x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

For some, going home is not an option

Expats struggle with decision to return to homelands struggling with revolution.

Should I stay or should I go?

That is the question facing many Libyans and Syrians in the UAE amid the Arab Spring.

Some are postponing their annual summer visits home, or relocating relatives and special events away from the turmoil in their countries.

Others are going home, saying the violence had not reached their family's neighbourhoods.

It seems to come down to a personal calculation of safety.

Hamad Kassab Bachi, a 38-year-old Syrian businessman, said he used to travel home from Abu Dhabi every few months. But with the Syrian government continuing to suppressprotests across the country, his final trip was two weeks ago to bring his mother back to the UAE.

"You don't want to take a risk, basically," he said. "You do not know how things are going to go. Things can escalate in five minutes."

Other Syrian expatriates said they would postpone visits home despite their close relatives still being there. Ahmed Sammari, a 23-year-old student at the American University of Sharjah, said he had had to cancel his first trip home in four years, planned for this summer.

"I really miss it and miss my family there, but what can one do in such circumstances?" he said.

Mohammed Wassim Khayata, 39, however, whose family and business take him to Damascus once a month, said those trips would continue. He said his parents, who had visited him in Abu Dhabi for three months before returning to the Syrian capital in March, had no plans to leave.

"It is not as safe as it used to be, but it doesn't mean it isn't safe," he said. "It is safe.

"There are Syrians planning not to go back for summer holidays. Personally, I will be going on my summer holiday as usual without any worries."

As for Libya, which faces continued violence as Col Muammar Qaddafi and opposition forces battle on the ground and Nato bombs from the air, expatriates are staying away.

Ismail, a 33-year-old engineer in Abu Dhabi who declined to give his last name, has repeatedly postponed his wedding set for April in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. His fiancée and their families and friends live there, and up to 400 guests would have gathered to celebrate for days, he said.

Now they have decided to move the wedding to Tunisia. The families will try to get there by car in the coming weeks, and he will fly over.

"Hopefully, within a week they will cross the border and we'll set a date," he said. "A small family wedding is fine.

"I will miss the wedding party [in Tripoli] with my friends and all my family, but I can't wait until the issue is solved," he said. "The situation is getting worse every day."

Amal Eldarrat, a 23-year-old Libyan-American who has just graduated from university, said she had cancelled two trips to Tripoli - in March for a wedding and for a holiday next month. She has started thinking instead about going to Spain or New York.

But if Col Qaddafi falls while she is away, she'll take the next flight home, she said. "We'll say, forget New York, we should go and celebrate with everyone."

Expatriates from Egypt, which overthrew its leader in February but remains tense amid strikes and protests against the interim military rulers and reports of sporadic violence, feel more comfortable going home.

Sayed Sadik, a 30-year-old living in Abu Dhabi, said he would not mind visiting Cairo, though he had no immediate plans to go.

"I don't have a problem visiting Egypt, though I hear scary stories there now," he said, citing reports of gang attacks in parts in the capital.  "The security situation is not as it was before."


With additional reporting by Mary Sophia


In their words

Salma Serry, 21

Egyptian, graduating in mass communication from the American University of Sharjah

“I feel like going back and helping to reconstruct Egypt. We are aware that there is not going to be a huge change in the short term, as it has been just five months since the revolution. [The revolution] has definitely given me a push about having control of my life and future. I went back a month ago and there was a feeling of positivity which was not there before. They had no hope of changing the country before but now that is not the case.

I feel Egypt has an optimistic future.

I don’t think the revolution has limited any possibilities. I’ve always wanted to go back. If I go back, I’ll be helping the country in a way, helping my future children in a way. This is where I feel at home. I would have gone back anyway but that feeling of urgency to go back is here now. It feels like so much is going on. It was really hard to help when Mubarak was around and we felt that no matter how positive you are it is never enough.”

Ahmad Saleh, 21

Syrian, studying marketing at the American University of Sharjah

“Things in Syria are not going to be easy. I am not very sure that we are going to benefit from the revolution – for all we know, the future governments can be worse than the existing ones leading to people suffering again. I personally want to experiment in the financial sector and own a business when I graduate, but I don’t think I will do that in Syria. Problems like unemployment cannot be solved in the short run in Syria. I think it will take at least five to 10 years to set things right. There is no change so far and now I think they are making rules that are worse than before. I’d love to go back, but I have been living here for the past 19 years. It is kind of hard to work in Syria. We ran into some problems in our business as we had some problems with the taxing procedures there. I don’t think I’ll be able to work there. I am optimistic about the future of Syria. We can do so many things. Syria has the resources to do them.”

Motasem Wael, 20

Jordanian, studying graphic design and mass communication at the University of Sharjah

“People now think that they can change their life. You can change yourself to be better. When you see change happening elsewhere you will be motivated to see change in yourself. Poverty is a huge problem in all these countries and so is the corruption. After the revolutions, I am hoping that there will be a respite from corruption in these countries and they will try to clear the poverty. There is an equal chance for the students in these countries to be as good as students from the other countries. This is a chance for them to improve and be more developed. Revolution did not happen in my country of Jordan. But what has been happening in the other countries has definitely affected my country. Rulers and governments in other neighbouring Arab countries are trying to be people friendly now. We are hoping that with the entry of Jordan into the GCC, we would be able to deal with the poverty. I might go back to Jordan and was planning to go even before the revolution. I might go back even with the conditions existing there. But I am a photographer and would be travelling a lot. I am hoping that Jordan would definitely improve if it sees its neighbours doing well.”

Maram Arafat, 19

Egyptian, studying international relations at the American University of Sharjah

“Now I am more motivated to go and work in Egypt. I believe that there is an equal chance for everybody there. After revolution, everyone has an equal chance to get a job. There is a better chance for people to be educated. Many things that would not have happened are happening now. For example, there was a video of a teacher beating a child which was shown by an Egyptian TV channel, Al Haya, and posted on Facebook and YouTube. This is a huge step. It used to happen before too, but nobody used to take any action. Governmental schools can be as equal as any private school here. Today Egypt is a better country to live in as a whole. It is more secure now to live in. Human rights are respected in the country. I don’t think the revolution has limited anything. It has given a hope that people had lost long back. They have an incentive in life now that they can work towards making their country better. I had already decided to go back to Egypt as my dad is retiring soon. But for many, the revolution has changed their views about going back. They want to go back and settle in there. Big construction companies and engineering companies are planning projects in Egypt. They are giving a chance for the fresh graduates in Egypt to be employed. There is hope.”

Mohammed Fathi Farag, 21

Egyptian, studying business administration at the University of Sharjah

“The Arab Spring showed us that people can still be heard. They have the voice and they have the rights to be heard. I come from Egypt and after the uprising, I expected it to be safer than before but it has only become worse. But I think that would be temporary and not be permanent. Revolution has not changed much – it has led way to optimism. Now I know that I can go back if I lose my job. Revolution happened and it was started by people of my age. A few years back, if we told people that we could bring change through social networks they would have laughed at us – but look how we brought change in Egypt! In Egypt I felt that there was a huge change between the relationship between the people and the police. We feel that there is justice now. There is some calm between the bureaucracy and the people. The people have the freedom to talk. I’ll probably stay here but I would be going to Egypt in the future to visit. I am not used to living in Egypt as I have been living elsewhere for the last 21 years. I can’t raise my kids in a country where I myself will not be able to adapt.”