Shattered dreams of Syrian refugees in Morocco

//The border between Morocco and Algeria

"O Mohammed VI, King of Morocco! I beg you to grant me a visa [...], my mother died... ". In Turkey, from where he attempted three times to enter the "Cherifien" territory to reach his father - a deserter of Bashar Al Assad's army, married for the second time with a woman from Tetouan - the young Haidar Jabali (11) from Homs , is the symbol of the hopes of thousands of Syrians who have gone to Morocco to get a decent life.

The video of his pleading to the king, posted on YouTube in early August by Laila Ben Allal, a Dutch-Moroccan journalist, ignited social networks. The local press has shown sympathy to the story along with some human rights activist, and they have spread his picture lying on the floor, in a transit area of ​​the airport of Casablanca, where he was rejected. Boutaïna Azzabi, a Moroccan former correspondent of Al Jazeera who took him under her wings in Istanbul, came to accompany him in the consular gardens of the kingdom to make him pose with white shirt and bow tie, in front of a huge portrait of the king on the occasion of the Throne Day. By coincidence or subliminal response, during his speech for the 62th anniversary of the Revolution of the King and the People, Mohammed VI said: "Morocco will never be a land of refuge, with all the realism I say: we already have our domestic priorities".


Curbing the terrorist threat

So far the kingdom, decentralized compared to the conflict zones that have dismembered part of the Near East, has received, starting from the waves of the Arab spring, thousands of Syrians; 5 thousand of them have benefited from exceptional regularization procedures established by the government in 2014 . More than 1,500 Syrians have also been registered in the lists of the High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR). "The overall figures are approximate", acknowledges André Berking, in charge of foreign relations at the UNHCR office in Rabat.

Morocco is far from having to deal with the huge influx that has affected countries neighboring the conflict zones where regular armies, loyal militias, revolutionary factions and combatants of the organization of the (so-called) Islamic State (IS) clash. The HCR has reviewed at the end of August 2015 more than 4 million Syrians who have taken refuge in makeshift camps set up mainly in Turkey (1.8 million), Lebanon (1.2 million), Jordan (600 thousand) and Iraq (250 thousand ). Further to the west, North Africa has registered 24 thousand displaced people, according to statistics of HCR.

Listening to the King, Morocco therefore confirmed the inflection of its admissions policy. An authorized source states: "We continue to receive refugees at a rapid pace, whether they come from East Africa or the Middle East. Our only concern, beyond the humanitarian aspects to which we are obviously sensitive, is purely securitarian."

Last July, the arrest at the Mohammed V airport in Casablanca of a Syrian with a fake passport who was intending to create a terrorist cell affiliated with the Islamic State illustrates this point. Without however justifying the case of young Haidar, whose father was regularized after forming a new family in Morocco. A month before the arrest of the Syrian in Casablanca, three Afghans suspected of wanting to carry out an attack on Moroccan soil had been intercepted on arrival in Marrakech. Morocco had previously been regarded as a breeding ground for jihadists to join the ranks of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in Syria and Iraq. It is estimated that more than 1,500 enrolled in IS, most from the north of the country, a region known for its religious conservatism.

The same source states: "It's not just about recruiters who try to infiltrate radical circles, but also technicians experienced in combat that aim not only to train the local supporters of the IS, but also to push them into action". He adds: "The implementation of the plan Hadar, the equivalent of French Vigipirate (which provides for enhanced surveillance for the press, department stores, places of worship, schools and means of transport, TN), in addition to surveillance, falls within the context of the real threat that we must curb at all costs. "

The security concerns of Rabat are at the origin of this crackdown. It could also explain the sluggishness of Morocco in legislating the "National Strategy of immigration and asylum", a vast plan of integration of irregular migrants that had been formally registered by the Palace and the government on the recommendations of the National Council of Human Rights, in 2012.

This strategy has allowed in 2014 to grant 18 thousand residence permits to asylum seekers. "It is always important that Morocco present to parliament the draft law on asylum. This law will allow the Moroccan authorities to recognize the Syrians as refugees and not only as migrants ", insists Bergink. In a recent report, last July, the Syrian Network for Human Rights says that Morocco is one of the most deterrent states against migrants in the Near East.


The disillusionment

The motives of the Syrian refugees are different. For those on a journey of thousands of kilometers, the main destination is often initially Algeria. This is the case of Mohamed, a trader in his forties, who came from Homs. He lived a few months, accompanied by his mother, his partner and her four children in a shack near Port Said Square in central Algiers, before embarking in 2013 on a flight to Casablanca. Morocco has attracted him by word of mouth.

He is not one of the first comers. Over the years, and even before the war, some Syrian workers in the countryside, restaurateurs with oriental culinary experience in the cities or simply storekeepers in industrial suburbs of Tangier or elsewhere, were welcomed with open arms. Among them, Bilal, owner of a kebab shop in Mers-Sultan, in the old colonial center of Casablanca with décoarchitecture. His business, situated between two bars always full of people, it is booimng.

Now in his sixties, he left Damascus when Hafez Al Assad, the founding father of Baathist Syria, died in 2000. "I came to Morocco with all my savings, have bought this place from an old Moroccan Jew who had a grocery store here." Jovial, Bilal he darkens when asked about his opinion on his fellow compatriots who have arrived after 2011. "They are attracted by Morocco, by its stability, the opportunities it offers. But, beware, our communities are different and independent, and some are folded into themselves, it is difficult that they adapt here. "

Proud of his status as a first comer who built his home here and whose children "are Moroccans as others", he refuses to be assimilated "to those who arrived from Aleppo on foot or with a few rags."

Jihad Firaoun, in Morocco since 1996, is of the same opinion. A privileged interlocutor of the authorities, he is keen to differentiate the Syrians according to their ethnic origin, revealing through his speech the complexity of the situation of refugees.

Zoubair mosque, district of Oulfa, dormitory suburbs of Casablanca. Mohamed is from those areas. He has already faced the disillusionment. Hopes that he nourished the first few days after his arrival are dissolved. He could not find any jobs in a factory or in some shop. Today he looks for charitable souls leaving friday prayers. In his small, barely furnished apartment in Hay Essalam Farah, a new town with buildings dressed up but with crumbling stairs that encase the working class, Mohamed tells, tired, his misadventures. "I departed for Lebanon one year after the outbreak of the unrest in Syria" he says, sipping his tea with mint.

Over there, the five months in the camp in Bekka, on the road from Damascus to Beirut, convinced him to leave. "The conditions were unbearable. We took a flight to Algeria, that does not require a visa." But even there, the situation led him to leave. "The Algerians have a very extreme idea of ​​what is happening in Syria. We are considered terrorists."

According to him authorities in Morocco, where he arrived thanks to the traffickers through the border town of Oujda, have proven to be more "lenient". "In particular, as regards the residence permit and the possibility to educate our children." But for Mohamed and many like him, integration is not an easy thing. "In Syria, I had a small shop selling second-hand clothes. Here I struggle to find event the smallest work. " The monthly salary, paid under the table, offered to him rarely reaches 1500 DH (140 Euros), not enough to pay the rent of 1,900 DH (190 Euros). "My Moroccan neighbors advised me to beg in mosques", he confesses, holding a child in his arms. And he adds: "I still prefer to extend my hand rather than leave my children out on the street, luckily my owner (home) is comprehensive and allows us to pay the rent with a little delay...".

Mohamed turns and looks through his barred window towards somewhere still inaccessible. His ultimate goal is Belgium, where his distant cousins ​​live in wealth.

But not all owners are so conciliatory. In Kenitra, a medium-sized town north of Rabat, promising development thanks to the automotive industry, Oum Ahmad, mother of three children, whose husband has been unemployed since their tavern of Syrian specialities closed its doors , risk expulsion. The family, from native Deera - bastion of resistance against Assad - occupies a small house for 2700 DH a month (260 euro). "We are drowning in debt and we have six months' rent arrears" she sighs.

She knocked in vain on the doors of NGOs. "The aid provided, in addition to being little, is very specific. Take for example the HCR, in six months we were granted one allowance of 1500 DH (140 euro). What can I do with such a small sum? ". Oum Ahmad thinks of trying her luck in Europe. Objective: to force the passage from Melilla, a Spanish enclave north of Morocco, protected by a high metal fence. "I would have preferred to stay in Morocco, the people here are friendly, it feels good here. But how can we manage to live decently? There are not many jobs, Moroccans themselves struggle to make ends meet. The only solution is that the state shoul aid refugees as in France. Otherwise, how could the things turn out?".


 "We used to have two cars, we were normal people"

The neighborhood of Hay Riad in Rabat is the new showcase of the capital.

In the town center stands the tower Maroc Telecom, made of glass and steel. Here, far from the hotel Afriquia, across town at the edge of the medina, some Syrian refugees beg for money where the stench of mold reaches them. From their hotel, seized by the authorities to rent it, a dozen families from Aleppo, Damascus or Itlib, take the tram without paying for the ticket to go to the university campus. From there, after only three kilometers on foot they reach the parking lot of the Marjane supermarket, passport under their arms, hoping to get some change from the customers of the mall.

Fatima, dressed in a black and used abaya, passes from car to car. "We are a Syrian family, help us!". The signs of fatigue are clearly visible in the eyes of this fifty years old, and also in those of his two children that accompany her. Fatima begs, exasperated, to the journalists who go to interview her every day: "Please do not take pictures, I do not want to be recognized in Syria. They could kill what's left of my family there." She lost everything in Hama, the ancient Epiphania, a city doubly martyred; under Hafez Al Assad who in 1982 led a bloody repression against Muslim Brotherhood there, and under his successor, Bashar, who controls it with an iron fist . "The war has taken away what we used to hold most dear, our relatives and our possessions. I used to live in a big house, with my children and my grandchildren. We used to have two cars, we were normal people, like you. "



Imad Stitou

Translated by Övgü Pınar








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