BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Alaa’s time in Damascus was up. Security forces had arrested him twice in 2011 when he was a student in the Syrian capital. He felt lucky to be alive but feared for his family.
His father asked friends around the world for help and decided the family would flee to Thailand - a country that granted visas easily, but about which the family knew little.
In June 2012, Alaa’s mother and two younger brothers flew to Bangkok. A month later, Alaa and his father followed, leaving their four-bedroom home and all their possessions.
Alaa – who asked to be identified only by his middle name – is among hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers who have escaped Syria’s brutal civil war by flying nearly 7,000 kms (4,200 miles) to this tropical Southeast Asian country.
Three years of conflict in Syria have killed 146,000 people, displaced 4 million and forced 2.8 million refugees abroad, mostly into neighbouring countries. Those who have fled further include 2,000 who are in Southeast Asia and India, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
Alaa, 28, and his family live crammed into a tiny studio apartment on the fourth floor of a nondescript eight-storey building in Bangkok. Alaa’s parents sleep on a bed, while their three sons have a sofa and blankets spread across the floor.
In the cool whir of an air conditioner and fan, with sunlight trickling in around clothes drying in front of the kitchenette window, Alaa spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation about his detention in Syria, escape to Thailand, and plans to rebuild his life.
ARRESTED AND THREATENED
Security forces detained Alaa twice – in July and December 2011 – near his college, in a Damascus neighbourhood where there had been anti-government protests. They blindfolded him and drove him to a place where others were being held.
“I saw many people around me. Almost all of them were students, they were from college. They were wearing their uniforms… Some were in high school, less than 18 years old.
“The first time they made me stay just a short time – around two days. The next one, they made me stay … around one week.
“I was studying mass media, and most people arrested were in this department because they wished to show the true story in Syria, what’s happening.
“They threatened me by saying, ‘We will finish you’, or ‘We will finish your family.’ I heard many stories in Syria from my friends in college… Their families were finished because of one person.
“They just hurt me a little, by bad words, by slapping, by kicking.”
His father reached out to friends for help.
“He had a friend who had been living a long time in Thailand, and he recommended that my father come here, and told him he could help him to stay here. We didn’t know anything about Thailand. We had just heard about flooding in Thailand, earthquake in Thailand. Just in general - the news. He gave us flight tickets to come here.
“In Damascus, the easiest visa to get is from the Thai embassy. From Europe, America, Arab Gulf countries, it is impossible to get a visa.”
Alaa’s family tried not to attract attention when they left their home.
“Some people made the mistake that when they left their home… they took their car and took what they could, the stuff from their house. Then they are shocked or surprised when they find security guys waiting... They ask some questions to make you nervous, take you out of the car, and you don’t know what will happen. I didn’t make that mistake. I was very sensitive about that.
“We just took some money and some clothes, but everything else is still in the house. Our memories were kept at home. You can say this is the most valuable (thing) you have in your life, memories, you keep them at home and you leave for a reason: You want to stay alive.
“We left in a car, but did not go outside the city… We stayed in another home in Damascus, with family.
“First my mother and brothers left. Then after (one month), my father and I left after I made sure I could escape, because I was scared that maybe my name is on the list at the security centre. If they have your picture or your name at the border… they will not let you leave the country.
“When you take your seat in the plane, the plane starts flying, you see that you are so lucky… Even at the last minute … security could come inside the plane and capture you… I could have died inside Syria. No one is arrested twice and gets out alive.”
BANGKOK AND BEYOND
Alaa and his family have been living in Bangkok for nearly a year. Unable to speak Thai and lacking proper work documents, Alaa illegally found work teaching students Arabic. Each month, he earns up to 10,000 baht ($300) but pays 9,000 baht ($275) for rent and utilities for their studio apartment.
“We don’t save anything, we just stay alive... Now we are just waiting for our chance to leave Thailand.
“We are very lucky because we were accepted as refugees by the U.N… They will send us to Holland (the Netherlands) soon (in four months). The staff at the Dutch embassy are giving us courses to learn, and they are advising us what we should do when we get there.”
Alaa hopes to complete his university studies and rebuild what his family has lost. “Surely I will go back to my country again, but I have to rebuild what I lost… I have another chance in another country. When I make sure I do what I want, I will go back again, but I will go back stronger than before.”