Zanzibar, Tanzania – When Jak, a 30-year-old Syrian, first arrived on the islands of Zanzibar, in February 2016, he asked his taxi driver to take him to a hotel with Arabic-speaking staff.
He was dropped off at the five-star Hyatt, an expensive location in Stone Town, where a one-night stay at $400 would have eaten his savings.
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Finding affordable, stable housing quickly became his singular obsession.
Like millions of Syrians, Jak’s life abruptly shifted when war broke out in 2011.
Today, nearly 13 million Syrians are displaced, that’s more than half of the country’s pre-war population. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 5.5 million Syrians have fled the country, seeking refuge in the region, as of February 2018.
While most sought refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, a series of quick and desperate decisions have brought a small group of Syrians 6,700km from home, to the shores of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous archipelago within the United Republic of Tanzania, seeking their slice of paradise in a booming tourist economy.
The Ministry of Home Affairs told Al Jazeera that “a few hundred” Syrians currently live in Tanzania.
But with unemployment rates hovering near 17 percent and increasingly strict immigration laws, Syrians find it difficult to carve a viable path towards resettlement and self-sufficiency in Zanzibar.
Tanzania is among 15 African and 32 international countries that accept Syrian travellers with a tourist visa on arrival.
In May 2016, only 15 Syrians sought asylum in Tanzania as reported by The Citizen.
Yet, as of November 30, “a total number of 31 individuals from Syria were registered [with the UNHCR],” according to Goodness Mrema, a UNHCR associate.
“Europe has shut its borders to migrants, making a deal with Turkey [in 2016] to exchange refugees rather than apply the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights,” Joey Ayoub, MENA regional editor for Global Voices, told Al Jazeera.
“They have allowed the narrative of the far right to grow as a consequence. It’s no surprise to me that those who have tried to reach Europe and could not are now trying to make it elsewhere. The alternative is to stay in the camps in Syria’s surrounding countries – and life there is intolerable.”
Religious, cultural similarities
Syrians seeking alternatives have turned to predominantly Muslim Zanzibar for its religious, linguistic and cultural similarities.
The Sultans of Oman ruled over Zanzibar for nearly 200 years.
I came to Zanzibar because I heard they speak Arabic here and I could enter on a tourist visa for three months. Other places, it's only two weeks or a month.
A history of trade routes between Yemen, Persia and Zanzibar along the Indian Ocean Swahili coast traces back to the 1st century AD.
“I came to Zanzibar because I heard they speak Arabic here and I could enter on a tourist visa for three months. Other places, it’s only two weeks or a month,” said Jak.
A spice trader from Mount Hermon on the Syrian-Lebanese border, Jak started exporting spices to Lebanon in 2012 when the value of the Syrian pound plummeted.
But soaring prices sent him back to Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad‘s army was waiting for him to enlist. That same year, Jak’s older brother died of stomach cancer, making him the only living son among three sisters in his family. By Syrian law, sole males are exempted from serving in the army, but Jak’s family could not secure a death certificate, making it impossible for him to claim his right to military exemption.
Extreme inflation, escalating violence and fear of military inscription sent Jak to Beirut, where he made a 10-day booking at a local hotel, entering at the border under the pretence of a traveller.
He stayed for nearly two years in Beirut without a visa or work permit, working 12 to 18-hour days in a series of odd jobs at a casino, grocery store, and restaurant, making between $400 and $600 a month under the table.
During this time, his family made several attempts to register his brother’s death to expedite his military exemption, to no avail. Exhausted from unfair working conditions and precarious, cramped living conditions, Jak bought a roundtrip ticket to Zanzibar for $160.
Far from paradise
Yet, Zanzibar is far from paradise for those seeking work, housing, and legal status.
Jak’s three-month tourist visa expired, and, without work, he was convinced by an acquaintance to pay $100 to a government official in exchange for the promise of a “refugee card”.
A month went by with no word from his contact before he realised it was a scam.
By May 2017, Jak formally applied for refugee status in Tanzania through the UNHCR. While waiting, he relied on the generosity of strangers to pay his monthly rent of $100 and visa extensions of $200 as he hustled for work as a taxi driver, massage therapist, and numerologist.
At this point, I just want to go back to Syria. I'm tired, I just need to sort my papers and then I'll go. Even if I face fines or prison, I am not finding my life here.
After a six-month wait, the UNHCR contacted Jak for an interview in Dar es Salaam, but, with an expired visa, he could not risk travelling without legal documents.
The agency promised to cooperate with the Zanzibar government to assure Jak’s safe passage, but has not yet reached out again.
“At this point, I just want to go back to Syria,” said Jak. “I’m tired, I just need to sort my papers and then I’ll go. Even if I face fines or prison, I am not finding my life here.”
Alise Coen, assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan, told Al Jazeera: “As the uncertainty of migration and refugee policies increases, many displaced Syrians live their lives in precarious limbo.
“The longing to return home, the difficulties and restrictions of life in temporary camps and some host country contexts, and experiences with xenophobia and discrimination have converged to prompt some Syrians to try to return to their country.
“Despite the severe dangers to survival that are ongoing within Syria, over 60,000 returnees were observed by the UNHCR last year.”
A Syrian success story
Life for Tarek Labbad, 31, took an entirely different turn in Zanzibar. Now the proud owner of Damascus Kitchen in the Kikwajuni neighbourhood in Stone Town, Labbad is determined to call Zanzibar home.
In 2012, he was working in a restaurant in the bustling Al-Hamidiyah market area of Damascus when his father suffered a leg injury after an explosion rocked their home.
I don't exist in the world to touch blood, neither for the government nor opposition. I only want to live a normal life of peace with my family. This is what I need.
Soon after, Labbad says his cousin Mohammed was abducted and taken to Raqqa and decapitated.
He quickly sold his home and car to buy flights to Yemen, where Labbad had worked as a food vendor, with a roving showcase of Syria’s best goods and services that travels throughout Africa and the Middle East.
“I don’t exist in the world to touch blood, neither for the government nor opposition,” Labbad told Al Jazeera. “I only want to live a normal life of peace with my family. This is what I need.”
When Yemen’s civil war broke out in 2015, he moved with his family to Dumiyat, Egypt, where they lived for a short time in government housing among a growing community of nearly 9,000 Syrians.
But intense xenophobia against Syrians refugees prompted Labbad to move to Zanzibar, which he first visited as a vendor in 2008.
Over a bowl of hummus and freshly-baked bread at Damascus Kitchen, Labbad talked shyly about how he met, fell in love with, married and started a family with Khadija, a Moroccan woman.
They met while working at a restaurant in Dar es Salaam, when he first moved to Tanzania.
I'm tired. Enough with Syria. My dream is to have Tanzanian nationality and to stay in Zanzibar until death.
In Zanzibar, he lost track of her until she walked into Stone Town Cafe, where Labbad was cooking Arabic food at the time.
“When I saw [Khadija], I feel like life come to smile down on me again. A new beginning.”
He worked in a few restaurants, but the owners would not commit to his residence and work permit to legalise his status.
A Syrian doctor working in Zanzibar ultimately invested in Labbad’s dream to open his own restaurant in June 2017.
Along the way, he faced financial setbacks, sleeping for three months in the one-room salon that he opened for Khadija, to make ends meet.
Khadija gave birth to their first child in Morocco, but the baby died soon after of complications.
With no Moroccan diplomatic presence in Tanzania, Labbad attempted to visit Khadija via the Moroccan embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but his request was denied and he was sent back to Zanzibar to wait for Khadija’s return.
These losses for countries closing their borders to Syrian refugees could become gains for African countries if they facilitate mobility and access to capital.
Today, Labbad lives with Khadija and their healthy son in a rented flat in Stone Town at $100 a month.
With businesses of their own, they are still in the process of securing two-year residencies and work permits.
Professor Coen pointed out that more than 80 percent of the world’s refugees are currently hosted by developing states, where opportunities are scarce.
“[Yet] African countries hosting Syrian refugees could potentially reap long-term benefits such as expanding consumer markets, innovation, labour supply, and entrepreneurship … These losses for countries closing their borders to Syrian refugees could become gains for African countries if they facilitate mobility and access to capital.”
For Labbad, the answer is clear.
“I’m tired of travel. I’m tired of my Syrian nationality causing me stress. I’m not allowed to go here or there. I’m tired. Enough with Syria.
“My dream is to have Tanzanian nationality and to stay in Zanzibar until death.”