For many Syrian refugees, fleeing to Europe isn't the answer

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have been watching with mixed emotions as relatives and neighbours flee Syria's civil war in search of better, safer lives in Europe.

Asylum-seekers in Turkey say they want to see Assad routed and to return home

Many Syrian refugees have found work, such as this produce vendor, across the border in Turkey and don't want to uproot to Europe. Others are sticking around because they hope to return to their nearby homes once the Syrian civil war ends. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have been watching with mixed emotions as relatives and neighbours flee Syria's civil war in search of better, safer lives in Europe.

Some, such as Abdul Sawais, are envious. "I know there are many Syrians now heading [to Europe], but I cannot afford it. I have no financial means, and I also do not have the energy to make that terrible journey."

Sawais brought his wife and five young children to Kilis, a city just north of Turkey's border with Syria, three years ago after the family's home in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, was flattened by a government airstrike.

"My house was destroyed three years ago. There is no place to live like your own country. But we had to come here," he said.

Wadat al-Moustafa and her daughter, Nour Abdoul, take a pail to fill up the drinking water in the kitchen of their small apartment in Kilis, Turkey. They fled from Aleppo 2½ years ago and cannot afford to go to Europe. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

But Europe isn't the answer for many Syrians, who say the journey through Turkey, into Greece and north toward Germany or Sweden is not only too dangerous, it risks weakening Syria even further.

And signals defeat.

"The problem here won't be solved if thousands of people move to Canada or other countries," said Mohammed Darwish, a mechanical engineer who brought his family from Aleppo to Kilis earlier this year. 

"We will only fix this — only end the war — when we get rid of Bashar al-Assad…. They need to give us weapons so we can take on Bashar al-Assad and win."

Darwish said a strike by Syrian President Assad's air force killed his teenaged daughter and left his youngest child with permanent head injuries. 

'We cannot afford to go'

The hatred of the Assad regime pierces the somewhat festive atmosphere that signals market day in Kilis, along a once-deserted street that is now home to fruit sellers and shoe vendors.

But more than 4½ years after Syria's civil war began, Assad and his regime show no sign of falling. And as the battles between government forces, ISIS and more secular Syrian rebel groups continue, so does one of the largest migrations since the Second World War.

More than half of Syria's prewar population of 21 million has fled the fighting; eight million are displaced inside of Syria. Four million have left the country all together.

A Syrian refugee who used to sell produce in Aleppo has moved his shop across the border to Kilis, into a neighbourhood where nearly all the residents are Syrian asylum-seekers. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

That mass exodus has changed cities such as Kilis. Its 90,000 Turkish residents are now eclipsed by the estimated 100,000 Syrians who live in Kilis, many in small, dirty apartments where men, women and children sleep on thin foam mattresses on concrete floors.

Wadat al-Moustafa has a television in her apartment but cannot turn it on, because she can't afford electricity. Still, she's been paying close attention to large numbers of her fellow Syrians who have made their way to Europe.

Moustafa, however, will not be joining them. "My husband just found work here in Turkey. So he must stay. We cannot afford to go to Europe," she told CBC News.

'I'm scared here'

It can cost as much as 2,500 Euros ($3,750) per person to travel from Syria to Germany — fees that are well out of reach for many poorer Syrian refugees who have little choice but to remain in Turkey.

Moustafa's brother-in-law recently made the treacherous journey to Europe and is now living in Germany. The mother of two says that's all her 11-year-old daughter, Nour, has been talking about recently.

"I want to leave here and go to Germany. We've heard that ISIS is going to become more dangerous here in Turkey in the coming days, so it will be safer for us to go to Germany," Nour said, surrounded by her friends. "I'm scared here."

Tisam Ahwali, an English teacher from northern Syria, said she's followed international news reports that some countries, including Canada and the United States, are preparing to welcome more Syrian refugees.

Awhali said her family will not be signing up. "We want to stay here because [Turkey] is a Muslim country and it's near our country."

She added that finding a temporary home a few dozen kilometres away from her village has another advantage: being able to move back home quickly when the war ends.

The problem is, she has no clue when that might be.


Read more about the refugee crisis:

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

CBC News Middle East correspondent

Derek Stoffel is the Middle East correspondent for CBC News. He has covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war and covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.

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