BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – More than 1.6 million refugees have poured out of Syria where troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are fighting rebels. The conflict began when Assad launched a crackdown on anti-government protesters in 2011. At least 93,000 people have been killed in violence that has spiralled into civil war.
Here a Syrian university graduate tells how he ended up in Colombia after fleeing the capital Damascus last year. He has asked not to be named for security reasons.
"We took to the streets to demand our rights in March 2011. Friends from my neighourhood, Damascus University and the company where I worked as a computer engineer, we all took part in the revolution.
It started as a peaceful movement without arms. We would protest to claim our rights of freedom, equality and democracy. You can’t say anything against Assad in public. There’s no freedom of speech in Syria. We were demanding our basic rights before a 40-year dictatorship, against a regime that has changed the economic model to serve just a small group of people.
We were involved in pro-revolution websites and we would take turns to write slogans on placards. ‘Down with the regime’ was the first slogan I wrote. Most Fridays we’d go out onto the streets. Because it’s prayer day on Fridays, it was easier to congregate in groups. But the police would be near the mosques, watching us.
Assad then started using the army to take control of towns and villages. That’s when it got more violent. After six months of protesting my friends started to be arrested and sent to jail. When you go to jail, you disappear. In one week, five of my friends were arrested. I don’t know what’s happened to them. Whether they are dead or alive.
The police came to the house where I lived with my parents and three younger sisters. They asked for me. I was so lucky I was at work then and not at home. It was then that I knew my life was in danger. The regime had me on their blacklist. It was too dangerous for me to stay in Syria.
The very next day I headed to Lebanon. I took my laptop, my cell phone and $2,000 in cash. It was January 2012.
I paid a taxi driver to take me to the border with Lebanon. He knew where on the border we could cross and pay off the police at the checkpoints on both sides of the border. The journey into Lebanon cost $200. At one point the driver spoke with police at a checkpoint for 15 minutes. That’s when I started to get really scared. I thought there was a chance that everything, my life, could come to end.
I’m guessing the taxi driver spent $100 in bribes. You can get anything for money in Syria. Anything. That’s what the revolution is about - to get rid of corruption. It was 3am when I left my home in Syria and by 5am I was in Beirut. I was lucky I had the money to get out of Syria safely. So many people don’t.
In Beirut, a friend helped me find a room to rent where I stayed for a month. I spoke to my family on Skype. My father said: ‘Your friends came around to the house asking for you.’ I knew he was speaking in code. He was really saying the police had come looking for me again.
While I was in Beirut, I met the wife of a friend who had a flower export business in Bogota. That’s when the idea of going to Colombia first came up. Through her, I applied for a work visa at the Colombian consulate in Beirut to work at the flower company in Bogota. That’s how I ended up in Colombia. I never planned to go to Colombia. It was God’s work. I’ve had luck along my journey.
While in Bogota, I came across the U.N. refugee agency (UNCHR). I told them my story and they helped me apply for refugee status. I now live in a rented room with a family. I feel safe here. Thanks to UNHCR, I’m learning Spanish at the National University in Bogota and building a new life. When I see students protest here, I tell them you can protest here and your government doesn’t kill you like the one in Syria.
Since I left Syria, our family home has been destroyed by shelling by the regime. My family now rents a house in a good neighourhood in Damascus where it’s safer. Like other middle-class families in Syria, most of their savings have gone. My father sells food to restaurants when he can but there’s not much work. To keep safe, my parents and sisters try not to leave the house.
Damascus used to be safe, at least safer than other Syrian cities like Homs and Aleppo. But every day it’s getting more dangerous. I try to speak to my family as much as possible. But it’s hard because there are weeks when there’s no electricity in Damascus.
We never expected the revolution to last this long. When we first started protesting, we thought it would all be over within six months.
The revolution will be won but we need help from the international community and to ensure weapons are given to the good people. It won’t stop until Assad and his regime is gone. They will fight to the end. The armed youth fighting today are the same ones, like me, who started the revolution in a peaceful way. The revolution is not radical Islam, as our enemies try to portray us. Our big dream is to build a new Syria for our children. A democratic Syria without Assad.
I want to go back to Syria. My life is there. But while the Assad regime is in place, I know it’s too dangerous for me to return."