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Sep 13, 2015 4:06 PM

Syrian refugees' misery fuels desperation to reach Europe

The Associated Press

DEIR ZANOUN, Lebanon (AP) Both women fled Syria after their normal lives were destroyed in the country's civil war. Both are desperate to start a new life and see Europe as their best hope. But their fortunes are a world apart.

In the Jordan capital Amman, Amena Abomosa her husband dead, her mother stricken with cancer is one of the few lucky ones. She and her family received a rare visa from France and she is packing to fly to Paris on Monday. That allows her to reach her dream without enduring the harrowing sea crossing and exhausting land trek that tens of thousands of migrants have endured this year.

In Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Rim Helal is willing to risk that arduous, dangerous journey. But, among the poorest of the Syrian refugees across the region, she and her family can't afford to pay a smuggler.

"We are ready to take risks. We are fed up with life," said the 25-year-old Helal, sitting on the floor of her tent, her 17-month old son Mohammed in her lap, and husband Ghazi Helal sitting next to her. "Maybe life there is better than here."

They've been living in a tiny make-shift camp here for more than three years. Her husband is jobless and their food aid is being reduced. She doesn't have money to buy medicine for Mohammed, who is suffering from a cold. She says sometimes she feels so miserable she asks herself why she even brought the child into the world.

More than 250,000 people have reached Greece so far this year in a dramatic rise from last year, the vast majority arriving by boat to islands from the nearby Turkish coast. It's the first step in their journey across the continent to Western Europe as they flee war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

The unending misery of the approximately 4 million Syrian refugees scattered around Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other Arab nations is one significant factor in the rise. With the Syrian civil war in its fifth year, they have little hope of returning home, and for many the situation in exile is worsening. Because of lack of funding, for example, the World Food Program has had to strike hundreds of thousands of refugees off its rolls for monthly vouchers to buy food, and for some others the payment has been reduced to $13 a month.

Lebanon hosts more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees equivalent to a quarter of the country's entire population. But there are no formal camps here, so unofficial encampments have cropped up in fields or abandoned construction sites. While somewhat better-off refugees find other accommodations, the poorest end up in the encampments, relying on diminishing U.N. cash and food vouchers to survive.

Syrians often complain of discrimination in Lebanon, and some towns have imposed curfews forcing any refugees to leave at night.

"We came here (from Syria) thinking that Lebanon is better. It was not," said Ibrahim Mahmoud who lives in a tent with his wife, three sons and daughter since they fled from the northern province of Aleppo more than three years ago. "I am ready to take risks in the sea even if I die but I have no money."

In Amman, Abomosa sees hope. The 43-year-old widow, her three kids and her mother were packed days before their flight. Along with clothes, books, photos of her deceased husband and some sand from Damascus as a memento, she's taking a pile of documents detailing her family's tragedy and resilience.

The war exploded into the family's life on July 20, 2012 when a sniper shot her husband, Abdul-Razzaq Mardini as he stooped to help a child wounded in a street battle in the capital Damascus. The scene was filmed then broadcast on an Arab TV station before going viral. Both died that day that marked the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Soon government forces were knocking on Abomosa's door, in the middle of the night at times, accusing her dead husband of terrorism, she said. She said they made her sign a document absolving the government of guilt, declaring her husband's death natural.

She and her family fled their home to a friend's house after one of the security forces commanders in the area commented on the beauty of one of her teen daughters. She occasionally went to her house to gather items until on one visit, government troops stormed the house, crushing her beneath the glass and metal front door as they walked across it to enter.

A month later, still recovering from her injuries, she sold her gold jewelry and fled for Jordan, using the money to bribe her way through Syrian checkpoints along the way. In Amman, she could afford to rent a room on a rooftop, as she struggled to find international help to continue treatment of her own injuries and resume chemotherapy for her mother.

With a bachelor's degree, Abomosa was ineligible for UNHCR assistance, and her children between 12 and 18 too old for some types of aid. For a few months, she got WFP food vouchers worth up to $34 a month per person but her family lost those when the organization first began cutbacks in October 2014.

She worked at a beauty salon for a month but quit when the owner wouldn't pay her the salary of about $100. Her 18-year-old daughter Isra had to leave a job tutoring a Jordanian boy when his family paid with stale food, a piece of chocolate or half a dinar a day about 70 cents.

She applied for France's direct settlement program. It was a long shot. But with four binders of documents backing her story of her husband's death, her suffering at the hands of security forces and her mother's illness, she was convincing in the interview, she said. In February, the embassy told her it would bring her to France, provide health care for her mother, enroll her children in school, help her find work, and, if she wanted, provide for her continued education.

It is a gift she has every intention of paying back.

"A good person is one who gives as much as she takes," she said. "Educate my children, and in exchange people will become productive and society will take from them. ... I do not want to only take something. I will start my own project, I will work. I'm eager."

In Beirut, dozens of Syrians stood in a long line outside the German Embassy on Friday, applying for visas in hopes of reaching Europe legally a process that can take months with no guarantee of success.

Others see no hope except in the illegal journey. In the Lebanese village of Deir Zanoun, Rima Obeid said she is ready to take the risk. She, her husband and two children struggle to find food and water.

"Whatever God wants will happen and we will die whether here or in the sea," the 26-year-old said, sitting on a plastic bucket with her 10-month-old daughter, Waad, in her lap.


McNeil reported from Amman, Jordan. Associated Press journalists Hussein Malla in Beirut and Karin Laub in Amman contributed to this report.


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