Dire reality of living on the wrong side of the Syrian regime

People gather at a refugee camp in the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija yesterday. Picture: Borce Popovski/AP

Syrians are not leaving their homeland because of IS beheadings, but because they’re victims of unforseen circumstances, writes Donna O’Regan

We opened newspapers and computers last Thursday and were not prepared. A toddler, at first glance, asleep like my son: On his tummy, arms by his side.

I don’t need to describe how it felt to quickly come to the realisation that Aylan Kurdi was not asleep, or to describe the pain in your heart on realising he was dressed for the journey with his little shoes fastened tightly.

We opened the paper and we knew, in the back of our minds that something is going on in Syria. There’s a war. But there’s always a war. Isn’t there? There’s too much going on in the world to keep track of everything. But now, as our focus is on Syria, I would like to set a few things straight.

I have lived and worked in Iraq and Jordan with an international NGO. We work with Syrian refugees and internally displaced Iraqis. The only difference between the two groups is clerical: Whether or not they crossed an international border in their escape. An escape to supposed safety from war: Bombs, torture, murder, kidnapping, and rape. A crossing usually made at night, because the borders are not open. A crossing through no-man’s land — fields laden with explosives, carrying their children and most valuable, portable possessions.

The Syrian refugees I worked with are intelligent, well educated, and well spoken.

They love their husbands and wives. Their children are the centre of their lives.

Many of the Syrians I met cannot apply for visas or access the asylum process because their Syrian- government issued passports cannot or will not be renewed by the Syrian embassy. They are on the ‘wrong’ side of the regime.

Living in tent cities in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, or Iraq, they are trapped in the system with little or no support and little or no hope of improvement.

This article is a response to the questions and tears down the phone from my mother, for “that little child”. I want to explain to her and to the people of Ireland who will open their homes to (hopefully) a lot more than 600 refugees: What happened in Syria? Why are they making these crossings? Why are they taking to the boats, knowing their lives are at risk? It’s not because of Islamic State beheadings.

In 2000, Bashar Al-Assad took over the presidency after his father died in June. The only candidate on the ballot, he ‘won’ 97% of the votes. His father had ruled Syria for 30 years, after assuming power in a coup d’etat.

In 2007, Al-Assad was ‘re-elected’ for a further seven years. Again he was the only candidate. Critics feared to speak openly. They reported mass arrests and clampdowns on democratic movements. Long jail sentences are given to human rights campaigners and government critics.

In the context of the 2011 Arab Spring, the ordinary people of Syria grasped the wave of opportunity they saw in other countries. Nationwide protests were held, starting slowly, but the revolutionary movement grew. Al-Assad authorised his government and army to crackdown, violently.

It has bred an armed resistance which was, for many, unforeseen.

Defecting officers from the SAF created the Free Syrian Army, which is one of the major opposition militia movements. The open civil war that ensured has spawned numerous armed groups, the most adept at using social media and therefore gruesomely famous being IS. The rate of violence and death is shocking, even to those familiar with the results of war.

The UN estimated that more than 220,000 Syrian people have been killed in the conflict up to January of this year.

Fast forward to this month, and the war still rages. It is estimated that 10m people have sought refuge in other countries. More than 2,500 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean to access the asylum process in Europe, many of them Syrian refugees.

When people are massacred for a long time and in large numbers, we become desensitised. The numbers are too big. The photos are too bleak. The videos are too horrifying. More than 10m people have left their homes for good reason, and 220,000 people have been killed. But what does that mean, 220,000 people?

It means 4,500 people being killed every month.

Cut past the numbers and statistics. It means mothers and their newborn infants being crushed under the rubble of their apartment buildings, knocked down by government bombs. It means children poisoned by chemical weapons, as highlighted by this paper as far back as August 2013. It means men being tortured to death in ways indescribable, by torturers on all sides of the war.

We can’t process the continual horror. Unfortunately we need a photo like that of little Aylan to bring our minds back to the core of this issue. Some people say it’s dehumanising to show that photo of him lying dead on the beach. I understand their point, but I think the photo of his tiny body is absolutely humanising. That is why we reacted so strongly.

We are being reminded that sweet little babies like our own are dying, gasping for breath.

I hope the Government will stand for what the Irish people have loudly stated in the past few days: Treat these people like human beings. Give them shelter, food, warmth and respect. Just as we would insist to be treated ourselves.

Donna O’Regan is development worker for an international NGO and has worked in Iraq with Syrian refugees.

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