The search for safety: A Syrian tale

The search for safety: A Syrian tale

Follow along as one refugee family travels from Syria to Lebanon to Italy to escape violence in their homeland. 

The stories we most often hear about Syrian refugees are of those who embarked on perilous and illegal journeys to reach safe haven in Europe. This is not that kind of story. This is a story about what happens when the international community lends a hand so those who are already vulnerable can find a home without further risking their lives.    

Life in the midst of conflict

Petite, bright-eyed Fatem remembers the fear she felt when war broke out in her hometown of Raqqa. She still shivers at the thought. “We were living in the heart of the conflict,” she recalls. “Every time we kissed each other goodnight we thought it could be the last time.” 

Due to the conflict, her husband Khalil couldn´t work. Money was tight. They were expecting their first child, but couldn’t see a doctor. They made do with water and supply shortages, but the final straw came after their son Ahmed was born. They needed to buy him milk, but there was none available for purchase. “That was the moment when we clearly realized we couldn´t stay in Syria anymore,” says Khalil. He decided to go to Lebanon to find a job and a place to live – his young family would join him later. 

One of their most prized possession is a photo album showing their happy days in Syria: their wedding, their parents, the beautiful house they lived in, and the land Khalil used to work. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Troubled start in Lebanon

Khalil spent his first night in Lebanon sleeping on the street. It was a sign that nothing in this country would be easy.

For four years, the family struggled to make ends meet in Lebanon, a small country with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. Seventy percent of Syrian refugees there live below the poverty line. Khalil worked as an electrician, a plumber, and a painter; despite all this, he had to take out loans to feed his family, which increased in size with the arrival of Mohamed, who is now a year old. 

The family lived in a small, dark, cramped room in a town in Mount Lebanon, an hour away from Beirut. The rent there is lower than in the capital. “In the beginning, the floor was bare earth and the roof was leaking,” says Khalil. “The landlord refused to fix it.” Their kitchen was outside, where it was hard to cook, especially during the freezing, snowy winters. The children fell ill often and Fatem developed an allergy, leading to a persistent cough and bouts of vomiting.

The promise of a new life

Khalil learned from a neighbor that it was a possible to travel to Italy with a humanitarian visa – a safe and legal way to reach Europe. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Through a neighbor, they learned of an opportunity to find asylum in Italy. The family met with Italian organizations working on securing humanitarian visas for Syrian refugees through an initiative called “Humanitarian Corridors.” The program was established by the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy to avoid deaths at sea and human trafficking. The Italian government has agreed to receive 1,000 refugees in two years from the program.

At first, Fatem was skeptical. But, after a few interviews, the family received news that they had been chosen. Syrian refugees must meet a number of criteria to be granted a humanitarian visa. A key criterion is that they are in a vulnerable situation; this includes families with young children—like Fatem and Khalil’s—single mothers, the elderly, and the sick.

Starting over, again

The night before the flight, Khalil and Fatem couldn’t sleep. They were leaving behind all those they had shared the last four years with: their cousin’s family, who welcomed them into their home during their first month and shared with them what little they had, and their neighbors, most of them also Syrian. 

Above all, they were moving farther away from their home, Syria. This journey would take them far away from their loved ones, their culture, and their land.

One final obstacle

The journey took 24 hours, starting at 4 a.m. in Beirut and ending in the city of Cecina in the middle of Tuscany. During the bus trip from Rome, they discovered that they would have to share a flat with another Syrian refugee family. This news left them anxious and confused.

In Italy, Oxfam is hosting families in the Tuscany region for the duration of their asylum process. Upon arrival, Oxfam staff assured the family that this was a temporary measure. Renting property as refugees would be tricky, but they would eventually have their own home.

Fatem prepares tea for the family, keeping their traditions alive as they settle in Italy. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

A place to call home

Two Oxfam social workers led them to their temporary home: a sunny flat with a garden, a big living room with an attached kitchen, three bedrooms, central heating, a washing machine, and a TV.

Via a translator, the family learned that they would receive money every month to buy food, medicine, and other essentials for six months. They would also have Wi-Fi in the apartment and home-based Italian language lessons so that they wouldn’t have to leave their children. The family would also receive help to apply for asylum and look for jobs. At the end of the six months, they would be considered self-sufficient.

“I never imagined we would end up living in Italy,” comments Khalil as he tunes into an Arabic TV channel to get the latest news from Syria. “I thought the war would only last for two or three years, but the situation just gets worse. I hope people in Europe don’t think we are terrorists or extremists. We are here because we are running away from the conflict.” Fatem adds: “We want a future for our children. That is why we are willing to learn a new language and adapt to different customs.”

“Of course we will go back to Syria when the war ends,” says Fatem. “But if a long time passes and my children feel established here, we will only go back to visit. The stability of our family comes first.”

In Italy, Oxfam is participating in the “Humanitarian Corridors” initiative to help Syrians find refuge in Europe without endangering their lives. In 2017, we aim to support 500 people from different regions currently located in Lebanon, Morocco, and Ethiopia.

However, there are still thousands of refugees stuck in Lebanon and elsewhere. Join us in setting them up for a better life.

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Oxfam International is a recommended charity of The Life You Can Save. Oxfam is a confederation of 17 organizations working to create sustainable and effective solutions to extreme poverty, global hunger, and injustice.

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The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.