Young men gather in front of the al-Salihiyah Recruitment Branch in the Syrian capital Damascus, 3/2/2019 (Lens Young Dimashqi)
PARIS — Out of options and needing to leave Syria “to escape conscription,” Hussam al-Nasser decided to travel to Somalia last year, “regardless of the security situation.” For him, “the worst conditions here are better than taking part in the war in Syria.”
Nasser, 25, reached the Somali capital city of Mogadishu in December 2021. He left Syria after graduating from the Faculty of Dentistry at Tishreen University in Damascus-controlled Latakia province, as he had exhausted “opportunities for academic postponement,” Nasser told Syria Direct. He, like all sources quoted in this report, asked to be referred to by a pseudonym out of fear for his family in Syria.
Somalia, alongside Iraq and Libya, is a recent destination for young Syrians due to deteriorating security and economic conditions at home. This is despite all three—like Syria—falling among the ten lowest-ranking countries on the 2021 Global Peace Index.
But while emigrating to avoid conscription allows some Syrians to find relative safety, it also contributes to a “brain drain” of doctors and others with scientific and professional competencies that is deepening Syria’s internal crisis and contributing to the suffering of citizens there.
Running away from serving Assad
Following the 2018 settlements between the opposition and the Bashar al-Assad regime in central and southern Syria, which ended with the latter taking control of East Ghouta, Daraa, Quneitra, and the northern Homs countryside, Damascus launched security campaigns in search of those wanted by the security services or sought for compulsory military service and the reserves.
With young people of varied political orientations feeling as though they are cannon fodder for a war in which they are the losers, and that there is no way to avoid conscription apart from an academic postponement or medical exemption, some see the choice to leave Syria as the best option, even if it means going to countries experiencing similar instability.
In early 2019, Omran al-Khaled, 22, traveled to Libya. The prospect of “dying while working in a country experiencing internal conflicts,” he told Syria Direct, was preferable to “fighting in the ranks of a repressive regime that killed my relatives and destroyed my country.”
Al-Khaled lived in opposition-controlled territory in southern Syria’s Daraa province before the regime entered it under the 2018 settlement. When that happened, he became wanted for compulsory military service, driving him to travel to Libya “as it is one of the few countries that receives Syrians.”
Today, al-Khaled works installing flooring in the capital city, Tripoli, for 70 Libyan dinars (around $15) a day. He saves part of his monthly income to support his family in Syria, and although “the salary isn’t enough for life here, the situation is much better than Syria in all respects.”
Similarly, Omar al-Rabeea, 28, who is also from Daraa province, chose to travel to Libya so he “wouldn’t be drafted into military service and forced to participate in the war,” he told Syria Direct.
Al-Rabeea left Syria before the deadline for “resolving statuses” granted by the regime after the 2018 settlements for those wanted for or who failed to complete military service, ran out. He first headed to Benghazi, controlled by the Libyan National Army (LNA) under Khalifa Haftar, then continued to Tripoli, controlled by the Government of National Accord (GNA), where he lives now.
Yael Suleiman, 24, does not share al-Khaled and Rabeea’s political views and never faced any problems with the Damascus government, but nevertheless chose to leave the coastal city of Tartus in late 2021. After finishing his university studies in psychology, Suleiman could no longer postpone his conscription for academic reasons, and left Syria for the Iraqi capital city of Baghdad. He was faced with two options, “either join the military, or leave, [the latter of] which was the most suitable option for me,” he said.
In 2021, Dr. Anas Ghanem, 32, finished his medical residency in cardiac surgery at the government-run Ibn al-Nafees Hospital in Damascus, and found himself facing conscription.
Unlike most of those wanted for military service, Ghanem could enlist “in the army as a doctor, and spend my service in military hospitals,” he said. But he preferred to “leave the country over performing military service,” he told Syria Direct. He wanted to “find a good job opportunity that would provide me with a decent life.”
Ghanem started looking for a job opportunity outside Syria through companies that specialize in recruiting individuals with scientific and medical skills. He was offered a “job opportunity at a medical center in the Iraqi capital Baghdad for a monthly salary of $1,800,” he said. During his residency, he was paid SYP 99,000 (approximately $26), and if he worked at a private hospital in Syria he could expect to make $250.
Syrian doctors have a good reputation in Iraq, according to Zaher Zaher, director of the Zaher Medical Recruitment Office licensed in Iraq. Offices like Zaher’s “secure job opportunities in coordination with medical centers and hospitals in all Iraqi governorates,” he said, so long as the doctor pays, “if a contract is signed, between $500 and $2,000, depending on the duration of the contract and the salary.”
While Ghanem found a job in his field before arriving in Baghdad, Suleiman did not. He is currently working at a hotel in Sadr City, Baghdad.
Since the Syrian revolution broke out in March 2011, Syria has been losing its highly trained citizens, including doctors. Out of 32,000 doctors registered with the Syrian Medical Association, there are only 20,000 doctors in the country, according to a February 2021 statement by the association’s head, Kamal Amer, to pro-Damascus newspaper al-Watan.
The draining of medical personnel, specifically, has made some medical specialties rare in Syria. These include anesthesiology, thoracic medicine, thoracic surgery, neurology, and neurosurgery, the deputy head of the Syrian Medical Association, Ghassan Fendi, told al-Watan in December 2021.
The head of Health Occupations Association in Aleppo estimated in January 2022 that there are some 300 Syrian doctors in Somalia, and 1,000 more in Iraq, telling the Istanbul-based pro-opposition Syria TV network that “Syria currently tops the list of exporters of medical degrees.”
After every explosion or clash in Mogadishu, al-Nasser “feels worried,” but tries to go about his life “normally, as I have no other choice,” he said. If he were to return to Syria, he would be “part of the war there.”
Somalia is seeing continuous attacks by the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab, the latest of which was on February 16, when the group attacked police stations and security checkpoints in Mogadishu belonging to the Somali government.
Attacks in Mogadishu have claimed the lives of civilians, including Syrian refugees. A number of Syrian doctors have also been killed there, as in the case of Dr. Muhannad Ali Ahmad, who was killed by an explosion that struck his car in January 2019.
Prior to that, six doctors were killed in an armed attack on the outskirts of Mogadishu in December 2013. Three of the six doctors killed were Syrian, while a fourth Syrian doctor was injured.
With unstable security conditions, Nasser is not scared of dying so much as dying “far from my family,” he said. “But maybe dying far from my family is better than dying as a killer,” he added.
Al-Nasser says he has “no future in this country [Somalia], but will keep working until things get worse, or I have a chance to work in a safer country.”
For al-Khaled, in Tripoli, it is not the sporadic clashes between the opposing forces there that have led him to think about seeking out another country, but rather “the negative view of some Libyans towards Syrians, which turns into actions,” he said.
Al-Khaled was robbed in 2019 “by two young Libyans who assaulted me after they found out I was Syrian,” he said. “They stole the money I had on me and my work equipment.”
Today, he is considering a perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. “I have no choice left but to ride the sea–either I’ll die, or I’ll get there.”
This report was originally published in Arabic on March 1, 2022 and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.