News Analysis

Thursday 18 September 2014

Jason O’Brien: So life's hard in recession hit Ireland? Here's the story of a man who's just thankful to still be alive

Reporting from Syria

Published 12/04/2013 | 05:00

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Living through the heartache in a refugee camp

IN Ireland we are, of course, familiar with a boom-to-bust scenario, with many wallowing in it for the past five years. Muhamed Ali Shaeheen (30) has his own boom-to-bust story.

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"The aerial bombardment had been pretty regular for two nights so we were afraid what we might find when we went back to our home," the father of three young boys recalls.

"It was destroyed by a bomb, and there had been a fire. We lost everything, but thankfully my family was safe."

That was just before Christmas, in a Syrian town in the central district of Hama.

Muhamed had previously worked importing and exporting clothes, and the three-bedroom home was air-conditioned and had many of the modern conveniences familiar to Westerners.

Like some of the worst-affected by our own boom and bust, he bought in 2007, although he doesn't have a mortgage.

Wishful thinking for many, perhaps, but even the most financially put-upon would be hard-pressed to describe Muhamed as fortunate.

With no house, and fearful that the security forces were searching for him because relatives were involved in peaceful protests against the government, he fled with his family to Turkey.

The most important thing he was able to bring was his mobile phone, something that will resonate with many Irish 30-year-olds, but for different reasons. "Sometimes the signal is good and I can talk with family and friends still in Syria," he says. "I have photographs on it too."

Among the photos is one of a female cousin who was killed by a sniper loyal to President Bashar al-Assad after attending an anti-government demonstration.

Of course, we too complain bitterly, loudly – and often accurately – about government policy.

But, being facetious for a moment, while Enda may seem intent on boring you into unconsciousness with his plans for small business, he is not going to have you killed if you march against austerity.

Five months on from entering Turkey with "one suitcase and no blankets", Muhamed's family has become one of the Syrian "coping class".

We know about the coping classes in Ireland – those middle-income families fearful of the impact of the property tax, energy costs, water charges and septic tank charges on their ability to meet mortgage and childcare costs. They have a valid point, and are not shy about ensuring it is heard.

The Syrian coping class is also predominately made up of middle-income families – or what were once middle-income families. But there the comparison ends.

"Coping" for them means not having live an official refugee camp in another country – unlike the 1.7 million Syrians already living in these camps, some in very poor conditions, and with UN funding rapidly running out.

Instead, the Syrian coping class who fled are "getting by" in neighbouring countries, relying on savings and donations from family or surviving on scraps of work.

Muhamed has a little work "trading" in the border town of Reyhanli. It is enough to feed his family.

They have secured a space on the floor of a shelter in a derelict building that now houses 600 others "getting by".

His wife sleeps on a mattress, but their one suitcase is under it because there is no other space.

"We are trying to be patient," he says. "People now are equal – there are no rich and no poor. We hope for better, but we know it could be worse."

It looks that way for another 3.6 million Syrians forced from their homes but unable or unwilling to leave the country.

The revolution of 2011 to oust Assad is becoming an increasingly sectarian conflict – pitting the majority Sunni Muslims against the minority Shias – and increasingly deadly, with 6,000 killed last month.

There was confirmation this week from Iran that the prominent "rebel" group fighting in Syria is al-Nusra, a faction of al-Qa'ida, which hopes to establish a hard-line Islamic Syrian state when – or if – Assad is ousted.

This has reawakened fears that the conflict will morph again, this time into a proxy war, with the likes of Israel, Lebanon, China, Russia and the US possibly getting involved, potentially increasing the death toll exponentially.

You must admit it tops concerns over whether the Irish economy will return to growth this year.

EVEN now, away from the battle and in a "liberated area" of northern Syria, the reality in a dilapidated school in Harem where about 120 people from a village 50km away are living is no electricity or plumbing, little running water and food costs that are eating into their dwindling savings.

Mazen, the leader of the group of working- and middle-class families, is hopeful of a return to their bombarded village and former comforts at some stage.

"It is no way for families, for young children, to live, preparing food close to where the bathroom is and with no running water," he says.

Again, without wishing to sound too preachy, it arguably gives another viewpoint ahead of the likely hysterical debates on the introduction of water charges and septic tank fees in Ireland in the coming months.

Comparisons are odious, of course – though they might provide a little perspective.

Irish aid agency GOAL has a permanent presence in Syria. For more information, visit www.goal.ie

Irish Independent

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