room of their dimly lit apartment, Leyla drinks red tea and remembers what she left behind in Raqqa. The mother of four is well-groomed, aside from nails which bear the traces of too many coats of red varnish. She looks no older than her early 50s. But the picture she paints is bleak.
“My 10-year-old son witnessed 50 beheadings,” she says. “ISIL brainwashed the children.”
The boy is chubby and curious. He seems to listen intently as his mother talks but looks down whenever someone attempts to make eye contact with him.
“My son has seen too much and needs a lot of help,” Leyla says.
When asked if she would like to return to Syria, Leyla looks down and takes a deep breath. Then she begins to sob.
“When we left Syria I felt like I took a hard hit in my body and soul,” she says. “No one wishes to leave their country.
“But there is no Syria any more. Syria is lost.
“I have been in Sudan for two years and nine months,” she continues.
“I feel estranged here. I fear hearing news from Syria. I stopped watching the news. I don’t want to hear bad news about my family that is still there.”
With tears rolling down her cheeks, she says: “I am saddened for the lost Syrian generation… I hurt … for the children that will never grow to know our history, our culture and our traditions.”
Follow Fatma Naib on Twitter: @FatmaNaib