Syrian peace talks: War-weary refugees say they're not interested in empty promises

With thousands of people fleeing Syria each week, UN-led negotiations aimed at ending the country's five-year civil war broke down this month. Though the talks are set to resume in a few weeks, many war-weary refugees in Canada say they're ready to move on.

'Our lives have been on hold for the past 5 years ... I am tired of waiting and I need to settle down'

Children carry bags as Syrians fleeing the embattled city of Aleppo wait in Bab-Al Salama, next to the city of Azaz, near a Turkish crossing gate. Officials say 40,000 Syrian civilians have fled a regime offensive near Aleppo, and Turkey is bracing for a fresh wave of refugees. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

From his small, rented apartment in Coquitlam, B.C., Adel Alzen says he feels a sense of relief at being able to safely walk his three sons to school.

It's a simple task he couldn't do in his native Syria, where the former factory owner from Jobar had to contend with falling mortar shells. 

Alzen arrived in Canada in December, and enrolling his boys in school was a welcome way to put down roots, if bittersweet.

"I thought that leaving Syria was temporary, but the war was going from bad to worse," says Alzen. "Syria is everything to me, it's like my mother."

Ghassan Al Halabi is one of the Syrian refugees who arrived in Toronto last month. (Ghalia Bdiwe/CBC)

The latest round of Syrian peace talks began in Geneva on Jan. 29 — the third attempt to end a civil war that has claimed more than 250,000 lives and displaced an estimated 11 million people.

Just days later, the UN announced a "temporary pause" to the negotiations amid diplomatic bickering and another bout of intensified fighting in Syria.

The talks — with nearly 20 nations taking part — are set to resume later this month. But the abrupt halt to the negotiations signals just how precarious the road to peace in Syria can be.

For Syria's refugees, weary after years of war, promises of peace are having little impact.

"I will believe them only when I see change," Alzen says. "We waited for five years and it's time to turn our backs on the lying politicians."

Hope of going home fades

Fellow Syrian Ghassan Al Halabi says he closely followed the first round of talks, watching the negotiations "with passion." The father of five arrived in Canada last month from Jordan, settling in Toronto.

"We were waiting for the ... outcome, as if that was our green light to go back home. We thought that negotiations were the solution," he says. "But now, after five years of the Syrian war, everything looks different.

"If I [knew] that negotiations would work out, I wouldn't have came to Canada."

The Syria talks are intended to construct a roadmap aimed at ending the country's civil war, which has pitted opposition rebels against the government-backed troops of President Bashar al-Assad.

UN investigators said yesterday detainees held by the Syrian government are dying on a massive scale, conduct that amounts to a state policy of "extermination" of the civilian population.

Negotiators are aiming for a settlement that includes an 18-month timeline for a political transition, including a new constitution and elections, in line with a UN Security Council resolution approved in December.

Mouaz al-Khatib, the former president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, was supposed to attend last week's talks in Geneva. But he withdrew his name from the guest list, telling CBC News he does not agree with "the mechanism of the negotiation."

"Syrian people, in general, are not hopeful any more and that's the reason for the increased number of refugees and displaced people," says al-Khatib. "Both sides in Geneva are imposing their rules on the table and that does not lead negotiations anywhere useful."

Although al-Khatib was one of the first to call for peace talks as the only solution to the Syrian war, he realizes their failure will mean an even higher number of refugees. 

Mouaz al-Khatib, former president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, withdrew his name from the guest list of the Syrian peace talks in Geneva, saying he does not agree with the 'mechanism of the negotiation.' (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

"It's becoming a miserable economic and humanitarian situation to everyone in Syria," al-Khatib says. "Even if negotiations succeed today, we are still going to need more time for people to go back to Syria.

"People are thinking of their children, and they are making serious [changes] in their lives."

'I need to settle down'

Leena Al Shami left Syria four years ago, and hopes to come to Canada as a refugee through the Group of Five sponsorship program. She had a stable life in Syria as an English tutor in the Syrian Virtual University in Damascus.

But fearing the same fate as others who rose up against the Assad regime, Al Shami travelled to Turkey, where she now works in translation, media and humanitarian fields.
Mohamed Alchebli is another Syrian refugee who arrived in Toronto last month. (Ghalia Bdiwe/CBC)

"Our lives have been on hold for the past five years," she says. "But now many of us favour the idea of looking for a better future rather than mourning more.

"I spent the last four years in Turkey thinking that I want to stay close to Syria. An inner voice was telling me 'maybe we'll go back soon, maybe!' But it's different now, I am tired of waiting and I need to settle down."

Even if the Geneva talks were successful, Al Shami says she believes many refugees would take a wait-and-see approach, making sure the next government doesn't turn into another regime.

"We were traumatized and we can't go back before making sure that it is safe," she says. "Assuming that there will be any solution at all."

Searching for optimism

Though watching what is happening in their country is a painful experience for many Syrians, most are still hoping for the best when it comes to the Geneva talks.

"Leaving Syria does not mean that I don't care any more," says Mohamed Alchebli, who fled his home in Aleppo in 2012, heading to Lebanon. 

The father of four arrived in Toronto with his children — aged four, six, nine and 10 — in January.

"I have a family there. Even if I am in Canada now, I cannot stop myself from following up on what's going on back there," he says.

"I came to Canada for a better future for my young children and I know how miserable the situation is back there. I hope that negotiators, this time, take the Syrian crisis more responsibly."

Syrian refugee women sit in front of their tents at the Al Zaatri refugee camp, in the Jordanian city of Mafraq. An estimated 11 million people have been displaced by the country's five-year-long civil war. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)


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