Syrian Refugees Face Guilt, Depression in Exile

Bridgette Auger


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The second time Mohamad was summoned to Syrian intelligence headquarters, his cousin on the inside warned him to flee or they would kill him. He left overnight to Lebanon, and has been bouncing ever since between Jordan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.


When I first met Mohamad in Syria, he was the successful manager of a Volkswagen dealership, giggling as he told me about a wild weekend and all the women he’d encountered during it. The last time I saw him in Beirut, Lebanon, he’d become a different person -- rarely leaving the apartment where he slept on a mattress on the living room floor. Fed up with the instability and lack of daily purpose, he told me he was returning to Syria to escape the misery of exile, accepting the reality that he could die.


Mohamad’s best friend Husam and I met as colleagues at the United Nations Refugee Agency in 2008. He was fully committed to changing Syria for the better, through his burgeoning career in development. He was studying German and Spanish, attending university full time, and was financially responsible for his entire family. When I later visited Husam, now an exile in Marburg, Germany, in March 2013, I hardly recognized him. He was hostile, bitter and isolated.


At first, both men had felt that the revolution sweeping through the Arab world would not come to Syria. But then it did. And it began peacefully. Mohamad and Husam described the incredible feelings of pride and awe they experienced while demonstrating and chanting for freedom in the center of Damascus along with 10,000 other people. Then the violence began. Exuberance changed to distress and unending worries about family and friends.


For Mohamad, like thousands of other Syrians, fleeing the country was a quick decision. A summons by security forces, an arrest, a bullet or an explosion that came too close, impending military service, fear, grief, lack of food and medical care – any one of these factors could instigate one’s speedy departure.


One year of revolution has turned into two years of violent conflict that has taken lives on a massive scale – over 100,000 have been killed, including an estimated 7,000 children – and displaced millions of Syrians like Mohamad and Husam. Two weeks ago, the United Nations High Commission for Refuges (UNHCR) announced that over 2 million Syrians have left the country, a plurality (716,000) of which are living in Lebanon (a country of 4 million).


Fifty-three percent of these refugees are children, and by the end of the year it is estimated there will be more Syrian children needing school in Lebanon than there are Lebanese children attending public schools.


There are no “camps” for refugees in Lebanon because of old scars inflicted during the civil war of the 1970’s and 80s, and from the influx of Palestinians. As a result, many Syrian refugees live in informal housing in northern Lebanon, or crowd into shared apartments around the country.


Lebanon is not the only country being transformed by the influx of Syrian refugees. In Jordan, Zaatari Camp is hosting 120,000 Syrians and has effectively become that country’s fourth-largest city, despite covering only two square miles. There are 500,000 refugees in Turkey with most living outside of the official camps. When winter returns, I can only imagine the worst.


While the U.S. has debated military intervention in Syria over the last several weeks, UNHCR’s humanitarian operation is only 40 percent funded, and has been forced to cut back on medical support and its already meager assistance programs.


Opinions among my Syrian friends range across the spectrum, but most agree that the U.S. never has the people’s interests at heart, so any military intervention would probably do more harm than good. With more than 100,000 already dead, they feel it is cynical to shake a finger at what has been just one of many atrocious acts of violence. When talking to family members still in Syria, most react that they are already living through war so it doesn’t matter which flag is painted on the rockets, as they do the same damage.


Now Husam and Mohamad obsess over watching the war on YouTube, unable to move on with their lives because of the irreconcilable question: "Why am I alive while my friends and family fight and die back home?" Consumed by grief, they are unable to console each other despite their long-standing friendship. When asked what it is like to go from the euphoria of revolution to the throes of guilt, Husam answered, “This is not me.”


Husam and Mohamad asked that their last names be withheld to protect their family members remaining in Syria.


Author Bio:

Bridgette Auger is a freelance photographer and filmmaker currently based in Lebanon. She recently completed work on a film entitled, "This is not me: Enduring Syria’s War," which follows the stories of Husam and Mohamad, looking beyond the enormous physical destruction caused by the war to the profound emotional and mental toll on those forcibly displaced by the violence. The film is slated for release by SnagFilms. More of the author's work can be seen at


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