x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Syrian expats fear for families' safety as phone services fail

As the uprising spreads, money transfers to some areas have stopped and phone networks have become inactive.

Many of the UAE's 160,000 Syrian residents have been cut off from their families at home over the Eid holiday.

As the uprising spreads, money transfers to some areas have stopped and phone networks have become inactive.

Mohamed Mustafa, a Syrian expatriate in Al Ain, has not been able to contact his family for days.

"Their phones are not working, and they don't have internet, so there is no way to contact them," he said. "I am from Deir El Zour [in the country's north-west] and the situation there is terrible. We do not know what is going on any more."

Mr Mustafa's friends from Damascus have also faced difficulty getting through, as phones do not always work. The money transfer network is struggling too.

An Al Ansari Exchange agent said they had been told by partner agents in Syria that they would be closed for an "indefinite period".

"The announcement came from Haram and Express [two of the biggest agencies], who usually receive the money transfers we send, saying their officers would be closed from now on in areas were the violence is severe," said the agent.

"Although we can still send money to Damascus, now it takes two days. Before, it only took a couple of hours."

Transfers to some places, such as Deraa, near the Jordanian border, have been impossible since the start of the uprising last year. Smaller agencies in violence-hit areas have also closed.

UAE Exchange stopped sending money to Syria more than three months ago. An agent said they did not know when they would resume.

While Syrians can still send money to cities including Damascus, Hama, Idlib, Tartus and Latakia, and have relatives pick it up from there, the growing unrest makes that impractical for many.

"Violence is so severe, people cannot travel from certain cities to reach Damascus. People are completely isolated," said Laila, who works in Abu Dhabi. "They may get killed on the way."

Mohamed I, who has tried several money exchanges in the UAE and been turned down by all of them, said sending money directly through banks was now the only option. "But many families do not have bank accounts, so again there is another problem," he said. "Even the ones who do, it is still not safe and we cannot trust the money will reach them, or that they would not be mugged."

For Mohamed and many others, news channels and social media are the only source of information. "We hope our families are not suffering this Eid," he said.