The Emirate of Lost Souls

In Reports

It’s a Saturday afternoon and, for once, Dubai is shady and cool. But inside a stuffy classroom in January, Maher is quoting Sun Tzu to a rapt audience. Twenty young men and six women scribble notes and shout out their ideas at Maher, a graying consultant who lights up when he begins to instruct.

“Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory,” he tells the class, reading a quote from The Art of War that’s pasted on a PowerPoint side. “Let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”

It’s an apt proverb for Maher’s students, Syrians who have recently fled their country’s civil war and have come to the jarring prosperity of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They are the lucky ones — the few who have family or friends and enough cash to secure a visit visa to the Persian Gulf. But if they want to stay, most have just one chance: to find a job — a requirement for residency. Failure to do so not only means that they will burn through their savings, but also that they will be thrust back into the brutality of war-torn Syria or the difficulty of refugee life in bordering countries.

“You have to be at the top level to enter the market. Otherwise it’s not easy to get visas,” says Anas Erabi, one of the organizers of the ad hoc charity that arranges classes like Maher’s for free. “I have a lot of friends who have come for two or three months, spent all their money trying to find a job, and then have to leave.”

More than 2 million refugees have fled Syria since 2011, and another 6.5 million are displaced within the country itself. The vast majority of the exiles left on foot over the borders to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. An estimated 32,000 families have come to the UAE, representing about 100,000 people, Syrian expatriates living here say. There is no official tally.

Many Syrians arrive on a visit visa sponsored by a family member — a temporary proposition that can cost up to 1,300 dirhams ($354) to renew each month and can be canceled at the whim of UAE authorities. Work visas, by contrast, are usually valid for two years and allow the holder the chance to bring dependents.

But to obtain a work visa, these students must find work — and the stakes are high. Once in the Gulf, many Syrians find themselves caring not just for immediate family members but for an array of friends and relatives: the aunt in Egypt, the parents in Jordan, the cousin still studying in a Damascus university.

Or the relative who came, and had to go home. Down the road in Abu Dhabi, 27-year-old Ghusoon recounts how her younger sister came on a visit visa from Damascus last spring. After six months, the visa ran out and she had to take the reverse trip home, back into Syria’s war. Each week the sister calls from Skype, recounting the latest news: There is no gas with which to cook; she cannot go outside after 5 p.m. Often, she calls crying, hoping to return.

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Maher has donated his teaching to a group called Aat’i, or iGive, which holds weekly training sessions in everything from language to business skills to help new arrivals gain the skills that will allow them to find work. Most students are in their 20s and 30s and are looking to support their immediate and extended families.

“It’s really hard to be here,” says Erabi’s colleague, Bashar Bahra, a founder of iGive. “But I think that when you have qualifications it does somehow become easier, because this is an environment for business.”

iGive started not in glitzy Dubai but back in Damascus, when Syria’s war was more of a whisper. Even then, in early 2012, the suffering was apparent from the trickle of displaced people into Damascus, driven out of their neighborhoods around the capital by government shelling. Bahra, a tech engineer, gathered five other friends and started to think, “How can we be positive in these circumstances?”

The idea that emerged was a virtuous cycle of giving. Bahra and his group of friends would organize free training sessions taught by fellow professionals. Attendees of the courses didn’t have to pay, but the students would bring humanitarian donations — food baskets, blankets, or other materials. Whatever was gathered was shipped to the growing ranks of needy in and around the capital. “We were trying to somehow give without a cost,” Bahra says.

The program quickly expanded to include courses in English and business — a sort of mini-MBA. It reached the Gulf when Bahra himself fled eight months ago, after a family member was kidnapped. “Thankfully, he was released, but we don’t know who did it,” he says. “We don’t want to know. My family just came here.”

Even before finding employment himself, Bahra noticed how his friends were struggling with the difficult job market. “Training courses in the UAE are very expensive, and new arrivals cannot afford to pay the 5,000 or 6,000 dirham price,” he says.

So Bahra tapped his network — old school friends, neighbors, Syrians he met online — and began his own program. There was just one condition for attending: No one is allowed to talk about politics — it is, in Bahra’s words, taboo.

“We are here now, and Syrians should help other Syrians,” says Erabi. “We should not think about religion, ethnicity, or this side and that.”

One way iGive is able to provide courses without charge is by drawing on the large, existing Syrian diaspora. The Gulf was home to an extensive Syrian expatriate community long before the conflict began, as skilled and well-connected Syrians traveled here to make a living unavailable to them back home. Many of the residents are doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, who donated the facilities for iGive’s training. Other Syrians, some longtime expatriates and some new arrivals, work as the organization’s unpaid instructors.

Once the uprising began, expatriates say the authorities increased their vigilance of Syrians trying to travel to the UAE. Visas were tied up in paperwork: “They require many things for a visa,” says Adnan, a Dubai-based expatriate who fled here after being arrested in Damascus in the early days of the revolution. Upon his release from Syria’s jails, he took a long-standing job offer at a bank in the UAE — but bringing his wife and brother took more than a year.

“First, they [the authorities] told me my salary was too low,” he explains. “Finally, [the bank] raised it. But then I had to prove I was renting a house for a family.” As a result, he spends far more than he wishes to keep a house too big for his needs.

In contrast, many other new arrivals pack into already full households or exhaust their savings paying rent. Transportation is an equally fraught issue: Few of the new Syrian arrivals have cars in a city inhospitable to walking. One reason the iGive classroom is currently full, Bahra believes, is that it’s still cool enough to walk. As the summer months wear on, he wonders whether fewer people will arrive at the training center.

Even when an employer wants to hire a Syrian, the UAE has become leery about handing out work visas. Stories abound of employers who simply stopped reading Syrians’ and Egyptians’ résumés. “We never got one single visa approved for any Syrian; we tried many times in the past three years but always come by reject[ion] from immigration without any specific reason,” says the general manger of an Abu Dhabi–based specialty construction firm. “It’s not my company’s case, but all companies I know who tried to bring professionals from Syria.”

The UAE has repeatedly denied treating any nationalities differently. But the founders of iGive know that the best way to improve workers’ chances at a job is to boost their credentials — and take pleasure in their victories. Bahra beams when he speaks of a young woman who posted a note of thanks on iGive’s Facebook page after a training session: She’d found work.

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Saturday’s class is the second that Sami Hallak has attended, as the 26-year-old puts it, “to grab everything” he can. Like most here, he didn’t choose to come to Dubai. He had been studying in Damascus when the trouble began, and the family business selling traditional clothing was in the nearby town of Drusha — an area that has switched hands between rebel and government forces several times in the past three years. His father, who had previous business connections in the Gulf, decided the instability was too great a risk and relocated everything — the factories, the warehouses, and the employees — to Dubai.

Upper-class Syrians like Hallak and his family are unlikely to return home — not in a month, not in a year, not even if the fighting stopped tomorrow. Given the economic destruction in Syria by some estimates, it could take 30 years for the economy to recover — there are few incentives for the country’s best and brightest to return. The relocation of the Hallak family business is a large undertaking, and it can’t be reversed at a moment’s notice.

“I don’t like Dubai,” Hallak says. “From my side, I prefer to come back to Syria as soon as possible. But I think our project, now relocated, will be here at least 10 or 15 years.”

The 26 students back in Dubai, however, aren’t focused on the decades ahead. For them, there is only now, and the desperate need to somehow find a job. Everyone in this class participates. A young woman in a pink headscarf furiously scribbles notes once an idea appears to strike. A man in the front leans forward and raises his hand high. They shout words to Maher’s questions about project management.

“Plan!” “Expectations!” “Vision!”

Bahra and Erabi, the iGive organizers, stand at the back watching, but as the seminar proceeds, they start pitching in as well. They, too, will try to learn something.



Elizabeth Dickinson
Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, and The National, among other publications. She is the author of the Kindle Single Who Shot Ahmed, an account of a young videographer shot in cold blood at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring. She is also co-editor of the recent book The Southern Tiger, a narrative memoir by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. She has reported from five continents and speaks French, Spanish, and Krio (Sierra Leone), as well as basic Yoruba and Arabic.