'We lost everything': After 7 years of war, Syrian refugee families can only dream of returning home

Two families separated by the Syrian war wonder when and if they can ever be reunited, writes Derek Stoffel.

Syrian president in stronger position thanks to military backing from Russia and Iran

Omar Almouisati, second from left, and his family fled Syria in 2012 and are now staying in a small apartment in Amman, Jordan. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

As the devastating war in Syria enters its eighth year, countless families have been separated — including two cousins who grew up together in Damascus and now live on opposite sides of the globe.

Amani Sulaiman and her family recently resettled in Canada. Meanwhile, her cousin Omar Almouisati and his family are currently stuck in Jordan.

Almouisati, his wife and three daughters fled Syria in late 2012, as bombs rained down on the neighbourhood they were living in near Damascus. A few months later, Sulaiman decided to follow her cousin. The two families lived in Jordan, but only the  Sulaimans were granted refugee protection in Canada.

Both families have watched as Russian and Iranian forces have helped turn the tide in favour of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and are left wondering how Assad's resilience will not only affect their chances for reunification, but what it holds for the future of the country.

Neither Sulaiman nor Almouisati hold out much hope that the war will end soon. Moreover, they worry there will be nothing to return home to when that happens.

"There were no benefits at all to this war," said Sulaiman. "Our youth — they were like flowers — and now they're gone. We lost everything."

Amani Sulaiman, left, and her family are among the 50,930 Syrians who have resettled in Canada. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

A country on the run

While the United Nations has stopped counting the casualties, it's thought that nearly half a million Syrians have been killed in the civil war.

The conflict began with peaceful street protests on March 15, 2011, in support of young Syrian boys who were detained and tortured after scrawling graffiti in support of the Arab Spring uprisings spreading through Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. 

Assad ordered a crackdown, and the violence eventually grew into an opposition effort to try to force him out.

The Sulaimans and Almouisatis are among the 5.6 million Syrians who have fled their country since the first protests in 2011. Most of those refugees have settled in the Middle East or Europe.

The war has driven another 6.1 million Syrians from their homes inside the country, which means the violence has displaced just over half of Syria's prewar population of 22 million.

While both families have escaped the immediate danger of the war, the pain of the ongoing destruction of their country haunts them almost daily.

Rescue workers help a man from a shelter in Eastern Ghouta, an area of Syria that has seen some of the most intense bombing in recent months. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

Almouisati lived in Eastern Ghouta for a number of years, and still has many friends in that area, where the latest tragic chapter of the conflict is playing out.

Airstrikes by Syria's military and clashes with opposition forces there have left more than 1,000 people dead in the last month, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Almouisati spends hours on his smartphone watching clips posted from his old neighbourhood, near Damascus. "It's very tragic, it's very sad to watch these videos," he said.

But the siege of Eastern Ghouta reassures him that the difficult decision to flee Syria was the right one.

"If we did not leave, we would now be living the life of those who stayed — every time someone leaves their house, they have to say goodbye to their family, because they may never come back," he said.

Will Assad stay?

Seven years later, the war has pulled in numerous other countries, with forces from Russia, Iran, the United States, Turkey and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah active in the fighting.

With military help from Russia and Iran, Assad is no longer on the verge of defeat. Instead, his position is more secure than ever, and it's expected that his forces, in time, will regain most of the territory lost to opposition fighters and jihadist groups, such as ISIS.

Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, predicts that Moscow and Tehran could clash in the coming months over how Syria will be governed.

Analysts say that the forces of Russian President Vladimir Putin have had a large hand in preserving the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

"The Iranians are invested in making sure that the Assad regime stays in place — and Assad himself — which can't be said about the Russians," Momani said. "I think the Russians want the regime, but not necessarily Assad."

The Syrian leader faces another serious challenge — namely, the presence of local militias in various parts of the country that will make it difficult for the government to reassert control.

"Assad is able to retake territory, but the challenge is he's unable to consolidate legitimacy or governance in the territory he reclaimed, partly because warlords have basically taken over the job of governing these areas," Momani said.

'We are alone here'

Sulaiman is watching this complex, seemingly unending conflict unfold from Toronto, where she currently lives. Her four children are going to school here while she learns English.

"My whole life has changed. You can't imagine how happy I am," Sulaiman said. "You're talking about Canada… you feel like you're a human being, you have rights."

"The only sadness I feel here is that Omar isn't with me," Sulaiman said.

In Jordan, Omar Almouisati spends his days trying to make money taking odd jobs as an electrician while worrying that his young daughters are missing out on an education. He and his wife had their fourth daughter in Amman, where they currently live in a tiny apartment.
Omar Almouisati's youngest daughter, Rose, is seen during a Skype conversation with Amani Sulaiman, a relative living in Toronto. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"My children only go to school now in the afternoons," he said. "They are not learning anything. I want them to get a good education so they have a good life."

"We feel very depressed," said Almouisati. "We are alone here, we have no family here. Our only family is Amani [Sulaiman], and she left, so we don't have much."

Despite poor internet service in Jordan, the two families try to bridge the time zones by coming together on Skype, where Sulaiman updates the Almouisatis on her efforts to relocate them to Canada.

But both families know it will not be easy.

Canada continues to resettle refugees from Syria, with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada telling CBC News that family reunification is "a priority" for the government. But only spouses and children are eligible — not cousins.

"God willing, I'll see him again," said Sulaiman. "Loneliness is hard. You can't imagine how hard it is."

"I want them to come to me. I'm not asking for a miracle, I swear, I'm not asking for a miracle."

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he 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.

With files from CBC's Kira Wakeam