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Living in limbo

Victims of Middle East crises who seek refuge in Thailand languish for years as they await resettlement

Photos: Pornprom Satrabhaya

It is hard not to get noticed in a sea of Thai faces when you are Middle Eastern. Being a refugee in Thailand, which is very "grey" on such status, will only add to the predicament.

Remaining inconspicuous is not always easy, but for friends and fellow refugees Mohamed*, a Syrian refugee who has resided in Thailand for nearly five years, and Ahmad*, an Iraqi refugee who has been in Thailand for four years, life could have been worse if they had continued to live in their respective countries.

Religious and political persecution are the main reasons they fled their homes in search of a better life -- instead finding themselves in limbo.

Having UN refugee status means little in Thailand, and the two men live in fear of unclear immigration rules.

Life caught up with the two buddies at different times of the day, as one studies and the other works illegally.

"Last thing I want is to be noticed by undercover immigration officers and be caught and put in the Immigration Detention Centre, so I try to blend in as much as possible by hanging out with Thai friends," remarked Mohamed*, who resides with his family of nine in a relatively comfortable abode. He is hoping to get resettled in the US.

Life spoke with the 23-year-old after his afternoon English class on Silom Road. Looking cool with skinny jeans and matching T-shirt, we got to talking about his life.

Playing cat and mouse with immigration police starts by knowing areas he should avoid. Nana, Asok, Lat Phrao are a few areas that he seldom visits.

Mohamed paints us a tapestry of a life marked with trepidation stemming from living in a country that has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and the constant fear of being detained.

Much of the income they brought along with them from Damascus has dried up, so it's up to his elder sister and her husband to use their skills as educators to earn a livelihood through offering Arabic lessons to mostly children with Middle Eastern ancestry.

He also receives support from Rohmad Ruengprach, who manages the Satthachon Foundation for Education and Orphans (see box).

"Mr Rohmad is my Thai dad," remarked Mohamed, who hopes to pursue dentistry studies after he is resettled to a third country. "Two weeks after arriving in Thailand I was introduced to Mr Rohmad, since then he has taken me under his wing. I volunteer all of my free time at the Satthachon Foundation, running errands and being his right-hand man.

"Thanks to him, I was able to travel to other parts of the country assisting the foundation with helping the Rohingya. Thanks to him I haven't remained idle."

Besides the constant fear of being arrested by immigration police, Mohamed said he couldn't have asked for a better place to stay while waiting for resettlement. Thailand is less expensive than Arab countries and people are nicer and more accommodating. He said he would prefer to remain here legally.

"Most Arab refugees believe their case is processed faster and can get resettled faster if they come to Thailand," explained Mohamed when asked why his family decided to come to Bangkok instead of opting for an Arab or Muslim country.

"Arab countries are not as welcoming to us as you would expect. We had a good life in Damascus prior to the civil war. When Lebanon was experiencing internal problems, and refugees started to pour into Syria, my grandfather offered them free shelter and meals. This was not reciprocated to us when we were in dire straits ourselves."

Mohamed, who has no income and gets pocket money from his elder sister, said he wishes he would have opted to renew his visa instead of letting it expire. Once again, his decision to do so was because he was told it would expedite his chances of getting resettled quicker.

He also said his elder sister's family has been accepted to the US, but that President Donald Trump's hardline stance against Syrian refugees had them concerned. However, he says he remains hopeful the tide will turn in their favour so they will be resettled soon.

As we speak, we are joined by 24-year-old Ahmad*, an Iraqi refugee, who has been in Thailand for four years. Once a barber for soldiers in Saddam Hussain's army, today he says his desire is to get resettled in any country that is peaceful. He also has refugee status from the UN, which enables him to one day get resettled to a third country.

Residing in Thailand has been a bittersweet experience for him. He lives with his family of 13 in one house. His resettlement case includes his parents, elder brother and himself, he said.

"My parents and brother were caught by immigration police in the first year we came to Thailand," said Ahmad. "It has been hard to survive because we have had to depend on ourselves for financial support. That means we have to work illegally. I used to cut hair at a salon frequented by Arabs, but now I usually cut their hair whenever they call me. I also work as a packer in an IT company. I have proper travelling documents, the obvious problem is that my visa is expired."

Ahmad tells us that his Thai boss gives him a daily wage of 300 baht, sometimes 450 baht if the shop is busy. Together with his part-time jobs, he brings home approximately 5,000 baht.

As we get local transport to head to a place where both young men play football, he relates the good life he and his family had in not just Iraq, but also Syria, where they stayed for a year, and Cyprus where they resided in the hopes of receiving travel documents to legally settle in Europe. That goal never came to fruition, so they decided to try their luck by coming to Thailand.

"We arrived in Thailand at the height of the crisis in Syria and a time when a number of countries were experiencing political and religious upheaval. This is why our case took a year to process and the wait became longer because of the huge influx of refugees," recalled Ahmad. "However, we are hopeful that my family will be able to be resettled soon. If it is up to me, I would like to go either to Canada or Australia. Meantime, I brush up on my barber skills by offering my services to refugees.

"My desire is to learn how to cut women's hair. As money is scarce, I try to look after myself so I don't get sick."

Ahmad said his stay in Thailand so far has been filled with trepidation. Even places where he gets to work, he has to put in double the amount of hours for a lower salary. What is most unsettling is the fact that along the way his biggest fear is of being caught by immigration.

"I had a close call with the immigration police twice," said Ahmad as we talk in the sports arena where a group of his Thai friends are waiting for them. "Once I was with a Thai friend and I was asked to show my travel documents by an immigration official. My Thai friend was able to divert the man's attention so I was able to make a quick exit. Another time I told them that my passport was in my hotel room. I don't know if I will be so lucky next time."

* Assumed names to protect their privacy.


Helping those who need it the most

The Satthachon Foundation for Education and Orphans has involved itself in supporting refugees for more than five years when an influx of displaced Muslims from African nations arrived in Bangkok. When non-government organisations were not able to cope with the large numbers, they approached the Muslim-run foundation for assistance.

"We had a good life prior to the civil war." A refugee from Syria lives a half-life in Thailand.

Rohmad Ruengprach, who manages Satthachon's daily affairs, said support for refugees covers basically everything from food and rent to medical expenses. He estimates that there are approximately 300 Arab refugees that the foundation assists in some manner, including approximately 60 children aged four to 18 who study Arabic and the Koran on Sundays. Classes in English and Thai are also in the pipeline.

"Today we just paid 10,000 baht for the caesarean section of a Somali refugee," said Rohmad. "We are able to support these refugees from donations given to us from Yateem cable channel's viewers and Zakat, a form of almsgiving treated in Islam as a religious obligation or tax, usually 2.5% of a Muslim's total savings and wealth."

Somali and Syrian refugees make up the largest number of displaced people the foundation is supporting at the moment. While Syrians tend to arrive in Thailand with their entire families in tow, Somali groups are largely comprised of women and children.

"Refugees often face a dilemma when they arrive in Thailand. One, they are not able to work and two, acquiring refugee status from the UN, which can help them to get resettled, is rather lengthy. So life is full of uncertainties for them. A handful of cases … have resided in Thailand for over four years. Most of these people have relatives who send them financial support largely just enough to cover rent and food.

"That is why they depend on religious institutions and foundations to support them in areas they are not able to find help. One of the biggest areas we help is in covering their fine fee of 20,000 baht when they leave Thailand to get resettled."

Rohmad said it is crucial that agencies concerned with refugees' welfare teach them how to live peacefully with their Thai neighbours by educating them about Thai cultural norms.

Asked what Thais could learn from today's global refugee crisis, Rohmad said: "For one do not take peace for granted. Look at Iraq. Who would have imagined something like this could happen to a country that enjoyed stability and a good life for its people for many years? I would like to see Thais live in peace with each other, no mater the colour of your skin, faith or political affiliations.

"Political, religious and ethnic strife can happen in any country, including Thailand, if we don't make an effort to live in peace and harmony with people that think differently than us."

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