Syria Kurds mark grim Nowruz after fleeing Afrin

A Lebanese Kurdish boy is seen during a gathering to celebrate Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year, in the capital Beirut on Wednesday. (AFP)
Updated 22 March 2018
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Syria Kurds mark grim Nowruz after fleeing Afrin

ZIYARA: With tears in her eyes, Rasheeda Ali said she would not celebrate the Kurdish New Year this week after she and her family were forced to flee under fire from Syria’s Afrin.
The annual Nowruz holiday which was being marked on Wednesday had always been a time for Syrian Kurdish families to gather together and mark new beginnings, but this year is different.
Tens of thousands have been left homeless after abandoning their homes and loved ones in the northwestern city of Afrin, now controlled by Turkish troops and allied fighters.
The fall of Afrin on Sunday was a major blow for Syria’s Kurds, who have proudly run autonomous local governments since 2013 — finally speaking Kurdish and marking customs long banned by the Damascus government.
With her hometown overrun, Nowruz this year is nothing but “tragedy and displacement,” Ali said, a mauve scarf wrapped around her hair and her eyes moist with tears.
“Death would have been easier than leaving our home,” said the 40-year-old Arabic language teacher, in an area outside Afrin that is jointly held by Kurds and the Syrian regime.
“I left my home — which looks like a palace — and now I live in this house with 50 other people,” she said, gesturing to the small room in a collective shelter in the Ziyara area.
Children huddled around her as she spoke. A mattress was propped up against a wall behind her and scant belongings were stacked on bare metal shelves.
Around 100,000 civilians streamed out of Afrin, using the only escape route available into government-held zones to the south and east, the UN says.
They hit the road on foot, in cars, on motorbikes and in pickup trucks, with what little belongings they could carry or cram into their vehicles.
Once in regime territory, they sought shelter in mosques, schools and buildings under construction.
Some have nowhere at all to go and have been sleeping in their vehicles, others are still on roadsides sleeping in the open.
For Syria’s Kurds, Nowruz symbolizes the deliverance of Kurdish people from a mythical tyrant — but that was hard to imagine now.
“I’ll never forget fleeing. Looking back and getting a last glimpse of Afrin, feeling helpless and torn,” said 38-year-old Rohan, also displaced.
“Away from Afrin, Nowruz means nothing. Afrin was our paradise,” she told AFP in the nearby Zahraa area.
In Ziyara, Mohammed Zaki, a middle-aged man, recounted how he and his family fled farmland on which they had lived for generations.
“We fled on foot carrying just the clothes we wore,” he said, now living with several other displaced families.
Women and children packed the room, as a small child slept bundled up in a donated blanket behind him.
“We have no money to buy food. We left everything and came here penniless,” Zaki said.
It may be Nowruz but “we wouldn’t dream of celebrating,” he said. “We just dream of ending this tragedy for our children.”
Afrin, an agricultural area famed for its olive trees, was part of territory in northern Syria where the Kurds have been setting up systems of self-rule.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) recaptured eastern areas of the territory from the Daesh group, with backing from a US-led coalition.
The Kurds have otherwise largely stayed out of Syria’s complex seven-year conflict, instead focusing on building their own institutions including in Afrin.
But Turkish-led forces on Jan. 20 launched a deadly assault on Afrin, dragging Kurds into conflict and capturing the city in a major setback for the dream of autonomy.
His boots and a bag of flat bread by his side, 82-year-old Khalil Tamer sat on a blanket atop a layer of straw — thin cushioning for the hard concrete floor underneath.
With his head hung low, he recounted how he and his family escaped fighting in the neighboring province of Aleppo to Afrin.
When Turkey began its assault on the YPG, whom it considers “terrorists,” Tamer and his family were forced to flee a second time.
“We walked out on foot for four days straight,” he said. But in the chaos, he was separated from some of his loved ones and will mark Nowruz without them.
Smoking a cigarette in a holder, he repeated his fate in disbelief.
“We lost the children. I lost them. I lost my children.”


International plea for Syrian refugee jobs sparks anger in Lebanon

Updated 9 min 42 sec ago
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International plea for Syrian refugee jobs sparks anger in Lebanon

  • Lebanon angrily rejected final statement of international donor conference for Syria warning against returning refugees to the decimated country
  • The country hosts just less than a million registered Syrian refugees, has strained under the load of its increased population since the war started

BEIRUT: Lebanon angrily rejected on Thursday the final statement of an international donor conference for Syria which warned against returning refugees to the decimated country.
The statement issued by the United Nations and European Union at the end of the Brussels II conference a day earlier also said it was critical for nations hosting refugees to integrate them into the job market.
Lebanon, which hosts just less than a million registered Syrian refugees, has strained under the load of its increased population since the war started.
With the highest number of Syrian refugees per capita the country’s economy has been crippled and the government has struggled to keep a lid on tensions spilling over the border and destabilizing Lebanon.
President Michel Aoun said the Brussels statement “contradicted the sovereignty and laws of the Lebanese state.”
“Parts of the statement put Lebanon at risk because it suggests the disguised resettlement of displaced Syrians in Lebanon,” he said.
He stressed that “Lebanon insists on a political solution in Syria, and the return of refugees should not be linked to this solution.”
The anger from the Lebanese leadership threatens to increase tension inside Lebanon over the Syrian refugee population.
A sign that read “Syrians will leave” was raised on Thursday in Achrafieh, a predominantly Christian area.
Lebanon’s Christians are particularly worried that Syrian refugees will remain in the country permanently, similar to the way Palestinian refugees have been living in the country for 70 years.
The majority of Syrian refugees are Sunni, and there are fears that their presence could upset the country’s delicate sectarian balance.
But returning home in large numbers seems a distant prospect. The Brussels statement said the desperate humanitarian situation in Syria continued to deteriorate and that “significant risks remain for civilians across the country.”
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil on Thursday however urged the international community “to quit lecturing Lebanon on humanity and to stop encouraging Syrians to stay in Lebanon.”
Speaking during a Cabinet session chaired by Aoun and attended by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Bassil said: “What happened in Brussels cannot be tolerated.”
He said “the international community refuses to accept the idea that there are safe areas in Syria where no war has taken place for years.”
“They wish to secure jobs for Syrians in Lebanon while we want to create jobs opportunities for the Lebanese people in Lebanon.”
The angry political response comes at a time of fierce campaigning for next month’s parliamentary elections.
“A particular rhetoric is being used to provoke tension,” Nasser Yassin of the American University of Beirut, who was part of Lebanon’s delegation to the Brussels conference, told Arab News.
“Voluntary and safe repatriation is a principle to which international organizations adhere,” he said. “And it is logical because refugees should feel safe when they return to their countries.”
Yassin said the thorny political issue of securing jobs for Syrian refugees in Lebanon had already been raised at an international conference London three years ago.
“The international community believes displaced people cannot depend on aid alone and need to work.”
But he said the money Lebanon receives from donor countries is declining every year.
“A clear plan should be available to ensure that Syrians do not compete with Lebanese people in the job market.”
Before the Syrian war Lebanon had a population of about 4.5 million. That number of refugees has dropped from a peak of almost 1.2 million due to the voluntary return of a number of refugees to Syria and the migration of others to European countries.
Last week several hundred refugees returned to Syria from Lebanon in a convoy organized by the Lebanese government.
The UN refugee agency said it was not involved in organizing “these returns or other returns at this point, considering the prevailing humanitarian and security situation in Syria”.