Syrian Refugees in Libya Compare the Two Uprisings
He has purple, bruiselike depressions beneath his eyes. She stares at the floor. The faces of their three young children are covered in mosquito bites. Together, they sit on a pair of thin, donated mattresses on the floor of their temporary home. He does all the talking.
By the time the family fled Homs two months ago, the city had become Syria’s most infamous killing field. Residents say President Bashar Assad’s forces lobbed shells and bullets at besieged residents like they were animals in a cage. Massacres begot funerals and demonstrations that begot more massacres. Mohamed (whose name has been changed to protect the loved ones he left behind) remembers he dropped to the ground at one such funeral as Syrian forces opened fire — only to feel the bodies of those who were slower fall lifeless on top of him. “They didn’t fall fast enough and they killed them,” he says, his voice cracking.
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The family’s escape several weeks later was no less harrowing. The shelling barely missed them — four adults and six children — as they abandoned their home and fled south for the Jordanian border. Now they’re safe, they say, because they’re nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away from Homs, in Benghazi, Libya.
Syrian refugees have fled to Libya in the thousands in recent months, although no official figures are available. In the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, Yahya al-Jamal, who helps run the Union of Syrian Revolutionaries there, a humanitarian outreach group, says he registered more than 700 new Syrian families in March alone.
Most of them fled the southern Syrian cities of Homs and Hama as the Assad regime shelled and shot at civilian areas where residents had staged protests and the rebel Free Syrian Army had found strongholds. But those who have made the long trek to Libya say that the North African state — currently going through its own tumultuous transition since the revolution that toppled the 42-year regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi last year — has been far more welcoming than most.
Libya’s transitional government was one of the first foreign governments to formally recognize the opposition Syrian National Council, and it said in February that it would donate $100 million to the Syrian opposition. Across the country, Syrian refugees say that Libya has not only offered them a safer haven than Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, but that local volunteers have also helped keep them off the streets. “No one is living in refugee camps,” says Mohamed Tarek Ziad, a young activist from Homs, who escaped a death sentence from the regime and settled in the eastern Libyan city of Darnah. “People have offered us houses and are working to get us assistance,” he says. “Even the imams in the mosque — in each prayer, they pray for Syria. And sometimes they join us in demonstrations.”
There’s something bittersweet about the hospitality in Libya, and the reason is lost on few. “The Libyans have tasted the same pain,” says al-Jamal, whose organization has shipped medical supplies to the refugee camps on Turkey’s Syrian border, in addition to keeping hundreds of local refugee families afloat. “So that’s why they’re helping.”
But it’s more than that. The reason Libya is safe for Syrians, many say, is because unlike Syria’s own ongoing struggle, the Libyan revolution succeeded. Libyans not only killed their dictator Muammar Gaddafi but also toppled his regime — and conspicuously, they did so with help.