Syrian refugees seek sanctuary in Italy

​As Syrian families forced to flee the war find increasing hostility in Lebanon, a handful have been offered a new home in northern Italy. The charities behind the “humanitarian corridor” initiative hope it will inspire similar projects in Europe.

Photo by: Abu Rabia
Photo by: Abu Rabia

The Deeb family is originally from Homs, and are among those now living in a building in Trento renovated by Italian NGOs into apartments for Syrian refugees.

TAL ABBAS, Lebanon  When war came to Homs, Mohammed al Hourani fled with his wife and their children to Qusayr, 28 kilometres to the southwest. When pro-Assad forces launched an assault on Qusayr in May 2013, the family fled again, this time seeking safety across the border in northern Lebanon.

All the Hourani family managed to take with them was a bag, containing a few clothes for the winter.

They lost contact with two of their six children in the fighting.

“Living in war means seeing children who died under the bombs,” Hourani said. “It means going to the mosque to pray and come back home wounded. It means seeing your relatives and neighbors dead under the rubble.”  

The family sought refuge in the village of Tal Abbas, and stayed there for  three and a half years. They lived in a small makeshift camp, along with 30 other families.

“In Lebanon there is no work for Syrians,” Mohammed al Hourani said, sitting in his tent.

That was March 2016. A few weeks later, he and his family would be on a plane to Italy, to begin a new life there.

Evan Ahmed Deeb is also from Homs, where he worked as a professional welder before the war. Deeb lived in the Tal Abbas camp for four years, and his family has likewise been resettled in Italy in recent months.

“During the war we lived for 28 days in the water pipes to protect us. I will never forget those twenty-eight days. I will never forget the faces of my wife and my children,” he said, in an interview with TRT World during his final days in Lebanon.

“But since we are here, we must fight against the empty time, poverty and hunger.”

Since the beginning of the Syrian war six years ago, the flow of refugees across the border has been unstoppable. There are now over 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, according to official estimates — some 232 Syrians for every 1,000 people (In Germany, by comparison, there are only 2 Syrians per 1,000).

“If it were not for the Italian humanitarian visas, I would have been one of the thousands of refugees on rafts. I would have risked my life with my family, paying a smuggler, to seek a better life.”

That means refugees like the Hourani family, who were already struggling to rebuild their lives in precarious conditions, were facing the added hardship of growing xenophobia in Lebanon.

Hourani worked odd jobs for low wages, and says Lebanese employers often did not pay him at all.

“They tell us that we steal their work, they are increasingly racist and they accuse us of stealing their money and their land,” he said. “But I sleep in a tent and I pay a rent of $40 per month. I no longer have dignity.”

Until war came to Homs, Hourani owned a grocery store and easily supported his family. Now he doesn’t even know if his two children, still trapped in Syria, are even alive.

In Tal Abbas, Hourani had been trying to make do as best he could, opening a small shop in the camp. But groups of Lebanese youths sporadically threatened the displaced Syrians, setting fire to some of the tents where they lived. They also destroyed part of the camp.

For Deeb, the hardship and long-term unemployment drove him to consider risking a dangerous sea journey for the family to escape to Europe.

“When we arrived [in Tal Abbas], we thought of staying a few months, a year at most,” he said. “We remained close to the border because we wanted to come back home, but we lost all hope of that.”

“If it were not for the Italian humanitarian visas, I would have been one of the thousands of refugees on rafts. I would have risked my life with my family, paying a smuggler, to seek a better life.”

Instead of going through smugglers, however, both the Deeb and the Hourani families were among 30 Syrian families from Tal Abbas who obtained Italian humanitarian visas under a “humanitarian corridor” initiative. Now they are adjusting to life in Italy.

Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, meaning it does not officially recognise the refugee status of displaced Syrians. This is also one of the reasons why there are no permanent camps, only thousands of makeshift camps across the country.

"There are roughly 3,000 informal camps throughout Lebanon,” said Joseph Malouf, of the Beyond Association, one of the largest Lebanese NGOs working with the refugees.

Civil society groups have trouble tracking some of the newer camps as they pop up, Malouf said. Some Syrians pay private Lebanese landlords to use their land but aren’t provided with basic services, like drinking water or electricity.

“Rent can range from $30 up to a hundred for month, and it’s difficult for a family to afford such high rent,” Malouf said.  "The men would like to work. But often they cannot.”

The Syrians’ difficulties increased in January 2015, when the Lebanese government also tightened the rules on Syrians working. Any Syrian wishing to work in Lebanon must have an invitation and pay a fee of about $300 a year — a rate that is simply unaffordable for many.

It doesn’t stop unregistered work, however, and many Syrian children are being put to work in the agricultural fields for a mere $4 to 6 a day, according to Malouf. The pervasive issue of child labour in Lebanon led the International Labor Organization to launch a campaign against it in 2016.

A new life

In March 2016, the Houranis, the Deebs and another thirty families took a flight from Beirut to Rome.

They are the first case of a “humanitarian corridor” in Europe, a  project organised by Italian charitable groups including the Sant'Egidio Catholic Community, the Federation of Protestant Churches and the Waldesian Table in Italy. The Italian government is backing the initiative, but it is funded entirely by private individuals.

“We felt obliged to do something for people fleeing war and who have the right to seek safety and a better future,” Maria Quinto, who oversees the humanitarian corridor initiative for the Sant'Egidio community, told TRT World. “We hope this could be a model for other European countries."

Syrian refugees in Trento taking Italian lessons being run for their community. (Abu Rabia for TRT World)

Today, the families from Tal Abbas live in the cities of Trento and Turin, in northern Italy. The refugee camps in the Akkar region seem distant.

Instead of waking up in tents, the Deeb and Hourani families now live in the security provided by four walls. The three organisations arranged for an old church building in Trento that was no longer in use to be renovated and turned into small apartments.

Their children are attending school in the town, and even the adults are attending Italian language courses twice a week, run by volunteers. They enjoy the peace of mind that having legal residency permits.

“Now our life is  better compared to Lebanon because we no longer live in fear,” Mohammed al Hourani said. “If someone stops us here we just have to show the residence permit, while in the Middle East you could be arrested for petty reasons.”

The local authorities have taken steps to help encourage good relations between the Syrian refugees and their new community.

“During the first few weeks we held many meetings with citizens, so the Syrians explained to them why they fled and why they were here in Italy,” said Mattia Civico, a counselor in the province of Trento. “After that, many citizens have volunteered their time to help them to settle.”

Many of the Syrians have found work in agriculture and have been working in the grape harvest. Some women spend their time as volunteers in a shop in Trento, where they work as seamstresses.

Still, Syria is never far from their minds. Last December, during the last days of the offensive on Aleppo, these families were following the events on television with alarm.

"We never thought that Syria could turn into such a long and vicious war,” Hourani said. "I can not stop thinking about my sons. A father should not ask himself every day if his sons are alive or not.”

Like many refugees the world over, he hopes his life in exile, however comfortable, will only be temporary.

“We are grateful to Italy but we are far from our country and then we are missing a part; our land,” he said last week. “I hope to be able to return home, even if it were the last day of my life.”

Ahmed Deeb, meanwhile, has abandoned hope of ever returning to Syria.

“When I think of the future now, I no longer hope to come back in Syria. I just hope that my grandchildren can study and sleep peacefully like all children of the world.”

AUTHOR: Francesca Mannocchi