Flight from Syria: Refugee Stories


BBC 2 are showing a two-part documentary on Syria later this week, and hopefully that’ll give some more historical background to the conflict. In the meantime, this short book (well, collection of articles) is available free for Kindle at the moment, and gives some basic pointers, especially about the complex demographics of the country, how that demographic mix has probably been broken permanently, and how it impacts on the attitudes of other countries.

Most of the books I’ve read about the area have been about either the Crusades or the Ottomans, which are both interesting topics but, even with the Ottoman period, don’t help that much in understanding what’s going on at the moment, which I think everyone needs to try to do. I was mainly looking for some more information about the different ethnic and religious groups within Syria, as background information.  A few other general points from these articles, though.  One important point is that many Syrian families have six or more children, so many of the refugees are children, which, apart from being particularly upsetting, creates additional practical problems in terms of the need for schooling.  Another, as has often been pointed out in the media, is that this is a different sort of refugee crisis to those seen in Africa and elsewhere: most refugees are arriving by car, with a number of possessions, and, whilst there are many people living in refugee camps, the majority of them are living in towns, cities and villages.

Some parts of the book are very critical of other countries, especially the countries closest to Syria, for not having done more to help, but other parts acknowledge that this is an impossible situation for everyone. Lebanon in particular, Jordan and to some extent Turkey all have their own problems, and are not equipped to deal with an influx of refugees on this scale.  It criticises some Western countries, praises others, criticises Russia and makes no mention of the Gulf states.

The demographics, then. Apparently, due to the types of questions asked and not asked during censuses, no-one’s entirely sure of the demographics of pre-war Syria.  In terms of religion, it’s well-known that the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, and that was about 77% of people, whilst Assad and the most of the others in positions of power are Alawite Muslims, and that group represented about 12% of the population, with 8% being Christian and 3% Druze.  Syria had a sizeable Jewish community at one time, but, due to hostility because of poor relations with Israel, most Syria Jews had emigrated by the mid-1990s.  In terms of ethnolinguistics, about 85% were Arabic speakers, 9% Kurdish speakers … and that presumably left 6% speaking various other languages.

There were, and are, a lot of minority groups. Many of the survivors of the Armenian genocide settled in Syria, especially in Aleppo which had had an Armenian community since the eleventh century, and their descendants have lived there since.  They’re mainly Oriental Orthodox, Their heritage is Western Armenian, from the area of historic Armenia now part of Turkey, so there are cultural differences from the (former Soviet) Republic of Armenia, but many Syrian Armenians have fled there.  And they’re being welcomed there, because they’re generally quite well-to-do and well-educated, and Armenia needs that.  This hasn’t really been reported here. I’ve always been interested in Armenia, so I’d’ve picked up on it if it had.  However (this is according to Wikipedia, which I turned to for further information!), some of the refugees have settled in the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is causing issues with Azerbaijan.  So Armenia and Azerbaijan are both being affected, and that’s something we’ve heard next to nothing about.  And, with Armenia welcoming Syrian Armenians, it seems unlikely that many of them will return, so that’s going to be a permanent change in the demographic make-up of Syria.

Then there are the Turkmens. They sound as if they should have arrived with Baybars, during the Crusades, but most of them are actually descended from Turks who settled in Syria during Ottoman times.  They’re mainly Sunnis, but some are Alevis – not to be confused with Alawites.  Turkmen refugees have generally headed for Turkey, and so have many Arab and Kurdish refugees.  Turkey, being mainly Sunni, isn’t keen on Assad, but its main concern at the moment is the Kurdish question.

The Kurds have been let down over and over again. That’d be a very long article in itself.  And, whilst the Assad regime claimed to be supported by minorities – one reason why hostility towards groups like Armenians has grown since the war began – it actively discriminated against Kurds, who weren’t even supposed to speak Kurdish or to give their children Kurdish names.  The breakdown in authority has freed Syria’s Kurds from those restrictions – but at what horrendous cost?   Many of them have fled to Turkey or Iraq, both of which are countries with a history of discriminating against Kurds, or worse.  And, of course, Turkey’s attacked Kurdish areas of Syria.  What a mess.

The uprising must have originally given particular hope to the Kurds. It also gave hope to various other sections of the population mentioned in the book – gay people, who hoped that it might bring about the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Syria, and women who disliked feeling obliged to wear a hijab as the Assad regime became more religiously conservative.  It all began in hope.

So did the Kurdish uprising in Iraq, after the Gulf War. Some of the Kurds in Syria were refugees from that conflict.  There’s a lot of talk in the book about “double refugees” – especially Palestinians.  Jordan, which has such a large Palestinian population already and is concerned about its own demographics, has been particularly reluctant to admit Syrian Palestinians – some of whom are actually treble refugees, having come to Syria to escape the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s. Lebanon, quite understandably so after its own years of civil war, and with its delicate sectarian balance between different Christian and Muslim groups, is even more concerned about the impact of admitting large numbers of mainly Sunni Muslim Syrians and Palestinians – but, even so, has taken in around one million refugees into an existing population of only around four million.

There are smaller groups, too. Assyrians, mainly speaking Aramaic.  Sounds so Biblical.  They’re mainly Christian – some are Oriental Orthodox, others belong to a Nestorian church set up in the 1960s.  Yazidis, whose counterparts in Iraq have been so horrifically persecuted by Islamic State.  Circassians, mainly descended from people who fled to Ottoman Syria during the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the nineteenth century – and many of whom have taken refuge in the Circassian areas (the peaceful ones, not Chechnya or Dagestan) of the Russian Federation.  Greeks, both Muslims and Christians.  Yarmouks, of African descent.

A lot of things in Syria are very badly broken, and this is about people in general, and people as individuals, not about an ethnolinguistic/ethnoreligious mix. But there was that mix, and it’s broken now.  People interviewed in the various articles in the book speak about the days when people had friends and neighbours from different backgrounds – different “millets”, to use the Ottoman term.  It’s reminiscent of comments made by people speaking about their lives in Northern India before the violence that accompanied Partition, or in Bosnia-Herzegovina before the war there in the 1990s.  Wars do end.  The one in Bosnia-Herzegovina did.  The one in Lebanon did.  The one in Syria will, eventually.  But you can never return to the status quo ante.  Do countries ever get over civil wars?  Spain hasn’t, after 80 years.  America certainly hasn’t, after over 150 years.  Are we still dealing with issues from the seventeenth century.  You can certainly argue that we are.

This is a collection of articles, rather than one continuous narrative. Some of the language is very … casual, for lack of a better word.  And it’s very short.  But it does make you think about aspects of the situation in Syria and its neighbours which you might not have thought about before.  Read it – it’s worth it.  And well done to BBC 2 for commissioning the forthcoming documentary, as well.  It’s such a complex situation, with so many different groups involved, and so many other countries affected as well, and it’s difficult to try to get your head round it all.   I could do with some historical novels about Syria, but I’m struggling to find any, other than either those set during ancient times or those about the Crusades and told from a European viewpoint, which aren’t really what I’m after.  I have got a 900 page book on the subject waiting to be read, but I really haven’t got time to tackle it at the moment (and my book mountain already makes Mount Everest look like an anthill) … but this one’s very short, and well worth a read.

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