Millions of Syrians live as refugees facing danger and repression in neighbouring countries and across Europe.
But the counter-revolution of dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria has taught them how to organise and resist. Many are experienced revolutionaries.
Mustafa, a barber and a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current, escaped to Istanbul in Turkey earlier this year. He told Socialist Worker, “Most Syrian refugees in Turkey are struggling. Their main preoccupation is finding some work to feed and house themselves.
“Therefore political activity is relatively low. But this does not mean that they are non-political. A great many took part in the popular movement and participated in demonstrations against the regime.”
Mustafa explained how some refugees are trying to build collectives, and hold public meetings and debates. He said they are organising “to try and perpetuate the democratic tradition of the Syrian revolution”.
Former insurance worker and refugee Amjad is also trying to organise outside Syria.
He first joined protests in Syria in July 2011 after being freed from a regime jail (see below). Now he is one of a group of informal refugee leaders at the port of Piraeus in Greece.
“There are four of us—myself and my friends, one Iranian, one Afghan and one Kurd,” he said. “We act as a sort of court when there are disagreements. We help as interpreters and coordinate volunteering. I help people learn English.
“And we talk to the authorities demanding homes, health care and education.”
Amjad initially fled Syria and went to Turkey, but conditions there drove him to look elsewhere.
In Turkey refugees have to apply for an ID to be able to work or move around. Amjad said, “Every day the police just tell you to come back tomorrow.
“What they want is for you to give up, get back in touch with the people smugglers and get out of the country.”
The desperate conditions refugees face make them more vulnerable to abuse from bosses.
“I got a job in a fish factory, working 16 hour days,” said Amjad. “The boss offered to hold onto our wages and save them up for us, and I trusted him. But after two months he hadn’t paid anything.
“I complained and said I needed to feed my family. He said, ‘Fuck off back to your country then’. I went to the police and they said the same.”
Mustafa said, “There is no protection against abusive bosses. Many children are forced to work long hours instead of going to school.
“They have to provide for their families because their parents are not allowed to work due to their refugee status.
“At the same time, many wealthy Syrian merchants and capitalists were able to move their businesses into Turkey. Entire factories were moved here from Aleppo. Those people lead a luxurious life while the majority of refugees struggle.”
Amjad took a boat to Greece when he decided to leave Turkey. He said, “I hadn’t been planning to come to Europe.
“But when I saw the situation in Turkey I thought, what kind of future will this be for my son?
“I paid the smugglers and they took us in a boat. But maybe a kilometre out the driver jumped into the water and was picked up by his friends. We were on our own.”
Amjad hoped that getting to Greece would lead to a big change in his life. He quickly realised that it would not.
“When I saw the island I felt a sense of victory—now I could start building a new life for my family,” he said. “But when I got to Piraeus and saw all the people stuck there that feeling was gone with the wind.
“This was in March, and we knew the European Union (EU) was about to meet with Turkey.
“We were watching the news and the internet for a ray of hope. But instead they broke us. The deal they made is unfair.”
It means that any refugee arriving in Greece can be deported to Turkey. It allows refugees to be rounded up into detention centres.
Mustafa said, “I never had any illusions in Western governments, but the EU’s handling of the refugee crisis is shocking.
“It refuses to open its doors to people who are desperately fleeing a war, and would rather have them drown in the Mediterranean.”
He said the deal “turned Syrian refugees into a bargaining chip”. “There is no concern for our fate, our dignity or our human rights,” he said. “We know most of the money paid by the EU to Turkey will not benefit refugees.”
Refugees in Greece now face an administrative nightmare. People who have paid to apply for refugee status have to do it again—using online terminals only available for a few hours at a time. Those without refugee status can be detained or sent to Turkey. And then there are the camps.
“They said we have to move to a camp,” said Amjad. “But the camps are run by the Greek army, and the United Nations said the Greek army was not respecting human rights. We asked, how will we be able to apply for relocation or asylum from in there?
“What happens if someone has a medical emergency?
“The camps are hours away from the cities, someone could die before they got to a hospital.
“They said they hadn’t taken that into consideration. They don’t take anything into consideration!
“We arrived in Greece on 11 March. Then they said in three days our situation would be sorted. More than two months later those three days haven’t come.”
Amjad said the situation in Greece left many people “gloomy”. “People are running out of money and that makes them vulnerable,” he said.
“Some children have been out of school for years and it’s hard to know what’s going on inside their heads.”
But he said refugees were “like a big family” and helped each other to be strong. “We still celebrate birthdays and things,” he said. “Even here life has to go on.”
Under pressure from the EU the Greek government would like to get rid of squalid but self-organised refugee camps like that in Piraeus.
Riot cops evacuated Idomeni on the northern border last week. For the authorities the priority isn’t helping refugees but controlling them.
Amjad and his friends have continued to lobby the authorities, including writing a letter to the Greek government that brought officials to Piraeus.
He is wary of protests, saying they can achieve nothing and could get people arrested. But small refugee protests have taken place all over Greece.
Some of those at Idomeni had led determined resistance to the border closure. Groups of refugees joined striking workers on marches against austerity last month.
And there was a large refugee turnout on some of March and April’s anti-racist protests.
Mustafa stressed that refugees are taking political initiatives in very difficult circumstances. They face pressure from Islamist groups that “receive massive funding and largely reject the anti-sectarian and democratic aspirations of the revolution”.
But he remains hopeful. “The situation is extremely difficult,” he said. “However, during the last five years, I witnessed the very high levels of solidarity, courage and determination among ordinary people under horrific conditions of repression.
“Taking part in this revolution has shattered the wall of fear built by the regime, and transformed the political awareness of millions of Syrians. Syrians will not accept to be ruled by a dictator anymore.”
'There are great bonds of solidarity created'
Mustafa comes from Salamiyah, one of the first towns to join the Syrian revolution in 2011. He said, “I was on the first demonstrations in Salamiyah. I got involved in the Local Coordination Committee (LCC). That way we could communicate with revolutionary activists across the country.”
Mustafa helped to transport food and medical supplies to towns and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters under siege from dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces. He described how ordinary people helped the resistance. “Without any foreign aid, we collected everything from ordinary people,” he said. “Workers would donate a third of their wage to the LCC, which distributed supplies to those who needed them most.”
He added that regime attempts to divide the movement with sectarianism failed for a long time. “When the regime bombed Hama, thousands of the city’s Sunni population found shelter in Salamiyah,” he said.
“Activists from Salamiyah who were wanted by the regime were protected and sheltered in Sunni towns. This created great bonds of solidarity.
“But international networks financed Islamist and Jihadist groups exclusively. The secular LCC and FSA were gradually marginalised.”
Amjad was returning to Syria after several years working in Dubai when the revolution broke out. He said the regime accused him of being a spy.
“They put me in prison and I had to pay a bribe to get out,” he said. “After that I joined some of the peaceful protests. But from August 2011 the army occupied my city, Hama, and from February 2012 an Iranian militia took over.”
Amjad described the repression Syrians faced during the counter-revolution.
“For 18 months there was a curfew every night from 4pm,” he said. “The militia controlled everything. You couldn’t walk the streets—all the time they would jail people and demand money to let them out. I had to just go from home to work, work to home.”
After Amjad got out of jail he said officials followed him “everywhere” and he decided he had to leave. I bribed a security official to get me and my family out of the city,” he said. “Then we met a smuggler who took us to Turkey.”