Dread and guilt of Syrian expats who fear for their families

For many the guilt of enjoying the stability of the UAE while loved ones are in danger only adds to the tossing and turning at night.

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DUBAI // When Khalid's wife calls him from Syria, he can hear the bombs crash in the background.

He can't remember the last time he had a good night's sleep or enjoyed a meal.

"This is my daughter," he says, pointing to a photograph of his three-year-old in a pink dress. "She is with my wife in Syria. They barely escaped the bombing yesterday."

For many Syrians in the UAE, life has become a mind-racking combination of dread and guilt. They hear the violence in the background when they call home, or simply worry when they hear the accounts of the latest atrocity. It has become harder to send money home, and it has become harder to call home.

And for many the guilt of enjoying the stability of the UAE while loved ones are in danger only adds to the tossing and turning at night.

"I feel bad when I have food and I know my family and the people I love don't have any," says Khalid, 26, whose name has been changed to protect his family.

"All I can think about are the horrors my wife and child are being subjected to, the violence my parents and family are witnessing," he said.

"Douma, my home town, is under siege. Nothing goes in or out, no food, no water, no medicine. The tanks drive up and down our streets and there are snipers everywhere."

Khalid has been working as an ice-cream maker in Dubai since February. He tried to bring his family here, but his application for visas was rejected.

"They said my salary wasn't high enough."

Every month, he sends as much of his Dh4,000 salary home as he can.

The money transfers have been going through without problems, although his wife could not access his last transfer - the cashier at the bank told her they didn't have any cash.

When he turned 26 a few days ago, Khalid had little to celebrate. His cousin has been missing since June 28 and his brother-in-law, drafted into the army, was arrested by the military police when he refused to fire at civilians. The family has not heard from him since.

When Khalid describes what happened to his sister, his hands are clenched in fists of rage.

"She had a nine-month-old baby. They were trying to get away from the bombs. One landed too close. She fell and dropped the baby," he says.

"The baby died from a brain haemorrhage."

Khalid's roommate, who called himself Mazin, is also from Douma. He has seen the violence at first hand.

"I was one of the protesters when it all started. We were picketing peacefully, we didn't attack anyone or damage anything," he says.

"Next thing we knew we were surrounded by security forces. They just started beating everyone without warning. Then they picked people at random and arrested them.

"I was one of the people arrested. They blindfolded us, put us on a bus and took us to a detention centre.

"We were beaten mercilessly, and at one point I got a chance to see through a gap in my blindfold. There were 15 guards using canes and kicking a guy who was still handcuffed."

Mazin was tortured for four days. "By that point we would have done or said anything to get out. They forced us to sign documents confessing to be terrorists and saying we were trying to endanger the security of the country.

"I've never touched a gun in my life, now I was signing my name to declare myself a terrorist? When they had their 'proof', they let us go."

But Mazin still counts himself lucky to have been arrested in the early days of protests. "It's much worse now," he said. "They are maiming and disfiguring people - gouging out their eyes."

Every time Khalid's phone rings, he fears the worst.

"I don't know what horrific news I'm about to receive. We get calls at all hours of the night and day," he says. "We're being treated worse than animals. At least when animals get abused you get some kind of reaction from the world.

"Our people are being massacred and no one seems to care."