Burnt out camp in Arsal, Lebanon (August 2014). Picture courtesy of Maggie Tookey
Cut off from the rest of Lebanon and accessible by just one road is Arsal, the battle front with ISIS of which you’ve probably never heard.
Largely abandoned by the Lebanese state, the north eastern town on the border with Syria has had to absorb, at a low estimate, over 80,000 Syrian refugees into its population of just 35,000.
At the height of its security problems, when all other aid groups had pulled out over safety fears, it was a small, volunteer-run Scottish charity, Edinburgh Direct Aid (EDA) that was first on the scene.
In the first 6 months of 2015, 137,000 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. The vast majority, according to UNHCR, were “fleeing from war, conflict or persecution.”
A third of those men, women and children who made it across the sea into Italy or Greece were from Syria.
The journey is not for the faint of heart. In April alone, 1,308 people drowned or went missing trying to cross the Mediterranean.
To understand Aamer’s journey you have to consider what he left behind.
After he told me his story of how he went from Homs to Edinburgh I decided to ask his opinion on some of the wider issues surrounding the exodus from his country.
Aamer keeps a handwritten note in his bedroom. He found it alongside a donated microwave when he moved to Edinburgh last month. It was a welcome note, whose anonymous writer had wished Aamer all the best in his new life in Scotland.
Aamer is not one of the Syrians who have been flown to Scotland from the camps in Lebanon and Jordan. He fled Syria at the start of 2012 and hasn’t been back since.
Over the course of three years he spent time in Egypt, Turkey, Greece, England and now, having finally received his refugee status, has decided to make new life for himself in Scotland.
His journey is one of a young, relatively well-off Syrian man, studying computer science at university to a refugee, separated from his family and starting anew in a foreign country
Marwa is from Aleppo in Syria.
The country’s largest city, and one that has suffered greatly in power struggles between the regime and rebel forces. At the time of writing the sole supply route to the regime-held areas of the city has been cut off by an ISIS advance, leaving hundreds of thousands stranded with the price of basic goods sky rocketing.
Marwa’s father, sister and extended family are the city, suffering the day to day “hell” of existence there. She, however, lives in Scotland with her husband and children. She was here when the war broke out, working as a teaching fellow at a Scottish university.
Wissam is frustrated.
We’re sitting in a cafe in Edinburgh talking about how he came here from Damascus. Our interview was less interview, more informal chat – aided by his friend Keefe who he met through Re-Act.
He jokes that she is his translator – she shakes her head and explains that they have been teaching each other one word here and there.
He twirls his finger by his head – “You remember?” – “Majnun,” she replies.
IT WAS political theatre writ large – four rounds of voting, two cancelled due to an extra ballot, along with a vote for Zorba the Greek and another for the wife of a former rival – but Lebanon finally has its 13th president in Michel Aoun.
Fireworks were heard across Beirut as supporters of the octogenarian former commander of the Lebanese army and Hezbollah ally celebrated his election yesterday, the 46th attempt to fill the void left when former president Michel Sleiman’s term ended back in May 2014.
After a dizzying array of about-faces, Aoun’s election brings to an end a paralysing political stalemate that has prevented parliament from legislating or holding elections, and crippled the country’s state institutions.