Syrian mother brought son to UAE to escape ISIS recruiters

Syrians living in the Emirates reflect on their journeys since the war began in 2011

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - March 14, 2019: Reda Hassoun with her children Mohammed Azhari Al Mousa (sitting) 18, Mohammed Yasser Al Mousa 16 (M), Mohammed Nour Al Mousa 12 and Lilas Al Mousa 8 Syrian families whose children have been placed at Safa Community School free of charge as they could not afford their education after escaping the war in Syria. Thursday the 14th of March 2019 in Al Barsha, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Eight years after war broke out in their homeland, tens of thousands of Syrians have made the UAE their new home in the search of security and better opportunities.

Reda Hassoun, 46, moved to Sharjah with her three sons and daughter, aged between 8 and 18, three years ago for fear of losing her eldest son to armed militias.

The family are from Jarablus, a small city two-hours from Aleppo, that was taken over by ISIS for three years, until Turkish-backed Syrian rebels forced them out.

At the time, the terrorist organisation was targetting young people in a bid to recruit them into their ranks.

“When my eldest son turned 15, he said he wanted to join ISIS. You know they brainwash young people to join their lines.”

Ms Hassoun immediately packed their things and moved with her children to Aleppo city, where they lived for two years.

“Then [my son] said he wants to join the Syrian army to defend the country. It would be OK if there was no war but, at that time, joining the army meant walking to your own death.”

After consulting with her husband, who was working in the UAE as foreman for 10 years, they decided to move to Sharjah to be with him.

“He was able to issue us visas and we arrived in May 2016,” said Ms Hassoun.

Once in the UAE, they struggled to enrol their children in schools.

“They wouldn’t accept them in public schools and we couldn’t afford private education.”

“I was very upset because the main reason we moved here was for their education,” said Ms Hassoun. “Back home, every other day classes got cancelled because of the unrest.”

“Their father was very keen on giving them a good education because he only finished high school and always wanted his children to have degrees.”

Their luck changed for the better when the four children were accepted at Safa Community School for the academic year 2016 / 2017, free of charge, after the school’s owner Louai Al Khatib heard of their ordeal.

“At first they found it very difficult to study in English, they barely knew the alphabet, so the schools assigned them private lessons outside of the class until they could catch up.”

“It was also hard to make friends, as most pupils were English-speakers. It was also hard for me to make friends in the beginning, I did not know anyone. But then a Syrian family moved to our building, and I signed up to give Quran classes at the mosque so I made many Arab friends.”

Her second born son, Mohammed-Yaser, 17, said what he misses most about being home are his friends.

“We would go to school and then hang out all day. We either played football at a nearby park or walked around the old city. Now I go to school and back home,” he said.

The Hassoun family are just six of the millions of Syrians who have been displaced by the war. Many families have needed help getting established in new countries and, for them, people like Ghalia Omar are invaluable.

Ms Omar, 47, has lived in Sharjah for 27 years and eight years ago, began helping fellow Syrians who had moved to the Emirates but could not afford basic living necessities.

She learnt to help others from her mother, who would invite women to have breakfast with them once a month.

“I used to complain sometimes, but my mother always said it was our duty, and that we should make them feel like they are one of us and not just hand out the money to them,” said Ms Omar.

When her mother died, she and her siblings continued to support those families back in Syria.

“After the crisis in Syria, I started coming across a lot of cases at the mosque where I attend Quran classes.”

“Some could not afford education, while others lived in very poor conditions … so I started to what I can to liaise aid for them.”

Ms Omar helps families negotiate with schools over fees or puts them in touch with people who were able to help them out financially.

She helped one family who moved to Ajman after they lost their home in Damascus in 2013.

The father came over first to work as a carpenter with his wife and four children, aged between 9 and 16, following a year later.

After losing his job, when the company was sold, the man began working as a driver, earning Dh7,000 a month.

When Ms Omar heard about the family’s financial troubles, she visited them and gave them enough money to pay their water and electricity bills.

“When we went there we also discovered that they have outstanding school fees,” she said.

Ms Omar negotiated a discount for the family with the school principal. Other friends also began chipping in and Ms Omar helped the mother start a small business to ensure a regular income.

“We suggested that she wraps vine leaves and sells them, to provide petty cash for everyday necessities.

“We bring her the raw materials and she does the wrapping, she sells the jar for Dh80, so makes around Dh300 a month.”

Determination and an entrepreneurial spirit are the keys to success, particularly when war left so many without the option of return.

Dubai, March, 07, 2019: Yamen Al Halabi, Syria's former swimming champ at the Hamdan Sports Complex in Dubai. Satish Kumar/ For the National / Story by Haneen Dajan
Yamen Al Halabi, a former Syrian national swimming champion, teaches children to swim at Hamdan Sports Complex in Dubai. Satish Kumar for The National

Yamen Al Halabi was 18 when the Syrian conflict began to escalate in 2011.

Living in Damascus, he was part of the Syrian national swimming team from the fifth grade, winning national and regional championships in his country’s name.

As war broke out, he insisted on maintaining some semblance of normalcy and continued to train, attended university and got a job at a money exchange company in the capital.

“I did it all during the war,” said Mr Al Halabi, 29.

Despite there being no diesel to heat the pool, he would train throughout the year. But there came a point when leaving home was too dangerous.

“We reached a stage where, when I left home to go to university and to my training, I wouldn’t know if I would return or not because of the random shelling that increased,” he said.

He arrived at his breaking point in 2015, no longer willing to live “under the shadows of war”.

“I had to leave because I had certain ambitions that I wanted to reach.”

He moved to Dubai as an investor and cofounded a start-up business that supplied raw oil material. A year later, his business began to fail and eventually had to close.

Unwilling to return to Syria, he began searching for any job to stay in the UAE. After saving a little money as a logistics manager for a clothing company, he co-founded the Talent Swimming Academy, where he teaches children and adults to swim at Hamdan Sports Complex.

“The people trusted me because they knew my background. For them, I was Syria’s national swimming champion, so it was great support for me.”

He also began to offer personal training sessions, meeting the woman who would become his wife at a gym.

He now works up to 15 hours a day, between his corporate job and sports training, to raise enough money to start a fitness company.

“When I fell, many people asked me why I didn’t go to Europe, but that would have meant going as a refugee and I am certainly not a refugee — I am capable of being productive wherever I am,” said Mr Al Halabi.

“Also, I liked the UAE and I feel comfortable with the way people deal with one another.

“Once you are in the country you are equal to everybody else.”

Not all residents are as lucky as Mr Al Halabi, some find themselves in a position where they need the support of others to get back on their feet.