Damascus (AFP) – Millions of Syrians have fled their country’s war as refugees, but for tens of thousands of people escaping conflict elsewhere, Syria is also a place of refuge.
Among them is Zahraa Abdi, who fled her native Somalia in 2012 and lives in a small room with her three children in northern Damascus.
“In Syria, death is organised, you can escape it. But in Somalia, it strikes randomly, at any time or place, there’s no escape,” she told AFP, her hair wrapped in a turquoise headscarf.
The UN’s refugee agency UNHCR estimates some 55,000 refugees from war-torn countries in the Middle East and beyond are currently living in Syria, which has been ravaged by conflict since March 2011.
It provides them with various forms of assistance, though many also work to supplement the aid.
The largest refugee contingent, numbering around 31,000, are Iraqis who crossed the border into Syria to flee their country’s many years of violence.
But the UN also counts some 1,500 Afghan refugees, and 1,500 more from Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia.
Abdi, 47, chose to come to Syria because she could enter without a visa, and she was desperate to find safety for her family.
She fled her home in a suburb of the Somali capital Mogadishu after her 10-year-old daughter was raped and murdered.
“In Syria, there is bombing, but there are also regions were you can take refuge. In Somalia, the armed men enter homes and kill the inhabitants,” said Abdi, dressed in a black robe embellished with rhinestones.
“I don’t want anything for myself, I just want safety for my children.”
Somalia has been engulfed in violence for most of the past 25 years, and waves of Somalis have fled abroad searching for safety.
But conflict also caught up with Abdi in Syria.
In 2012, she was living in the town of Al-Tal, held then by opposition forces and subject to sporadic government blockade and regular clashes.
She spent two years there before escaping to the relative safety of nearby Damascus.
- ‘Syria is part of me’ -
While Abdi moved to Syria in the early part of the conflict, most refugees sought safety in the country long before it was consumed by war.
In a modest church packed to capacity in a Damascus suburb, 45-year-old Faten sings hymns in Arabic and English.
A Chaldean Christian from Iraq, she and her family fled to Syria in 2007 after receiving death threats related to her sister’s job at a cafeteria serving US forces.
Graffiti was scrawled on the walls of their home accusing them of “treason,” and shots were fired at the house.
“When they set fire to the house, we knew it was the end, that we had to go,” she said, her curly hair pulled up in a pony tail above her lightly made-up face.
“My brother and sister and I left without anything. We were barefoot so we wouldn’t make any noise when we were running away,” she said.
She sought refuge at All Saints Church in the Jaramana suburb of Damascus, where she met Alex Amazia, a refugee from Sudan who would become her husband.
Amazia arrived in Syria in 1999, fleeing Sudan’s civil war.
Twelve years later, South Sudan announced its independence and he found himself the citizen of a new country, but one Syria’s government does not recognise.
He is unable to renew his Sudanese papers, or to obtain South Sudanese ones in Syria, and so lives without documentation.
But he said the violence that has surged in South Sudan makes life in Syria a better option regardless.
“Despite all the difficult circumstances we have lived through in Syria, the situation in South Sudan remains appalling, and doesn’t compare to here,” he insisted.
He has spent 18 years in Syria now, missing the funerals of his father and brother.
“Syria has become part of me, I am Syrian,” he said.
Alex and Faten married in 2014 and he looks after the church, which is attended by a flock that includes dozens of refugees, mostly from South Sudan and Iraq.
Faten feels the conflict she fled in Iraq has caught up with her across the border in Syria.
“We feel that we are stuck with the curse of war,” she said.
- ‘Weary of war’ -
Roqaya Omar, 60, also found herself caught up in the Syrian conflict, after fleeing Somalia a decade ago.
In 2012, she was living in the town of Harna near Damascus, which was a frontline in the fighting.
“We lived all the experiences of war like any Syrian,” she said.
“We were besieged and we heard the sound of battle and shelling,” she added.
“But I didn’t feel the same fear as I did in Somalia, where anyone can be killed with knives and slaughtered.”
She was able to flee Harna and move with her 26-year-old son Mohamed into Damascus.
“I’m weary of war,” she said, stroking her son’s face tenderly.
“I want to spend the rest of my life with my son in any country in the world… any country where there is no war.”