'They kill . . . because if they don't kill us they think we will kill them'
“WHEN I TALK to them on the phone, I hear the shooting,” says Milah (27) describing the times she is lucky enough to reach her family in Syria.
Last February she and her husband Abdul watched on TV as government tanks surrounded their neighbourhood of Baba Amr in the now besieged city of Homs. One of Abdul’s brothers was killed during the attacks and their families were forced to flee. The houses where they grew up have been reduced to rubble.
Like other exiles interviewed, Milah asked us to use her first name only for reasons of personal safety.
“Every second I am checking my phone,” says Milah, who has lived in Dublin over five years. For more than a year now, she and Abdul have spent many hours every day looking at photographs, videos and updates posted to Facebook and YouTube by independent Syrian media and opposition activists.
Milah used to respect President Bashar al-Assad as a distinguished man who had studied in Europe. “Now, I can’t even look at his picture,” she says.
Sitting in her livingroom in a quiet south Dublin suburb, she shows a photograph of a shopping mall, now a crumbling edifice, near her family’s house. A car trampled by a tank is parked outside. “I forget to clean, to cook – all day I am crying,” she says. “It’s hard to imagine, that’s my home, that’s my street.”
When Abdul’s brother was killed, Milah had to call his mother in Syria to tell her he was dead, having seen a photo of his body on Facebook.
“Imagine it, I’m in Dublin and they’re in the same town where his body is, but they can’t see him. His wife, she can’t say goodbye,” she says in disbelief. “His five-year-old son, they told him his father had gone to work with Abdul here in Dublin.”
Though hundreds have defected from the Syrian Army, Milah thinks many continue out of fear. “Now, they kill the people because if they don’t kill us they think we will kill them.”
Outside Costa Coffee in Blanchardstown shopping centre, 10 men from Syria who have set up businesses and raised families in Dublin speak with anger and disbelief about the deepening crisis in their country.
Dr Hassan, a consultant at a Dublin hospital, says his hometown has been bombarded five times by the military. “They switch off all ways of communication,” he explains. “That’s the most difficult, when you know your city is under attack but you can’t reach your family.”
Adam (23), who graduated from Trinity College Dublin recently, was born in Hartstown but most of his family, including his father and brother, are still in Syria. He has tried to raise money for medical supplies through fundraising events in college.
Adam’s uncle, whose two young children were born in Dublin, describes his time in Syria six months ago. “Where I lived is now under siege by Assad’s military,” he explains. “My car got seven bullet holes when I was there. There are snipers on the roofs.”
Adam often feels he should go to Syria to help. “Imagine if you saw a child butchered in front of you,” he says. “Imagine he was Irish. It’s our family. It’s our friends. What can you do?”
Ali (28), from the port of Baniyas says, “The only thing we can do is keep calling them.” His mother, sister and wife are still in Syria. “Now there are too many stories: they rape the women and then kill them,” he says. “Women being hurt – it’s really hard, it’s not something we can forgive.”
Last April, these men joined others from the Syrian community in Ireland to form Syrian Irish Humanitarian Aid (SIHA).
More than 11,000 civilians and 4,000 government troops have been killed during the 16-month conflict that began as a largely peaceful social uprising, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
As the conflict between the predominantly Alawi regime and the Sunni majority becomes increasingly sectarian and militarised, more than 1.5 million Syrians are now in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
Last month, Dr Hassan spoke on behalf of SIHA to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, appealing to the Irish Government and people for urgent medical aid for Syria.
“People are in need of the most basic materials, even a tourniquet to stop bleeding,” says Dr Hassan.
“They have no medical facilities or supplies and, if the security forces know, they will target them straight away. These doctors are sacrificing their lives to save the lives of others.”
SIHA has already sent medical supplies to Syria bought almost entirely using personal donations.
Fadi (38), whose sister in Damascus is sheltering several families from Homs, told of one child who needed a critical operation but because of her accent couldn’t be taken to the public hospital. “We paid for private treatment, because we couldn’t let a two-year-old girl die,” she says.
With government hospitals unsafe, doctors have set up rudimentary mobile “field hospitals” to treat the wounded. In a meeting with Minister of State for Trade and Development Joe Costello, the group appealed to Irish Aid for medical supplies to send independently to doctors in cities such as Douma and Homs. “These mobile hospitals are the best way to reach people in areas where the situation is very bad,” says Ibrahim, who works with the Syrian Media Centre. “They are really in great need.”
Basic medications such as broad-spectrum antibiotics and painkillers, empty blood bags and sutures were top of the list of supplies urgently requested. The Government, through Irish Aid, approved €500,000 in emergency funding earlier this year for the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme in response to the crisis. Humanitarian access to the country continues to be severely limited.
Irish Aid has offered to help SIHA through diplomatic assistance and the facilitation of talks with the ICRC, but officials say that direct assistance can be provided only through established channels.