Nasser al-Halabi* is a 26-year-old Syrian citizen who fled home, was deported from Saudi Arabia, found himself homeless in Turkey, and now works and lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Al Halabi’s precarious journey began in early 2012, after he refused to enlist in Syria’s mandatory military service. To avoid punishment, the University of Aleppo engineering student escaped to Lebanon, and wasn’t able to finish school. “The Syrian regime did not postpone my army service requirement because they want to draft as many soldiers as possible to kill innocent civilians in Syria,” he told me via Facebook Messenger.
I interviewed al-Halabi nearly a dozen times from September to November via online chat, though he only agreed to speak over the phone once, for fear he’d be overheard in the DRC’s capital of Kinshasa. “I can be deported easily,” said al-Halabi, who asked that I use a pseudonym to replace his first name, citing safety concerns.
After arriving in Lebanon, al-Halabi secured a visitor’s visa to Saudi Arabia. But in 2014, the Saudi government deported him back to Lebanon for working illegally on a visitor’s visa for two years. (The government didn’t send him to Syria because Assad’s regime might’ve executed him for leaving the country without completing the required military service, al-Halabi explained)
Al-Halabi had trouble finding a job in Lebanon, so he traveled to Turkey (in late 2014, Syria and Turkey still had a mutual visa-exemption agreement, which the latter revoked in December 2015). Confronted by bleak employment prospects, however, al-Halabi began living on the streets of Istanbul. “I was forced to leave Turkey because all doors closed in my face, and I was practically homeless,” he said.
Just when al-Halabi was losing hope, his Syrian friend in Istanbul offered him a job in the DRC. He immediately accepted. “[Back] then, I didn’t even know where the DRC was on the map,” he told me.
Soon after, al-Halabi got a three-month tourist visa to the DRC, and within days, he arrived in the Central African nation to work as an air-conditioning technician. Legally, al-Halabi isn’t allowed to work on a tourist visa and is at risk of deportation, but found an employer who was willing to overlook his situation.
“All doors closed in my face, and I was practically homeless.”
Growing up in Aleppo, al-Halabi’s uncle taught him how to install and fix air-conditioning units. He said it’s easy for Syrians to find such jobs in the DRC, given the country’s hot climate: “The locals here have very small to no knowledge about technology and especially about air-conditioning systems.”
Plagued by conflict, corruption and poverty, the DRC isn’t a safe place for fleeing Syrians to end up, and al-Halabi says he fears for his life daily. The country is still recovering from wars that broke out during the 1990s, and left 6 million people dead. Much like what Syrians witnessed during the 2011 revolution and ongoing civil war, the DRC continues to experience turmoil.
“The DRC is known that it’s one of the world’s poorer countries and there are hundreds of thousands people in Kinshasa who live under the poverty line. It’s very difficult in socioeconomic terms for Syrians to get support here,” Andreas Kirchhof, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kinshasa, told me. “It’s really astonishing that the Syrian conflict spread Syrians all over the world,”
Although Syrians are used to violent clashes in their home country, many are unfamiliar with racism, which al-Halabi says he’s experiencing for the first time in the DRC. Syrians tend to have a lighter complexion than locals, so they’re seen as foreigners among the local black population, he told me.
“Every day, I face the dangers of being kidnapped by locals because I am categorized as a ‘white man,’” al-Halabi said. “I live in a big prison, here. I don’t know the language or their culture. They all look at me as a stranger.”
For now, he’s living in a state of limbo, with nowhere safe to go.
Lacking both financial and legal stability in the DRC, al-Halabi recently decided to return to Syria and live in Aleppo. Since September, al-Halabi has been working on getting a Turkish visa, so he can sneak into Syria through the Turkish border (it’s too risky for him to fly straight there). To get a visa, al-Halabi must prove to the government that he has money in the bank and a place to stay in Turkey. And Despite the dangers he faces in Syria, living in Turkey isn’t an option.
“All countries closed their doors in the faces of Syrians. I’d rather go back and live under Assad’s bombs,” said al-Halabi, who lost family members in a bombardment on Aleppo in September.
“I live in a big prison, here. I don’t know the language or their culture. They all look at me as a stranger.”
When al-Halabi contacted UN officials in Kinshasa for help on his current status in the DRC, they told him to apply for refugee status. “The person I talked to at the UN was shocked that there are Syrians in the Congo,” he said.
The UNHCR’s Kirchhof told me that Congolese authorities have granted seven Syrians refugee status in Lubumbashi, the country’s second largest city, since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Refugee status in the DRC doesn’t automatically grant Syrians a path to citizenship, which means they can’t get a Congolese passport for travel to neighboring countries. Al-Halabi said his Syrian friend, who fled the regime of former president Hafez al-Assad (current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s father) in the 1980s, has been married to a DRC native for 13 years but still hasn’t been able to get citizenship.
“A person can acquire a refugee status, but [that] doesn’t give the person the right to citizenship after a certain period. That is up to the authorities to decide,” Kirchhof said. “To my knowledge, there have been no Syrians recognized as refugees in Kinshasa so far.”
For his part, al-Halabi says he doesn’t want to seek asylum in the DRC because he won’t likely be accepted for resettlement in a Western country, which prioritizes locals over Syrians. Host countries decide who they want to accept as refugees, according to Kirchhof.
Escaping to Europe illegally would also be too risky for al-Halabi. “I have many friends that snuck out of the DRC and made it to Europe through water. I don’t know how to swim and I don’t want to risk dying to get to Europe,” he said.
Jean Philippe Chauzy, chief of mission for the International Organization (IOM) in Kinshasa, told me that the IOM doesn’t have any data on Syrians in the DRC. The DRC mission in the UN did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
*First name changed to protect identity