From Syria to Mecca: Stories of pilgrimage in wartime

AMMAN: Nearly three million Muslims from around the world will leave for Saudi Arabia this week to perform the annual hajj pilgrimage to Islam’s holy city of Mecca.

For observant Muslims, the hajj is a pillar of the faith—a cathartic journey to the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, where the Qur’an is said to have first been revealed to mankind.

But for Syrian Muslims hoping to make the journey, they must first be granted a special hajj visa from the Saudi government, which cut diplomatic ties with the Assad regime in 2012. The only way Syrian citizens can perform the hajj is to go through the Saudi-sanctioned office of the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition (SNC).

The Saudi government uses a system of quotas and lotteries to choose who can legally perform hajj each year. For 2017, 15,000 Syrians were granted hajj visas from SNC offices in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, northern Syria, Egypt and the Gulf States.

The Syrian opposition’s role as liaison between pilgrims and the Saudi government creates a complex political issue for those still residing in parts of Syria under the control of the Assad regime. For many Syrians there, even contact with the Syrian opposition to perform the hajj can be a terrifying prospect.

“On the way back from hajj they would know where I’d been,” one Damascus resident tells Syria Direct. “I think that’s something that would cause problems for me.”

For others, the nearest SNC office could be beyond a closed-off border crossing or in area that is inaccessible for security reasons.

Syrian pilgrims fly to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia from Gazientep on Monday. Photo courtesy of the Syrian Higher Council for Pilgrimage.

The only way to perform hajj for most Syrians “is via Damascus, and then onto Lebanon,” says a resident of Al-Hasakah city in Syria’s Kurdish-run northeast. “But the path to get there is unsafe.”

Syria Direct spoke with three aspiring Syrian pilgrims living in Jordan, government-controlled Damascus and Kurdish-held Al-Hasakah city as the seventh hajj season since the beginning of the war approaches. Of them, only one, a Syrian refugee in Jordan, was granted a visa.

Al-Hasakah

When 65-year-old Umm Abdullah and her husband first returned home to Al-Hasakah city in Syria’s farthest northeast reaches from their hajj pilgrimage a decade ago, they were welcomed with a celebration for the entire neighborhood to see.

Olive branches adorned their front door. Family members had painted the exterior walls of the house with slogans denoting it a “blessed home,” a gesture of respect for Muslims—often elderly—who have completed hajj. “Everyone treated me differently,” she says, “like I had become a better person.”

“The entire neighborhood would pass by our house, and they’d know we just returned from hajj.”

But 10 years later, with restrictions on travel from Syria to Saudi Arabia, Umm Abdullah hasn’t seen any hajj celebrations “for a while.” And though she wants to go on a second pilgrimage to Mecca, she says she cannot due to the war.

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A pilgrim in Mecca waves a Syrian revolutionary flag in 2013. Photo courtesy of Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images.

“There are no hajj [registration] offices in Rojava,” she says. Rojava is the name given by majority-Kurdish authorities to the de facto autonomous region of northern Syria. “The only way is via Damascus, and then onto Lebanon, but the path to get there is unsafe. And Turkey has closed its borders” to Al-Hasakah.

Eid al-Adha, the holiday corresponding with the annual hajj pilgrimage, has also lost its joy for Umm Abdullah, she says. Before the war her nine children used to gather every year to celebrate and exchange gifts.

Only three of her children still remain in Al-Hasakah, with the rest spread across Turkey, Austria, Germany and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Among her neighbors, “there is no house that does not share in this sadness,” she says. “I just hope that we can all return to live together some day.”

Damascus

Abu Abdo, 60, is a former government employee living with his wife in a regime-controlled neighborhood of Damascus. Each of his three children are married and living abroad, with Abu Abdo living off his monthly retirement check in the Syrian capital.

In the two years before the war, Abu Abdo applied twice—and was rejected twice—to perform hajj in Saudi Arabia.

“I wasn’t old enough the first time,” Abu Abdo tells Syria Direct. “After the war broke out, applying became challenging—especially for people living in Damascus.”

Abu Abdo worries that performing hajj could be a one-way trip. As a resident of the government-controlled Syrian capital, he must apply for a hajj visa to Saudi Arabia via the opposition-formed Syrian National Coalition (SNC)—an operation that Abu Abdo fears could affect his standing with the Assad regime.

For its part, the SNC says its hajj office is not affiliated with any side in the Syrian war and acts merely as an intermediary.

“On the way back from hajj they would know where I’d been and that I’d gone via the opposition,” Abu Abdo tells Syria Direct. “I think that’s something that would cause problems for me.”

Amman, Jordan

In Jordan’s capital city, 49-year-old Umm Nadim lives as a refugee with her husband and three children. Six years after fleeing her native Homs city, she is set to become one of 2,000 Syrian pilgrims to depart for Mecca from Jordan in the coming days.

“I still can’t believe this is happening to me,” she tells Syria Direct. “It’s like a dream.”

After a suggestion from a friend, Umm Nadim went to the SNC office in Amman to apply for a hajj visa to Saudi Arabia. For a Syrian pilgrim residing in Jordan, the SNC offers an all-inclusive package to Mecca for $2,300—far beyond the family’s financial capabilities.

“At first I told my friend ‘no’, that I couldn’t afford it,” she says. “But she told me to do it anyway, that there was a Jordanian charity—Ahl al-Kheir—that would cover all the costs.

Umm Nadim’s friend persisted, and despite her reservations she eventually paid the five Jordanian dinar [approx: $7] registration fee. After she received her visa forSaudi Arabia, Ahl al-Kheir paid for the remainder of her trip.

For Umm Nadim, the upcoming trip to Mecca is the culmination of years of attempts to receive a pilgrimage visa before the war broke out. “Once I applied but was rejected because I was too young,” she says. “Another time, they rejected me because I didn’t have anyone to accompany me.” Female pilgrims require male guardians to join them on the trip, according to Saudi law.

“Now, my husband and I are going together.”

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.