The UAE has long been a magnet for the region’s brightest and best young people, eager to escape instability and a lack of opportunities in their home country.
But the twin misfortunes of an increasingly bloody uprising in Syria and the global financial crisis have brought its role as both safe haven and provider of economic opportunity into sharp focus.
Many Syrians who have sought shelter have encountered first-hand the horrors of war: some have been hounded into exile, others tortured nearly to death.
Some have less direct experience of the conflict, and are motivated more by the wealth of opportunities that await here than by the horrors left behind.
What they all share, however, is a gratitude to their adopted home – and the hope that they can use their experiences here to return one day and rebuild their nation.
Nawras D was one of the first to join street protests against the rule of the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad – and as a result he was also one of the first arrested. He was tortured relentlessly for the next three weeks.
“I would be hanged by my two fingers, if I pulled, the strings would cut my fingers. They would cover our eyes, and beat us by a stick on our legs, sides and head,” he recalls.
“If a prisoner was injured, they would electrocute the bruise … that is how my friend got cancer and had to have his leg amputated.”
Nawras, 29, a graphic designer, had been working for seven years for the political pages of a local newspaper called Al Baath, but the authorities said he was using his position to disseminate propaganda and accused him of being a spy.
He was eventually released and fled to Lebanon with plans to settle there, but returned to his home town of Golan when he heard his friends and younger brothers had been arrested. His youngest brother, 15, was kept captive the longest – about four months – and tortured the most, as if he were an adult.
“Then I was told I would be arrested again so I got a tourist visa to come to the UAE,” Nawras says. “I didn’t know where else to go. Thank God I am still alive and living.”
At first, he had a hard time finding a job. He spent two months unemployed, and shared an apartment with several other men, before finding work with a lighting company.
Nawras has been in the UAE for about a year now, and recently brought his wife over with the hopes of starting a new life in Dubai. He hopes that one day he can get a more well-paid job so that he can send funds back to his family in Syria.
He and his wife have little information about many of their relatives.
His wife’s father was killed and her brother jailed; he speaks to his family once every two months and has no idea what happened to some of them. Instead the young couple watch the television news, and worry.
“All we do is watch the news, we want to know about our families,” he says. “Our hearts are dying because of what we see and are still seeing.”
The contrast between those images on the news and the lives the couple now lead is stark.
“We weren’t happy, but we didn’t have the courage to talk. As soon as we got the chance for freedom we ran towards it,” he says. “A lot of my friends died, many were arrested, but we know we stand for freedom.”
He says they found that freedom in the UAE.
“Here there is a system, a law that protects everyone,” he says. “I’m happy here because there is freedom. We are not scared any more. We are here so the future will be better.”
Amr Yagan, 32, arrived in the UAE about two months ago after he was arrested for feeding people at a charity kitchen. After his arrest, he was told to stop working, but he was not tortured or beaten.
Amr had his own law firm, which he ran in addition to the charity work, but the arrest effectively shut the business and he was forced to look overseas for work.
He thought about Turkey, but decided the language barrier would have prevented him from gaining employment, so he chose the UAE, where his uncle has lived, in Dubai, for the past 10 years. He is still searching for a job, but is hopeful that when he finds one he will be able to bring his parents over to join him.
At the moment Amr is living off his savings, but they will soon run out. Despite his money worries, he hopes to organise activities such as fun runs and photo exhibitions to raise funds for Syrian children. He is also the founder of Syria’s Soul Society, established to help people in need of surgery (www.soulsyria.net).
His views of his homeland have changed since he arrived in the UAE, with this country’s fortunes serving to remind him of how far his own have fallen.
He says the biggest problem for most Syrians is financial.
“I was kind of comfortable in Syria. I had a job and I could live off the money I made,” he says. “But that wasn’t the case for others.”
Many in Syria face difficulties in carrying out even the most everyday activities, being forced to smuggle necessities such as food and medication.
“After what I’ve seen here, with the culture and great people, I am regretful over what has happened in my country,” he says.
His new home has given him the motivation to change his old one, and even though he says little is left of Syria – “not even the trees” – he is keen to return one day.
“I see here the government works for their people, they want to make them happy,” he says. “This makes me motivated to build my country the way the Emirates is.”
Of course, he says, “no country can compensate for the country I have lived and grown in. Every stone in it means the world to me.”
Ola Shamaa, a mother of three, arrived in Dubai six months ago before moving to Sharjah. She followed her husband, who had arrived three months earlier and paved the way for their move, finding a job, registering the children in schools and settling them in.
Ola says that in Damascus, before the uprising, the family had few worries. They were not involved in the protests, but after the uprising began, jobs dried up and they were forced to consider a move.
Ola’s husband was already in a business partnership with a friend in Dubai, so it was relatively easy for him to find a job in the emirate as an IT specialist.
“I left Damascus before the bombing, after that things turned bad,” she says. “I left with a good image of Syria, and I hope it will stay that way.
“I don’t feel I changed, neither did my husband. But my children were very sad, my eldest was very attached to his country and friends. He didn’t want to study or do anything else, he just wanted to go back home.”
She has three boys, aged 12, 8 and 2, but despite the work bringing them up entails she settled into UAE life quickly. She is happy with her new life, though their large family – her father-in-law also lives with them – means finances are often stretched.
She hopes to take on work to complement her husband’s salary and send money back to the family members in Syria she misses so dearly.
“Thank God we have family and friends here. The only challenge is that I am far from my parents,” she says.
She hopes to tour the UAE and visit every emirate while she is here, and says the country has impressed her for more than the economic opportunities it offers.
She is struck by the multicultural outlook of the Emirates, and how it has provided a new life for expatriates from across the world – not only those from her home country.
“In Syria we don’t get to see Indians or Egyptians or foreigners. It’s nice to meet other people and get to know them,” she says.