The last time all five brothers were together was in August 2012, inside a bomb shelter in southern Syria.
It was Ramadan, and each night they broke fast to the sound of artillery and airstrikes pounding their besieged neighbourhood above.
A few days later, the Syrian army broke into the area, and each man fled.
“We never expected it would be the last time we’d see each other,” says Farid, the oldest of the five men. “Even with the shelling and bombing, we never thought we’d end up the way we have now.”
Once it became too dangerous to stay, each of the five brothers followed different paths, taking some risks, avoiding others. Now they find themselves scattered around the world, living in five different countries, facing five different futures.
Across the Middle East, the situations of the more than 5 million Syrian refugees created by the civil war, already precarious, has deteriorated in recent months. In Turkey, Syrians now face the prospect of being resettled inside a “safe zone” pried from Kurdish control.
Lebanon’s economy is reeling, and as Bashar al-Assad’s forces tighten a siege around Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held province, senior Lebanese officials say it is time for refugees who fled there to return home.
For one family of five brothers, from the southern Syrian province of Dara’a, this growing pressure on Syrian refugees is widening the gulf between where each man has found himself, nearly nine years since protests against the Assad regime erupted.
When his brother went to work one morning in July and never returned, Rami guessed he might have been detained by Lebanese authorities. That wasn’t unusual: Syrians without official papers were frequently picked up in Beirut and released after a few days.
When he didn’t resurface, Rami called the local office of the UN’s refugee agency. There was no record of Hassan in Lebanese custody, they told him, and he should urgently call the Red Cross. “I started to get scared,” Rami says. “I thought: this is a big deal.”
Weeks later, he received a call from a Syrian number. Hassan sounded exhausted. He had just been released from weeks of detention at a branch of Syria’s feared military intelligence directorate.
Since April, the Lebanese government has launched a concerted drive to demolish concrete homes in refugee camps and raided businesses to flush out Syrians working illegally. At least 2,700 people have been deported from Lebanon, including at least seven confirmed to have been arrested upon their return to Syria. Hassan is one such case.
Since his brother’s arrest Rami, 30, rarely leaves the two-room home he shares with his wife and two daughters in a southern Beirut suburb.
In 2012, he was still a student. When Syrian soldiers entered his neighbourhood, and some of his brothers fled south to Jordan, he weighed his options. There was no way he could study or work in Jordan. “So I stayed, and thought, when things calm down and the situation improves, I want to have my degree,” he says.
Any hope the revolution would be swift had vanished by 2015, the year the Free Syrian Army recaptured his neighbourhood and Rami returned home. For three years, he says, he worked with humanitarian organisations to deliver food and medicine.
Like most Syrian men, he was obliged to serve in the national army. His call-up date came and went. Eventually, a warrant was issued in his name. When the Syrian military recaptured his neighbourhood in June 2018, it was time to flee.
Beirut is providing little refuge. He fears he could leave the house one day to buy groceries and not return. His family would have no way of knowing if he had been arrested.
“Every week I ask the UN if I can go [from Lebanon],” Rami says. “If there was a path through the sea, I’d take it. I just don’t want to be scared anymore. My brother Hassan was an old guy, he had an injury. And they still took him back. So why wouldn’t they take me?”
Should he be deported, he would be forced to join the Syrian army at the very least. That would be better than the alternative: being punished for the actions of his older brother, Kareem.
Kareem was renowned across his neighbourhood for his beautiful handwriting. In peacetime, he would write shop signs and posters in his elegant Arabic script. When the revolution started in 2011, he lent his brush to the signs the protesters carried calling for the downfall of the regime.
Soon he graduated to filming protests and the aftermath of regime violence and sending the footage to TV stations in the Gulf. When he started to appear in some of the videos, providing commentary or interviewing victims, he knew the possible consequences. “The regime is going to know my name, my picture. They will have a file on me and the people I know.”
He dispatched his family to Jordan but stayed in Dara’a to film the fighting. For two years, Kareem shuttled between safe houses. But he was being hunted, he says. “The regime started to know where I slept.”
In 2015, from Amman, Kareem, 45, applied for asylum in Europe. He was approved six months later and settled in Vimmerby, Sweden, with his wife and three children. They had a fourth child, a girl, over there. “She knows nothing about Syria, her family, her history,” he says.
It is not yet a happy ending. He works two jobs to send money to his brothers in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. He is wracked with worry about the dangers they still face, especially Hassan. “He was imprisoned because of me,” Kareem says. “He was only carrying the family name. I was the reason he was there.”
Farid, Jordan and Samir, Germany
“Right there, that’s the Israeli border,” Farid says from the balcony of a Spanish-style villa on Jordan’s northern edge. The unfinished house has two pools, marble stairs and a backyard dotted with palm trees. Farid has been hired off the books to build the home; he sleeps beside his son on thin mats on the floor.
He left Syria in 2013, walking six hours under shelling and in darkness in a vast convoy of 1,500 families. Most were separated from each other on the way. “You had no idea who was around you,” Farid, 54, says. “We didn’t dare use our cell phones, even to light a cigarette, in case somebody saw the light.”
Jordan’s economy is sluggish and protests over the cost of living are growing. Yet the country has loosened some work regulations for Syrian refugees, and says it will not deport anyone against their wishes.
For a few months in 2015 Farid, Kareem and another brother, Samir, were in Jordan together. They debated whether to join the thousands of Syrians chancing a trip to Europe. It was too dangerous, Farid said. Samir was insistent: what was the alternative?
“My kid was six years old and hadn’t learned to read,” Samir, 39, says from Germany, where he now lives. “A man needs to provide for his family, live safely.”
He gathered together enough money for an airplane ticket to Turkey, from where he paid a smuggler $1,200 for a seat on a rickety boat to Greece. “People were stacked on top of each other and could barely move,” he recalls. “We kept praying it wouldn’t break down or take on too much water.”
Farid has applied a few times to be legally resettled in Europe, without luck so far. He is struggling but surviving.
“We just get by doing random jobs,” he says. It could be worse, he adds. He could have drowned at sea, or be looking over his shoulder in Lebanon. He could have been deported to Syria.
Hassan was the last of the brothers to leave. Once Dara’a fell to the regime last year, there was only enough money to smuggle one brother to Lebanon. Rami went. By the time his brothers in Europe finally saved enough for Hassan, it was April this year, and he crossed into Lebanon, where patience for people like him had run out.
But he still had friends in the city. One of them let him work in his furniture store a few days a week. He could keep a small commission from whatever he sold.
Hassan had been in Lebanon less than three months when security officials arrived at the shop, asking staff to show their IDs. “It was like someone had told on him,” says Rami. “The authorities came to the shop looking especially for him.”
Kareem was the first to learn of his brother’s imprisonment. A contact arranged to courier $5,000 to a corrupt official for information about where Hassan was being kept. The official charged another $20,000 to release him.
Now, when the brothers reach Hassan by phone, he is evasive. He doesn’t say where he sleeps. He is vague about what happened in jail.
“He just says, ‘Whatever you think prison is – exactly as you imagine it – that’s what it’s like’,” says Kareem.
From his room in Beirut, over the din of children’s television and traffic outside, Rami says his brother in Syria keeps giving the same warning. “He just tells me, hide yourself,” Rami says. “Don’t let them get you.”
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