Amman- Speaking in a hushed voice so as not to disturb his sleeping bunkmates, Mohammad al-Zu’bi recounted a tired story of exile that knows no end.
Mohammed, 25 and from southern Syria’s Daraa, lives with other young refugees: Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian, in a small house in the neighborhood of Acharnon in the Greek capital of Athens.
Speaking to Syria Direct from a room in a youth hostel, Mohammed said he is seeking asylum in Europe after four years in Saudi Arabia, where he was not allowed to work.
Mohammad left Syria in 2015, fleeing compulsory conscription into the ranks of the Syrian Army, arriving in Saudi Arabia on a family visitor’s visa “as a brother accompanying his mother.”
Because of his visitor’s visa, Mohammad was barred from seeking opportunities in the Saudi job market. After a three-month search, he eventually found an under-the-table job in a company that sold clothing. They offered him a small monthly salary in exchange for working 11 and 12-hour days.
When Mohammad first started working, the authorities “turned a blind eye to Syrian workers who violated” the regulations, even though he and others like him “are technically barred from work,” Zu’bi said.
The policy of turning a blind eye came about in the first years of the Syrian revolution. But later, expatriate labor became a subject of public focus, and especially in Saudi Arabia, where the government favors local workers over foreigners in what is known as the “Saudization” of the country’s labor market.
In August 2017, the Saudi Interior Ministry and Ministry of Labor and Social Development approved a program aimed at “preparing plans and implementation mechanisms related to Saudizing occupations in economic sectors and activities.”
After nine months working in the clothing company, Mohammad was dismissed from his position. The administration’s reason was, according to him, “We can no longer keep you because you are barred from working.”
Mohammad searched for and found other work, this time in a kitchen cabinet workshop. He stayed there for two years, but the government crackdown increased. Anyone caught working off the books “is fined, and so is the employer,” Mohammad said.
The Saudi Ministry of Labor and Social Development requires foreign workers to “enter the country in a legitimate manner and be authorized to work… and to possess a competence that cannot otherwise be found among [Saudi] nationals… or to be from the category of common laborers of which the country is in need.”
The Saudi Labor Ministry has laid out a set of offenses by expatriate workers and their employers, including what is known as “irregular employment.”
The first offense carries a fine of 10,000 Saudi Riyal ($2,665) and deportation from the country. For the second offense, the punishment is a fine of 25,000 Riyal ($6,666) and one month imprisonment, followed by deportation. For the third, the offender is fined 50,000 Riyal ($13,316) faces six months’ imprisonment and again, deportation.
Workers are not the only targets. Anyone who conceals, harbors or provides any means of assistance to unauthorized foreign workers is subject to even harsher punishments. Under the regulation, an employer is to be punished with a fine of 15,000 Riyal ($3,995) for the first offense. For the second offense, a 30,000 Riyal ($8,000) fine and three months imprisonment. And for the third, a 100,000 Riyal ($26,632) fine and six months imprisonment. If the employer or abettor is an expatriate, she or he will also be deported.
In light of the strict laws, Mohammad sought to change his visitor’s visa to a residency visa, but his application was not accepted. “Your visa is a visitor’s visa, and it will stay that way,” was the response Mohammad said he received. So he chose to leave the country.
“As a visitor, if you need medical treatment, you will foot the bill, except in emergencies,” Mohammad told Syria Direct, adding, “You can’t get a driver’s licence. The kids of illegal workers can enroll in schools, but the priority is for Saudi citizens, then for residents and for lastly visitors.”
After receiving a Turkish visa, Mohammad arrived in Istanbul in November 2018, where he stayed for 20 days. He set out for the city of Bodrum, on Turkey's southwest coast, near the Greek island of Kos.
From Bodrum, Mohammad embarked for Greece on smugglers’ boats. He managed to arrive on his third attempt, after twice being arrested by the Turkish coast guard.
In the same month that Mohammad arrived in Turkey, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees announced that 2,000 people had met their deaths attempting to cross the Mediterranean that year. But 100,000 asylum seekers and migrants reached Europe’s shores that year, and Mohammad was among them.
Today, he is still only halfway there. His goal is to reach the Netherlands, to compensate for what he missed out on during his years in Saudi Arabia. The Saudization policy has not simply affected the visa system, it has directly affected the lives of foreigners as measures to restrict their employment are escalating.
After seven years of stability and comfort, Malaz al-Homsi decided to leave Saudi Arabia after “the situation worsened and the treatment of foreigners -- or anyone other than Saudis -- began to change.”
Malaz, 34, is married and has two children. He had been working in Saudi Arabia since 2011, where he arrived after a stay in the United Arab Emirates.
But this past year, “everything I earn is completely spent,” he told Syria Direct -- and that is on top of his difficulties registering his children for school.
“My wife was an airline hostess. The authorities did not accept transferring her sponsorship from the company’s name to my name, as her husband, so I was left without papers. My first and second child, both of them are without papers,” Malaz said.
In the meantime, he began to search the internet for ways to migrate. His priority was that he not be separated from his wife and children. He found an opportunity to submit papers for travel to the United States.
But without civil documents and without passports for his children, he could only apply for American visas for himself and his wife. Upon review of his file at the Saudi consulate in Jeddah, his children’s file was rejected. So he decided to travel alone.
Malaz will never forget saying goodbye to his family as he prepared to leave Saudi Arabia on July 18, 2017. “That night was one of the worst of my life. I cried over my whole life.”
Despite his love for travel and flying, “this trip was completely different. I was separating from my wife and children. I did not know what future awaited me.”
After arriving in the U.S., Malaz was imprisoned over doubts about the validity of his visa. After serving his time, he headed for the Canadian border.
Today he lives as a refugee in Canada while awaiting the day he will reunite with his family and bring them all together again under one roof.
Mohammad and Malaz’s stories are like those of many Syrians who are prevented from going home due to the war. And though many have managed to escape, a large number of Syrians that landed in Saudi Arabia find themselves unable to leave that country.
“There are Syrians in Saydi Arabia in desperate situations. They are unable to travel even to Turkey. They are really suffering,” Izzedine Mohammad, originally from Damascus but currently living in Riyadh, told Syria Direct.
“Those who can leave Saudi Arabia are those with money, and with valid residence papers. Those with financial problems or without proper authorization are fined when they try to leave, and can’t get out until they settle the matter and pay the dues,” Izzedine, 40, explained.
While Syrian refugees in Saudi Arabia seek to better their situation, Syrians in Europe are beginning to feel the benefits of stability and integration in their new countries.
“I wish I could stay in Saudi Arabia, an Arab country, but the circumstances became difficult,” Mohammad al-Zu’bi said. “When I compare the four years I spent in Saudi Arabia with the experience of my friends who arrived in Germany, Holland or Sweden, their situation is better.”
“They got official residency, they receive health insurance, they can travel,” he said, adding, “It’s the opposite for me. I can’t do anything.”
This report is part of the "Voices from the Diaspora" podcast series. To listen to the Arabic version, click here:
This report is part of a podcast training project conducted by Syria Direct in cooperation with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung foundation
Translated by: Jared Szuba