“Write a letter to your uncle living abroad urging him to return home.” This was the topic most frequently set for school essays in Syria before the 2011 revolution. Despite this apparent insistence on the need to return home, the Syrian regime has always been the first to encourage Syrians to leave for many reasons, not the last of which was to get rid of its political opponents. In addition, a major factor was the economic benefits that the remittances of Syrians abroad bring to their families, which applies to most of the developing world where family remittances have a large impact and make up a large part of GDP.
According to a World Bank report, global remittances by migrants reached $232 billion in 2006. This led the United Nations to allocate June 16 of each year as the International Day of Family Remittances to enhance its impact on development in countries of origin. In this report, Enab Baladi examines the role of family remittances from Syrians abroad before and during the Syrian revolution.
“If it were not for my brothers in the Gulf and the money they send us from time to time, I don’t know how we would have managed our expenses,” says Ibtisam, who lives in a small home she moved to during the war in one of Damascus’ regime-controlled villages.
Ibtisam, who is 44 years old, lives in a house made up of two rooms with her elderly mother and three sisters after they left Eastern al-Ghouta in 2012 as the bombing intensified. However, the family had already dependent on two sons who live in Saudi Arabia for many years. She explains, “In the mid-1990s, my uncle traveled to Saudi Arabia to work there due to the lack of opportunities in Syria. He convinced my older brother Zuhair to join him to find a job there. Since then, we have received money from time to time. These amounts are considered large relative to our living standards here in Syria. This helped my father to provide for our extended family but he was never interested in moving abroad like my uncle.”
One by one, Ibtisam’s brothers also moved to Saudi Arabia to work with their brother there. She continues, “My brother opened an auto repair shop there and convinced my three brothers to move there to work with him. So we had an uncle and four brothers in Saudi Arabia who we only saw in summer, but in return they helped my father since his health and ability to earn money was deteriorating.”
Even though they were married and settled in Saudi Arabia, the brothers continued to regularly send money to their family in Syria. Ibtisam adds, “We are their responsibility. We are three unmarried sisters, we didn’t get any diplomas that can get us jobs. We live with an elderly father and mother. This responsibility doubled with the beginning of the revolution and especially when we had to leave our house and city and rent a house in a safe area.”
Despite the poor security situation, Ibtisam’s father refused to leave his house and his neighborhood. “He told us that he would only leave al-Ghouta if he were carried out of it as a corpse. He died there in late 2013. We could not attend his funeral or say goodbye to him because of the siege imposed on al-Ghouta. My mother, my three brothers and I remained exiled and alone. If it were not for my brothers, we would be on the streets now. We are not the only ones. Many displaced families depend on their relatives abroad.”
My own home
Just like Ibtisam’s brothers, the 39-year-old engineer Fawaz emigrated from Homs to the UAE in search of a livelihood. He became a source of support for his family before and after the revolution. He says, “As soon as I graduated from the Civil Engineering College, I started looking for a contract in one of the Gulf countries. I looked at the situation around me and didn’t want to be like the others. In order for a young man to be able to buy a house, he needs to work for many years. I made use of the fact that I’m an only child and that I was exempt from military service to travel and get my first job offer in the UAE.”
Fawaz started his career in the UAE in 2001. He says that the beginning was very tiring, “The path was not at all easy. I struggled and it took me four years to stand on my own two feet and get a great job. Then I got married and started saving up. I bought my own house in al-Waer at the end of 2008, a record period compared to the time needed in Syria to be able to buy a house”.
Fawaz continued to work in the Gulf in the winter and visit Homs in summer. “I did not think of going back to Syria as long as I was in my current job. I work in a global company with high wages. They highly value my diploma and experience. I visit my country on annual holidays. What more did I want? Of course, I always send gifts and money to my parents and to my married sisters. I know how difficult it is to get by and have enough money, especially when the children grow up and their expenses increase, like when they enter universities, get married, etc.”.
Fawaz helped his nephews and nieces to pay for their university studies and took on the cost of one of them studying in private school. “Every day, I feel the importance of a university diploma. As they say, a diploma is an honor. I didn’t want financial burdens to prevent my nieces and nephews from getting a diploma in the specialties they wanted”.
At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, Fawaz felt a sense of responsibility towards his family. He felt that helping them to secure their needs was a duty. “I couldn’t stand by and watch the escalating conflict in Homs and my sisters’ husbands losing their jobs. I invited my mother to come live with me after my father died. I hope that I’ve contributed to securing a decent life for my sisters as much as I could. It is a duty and a debt for me. Every expat feels the same towards his family in particular and towards Syrians inside Syria in general.”
“Expats used to send money to their families, now they’re the ones who need help”. This is how Abu Shadi, a 60-year-old from Damascus, described the situation of expatriates nowadays, including his son Shadi who lives in Turkey. He says, “All Syrians who emigrated after the revolution are displaced and are refugees. They are not expatriates. Their economic circumstances hardly allow them to cover their own needs, especially those who didn’t finish military service like Shadi. They in particular are relying on their families in Syria to provide them with financial support and sometimes to give them a monthly stipend to cover their daily needs.”
Al-Hajj Abu Shadi gives thanks to God for his financial situation, which allows him to help his son abroad, “I was worried about Shadi being arrested or forced to finish military service so I sent him to Turkey two years ago to study there. Even though he doesn’t want to rely on me and works part-time, he’s barely able to provide for his transport and rent. That’s why I try to help him as much as I can. It’s true that the economic situation in Syria is bad but he’s my son and I’m responsible for him.”
Abu Shadi noted that the phenomenon of counter-remittances (sending money from Syria to abroad) is widespread, to some extent, among well-off families whose members travelled outside Syria after the revolution. “My sister sold all her gold so that her son could emigrate to Europe. My neighbor is paying for his sons’ studies and living expenses in Germany. Everyone is doing what they can. The important thing is to help each other wherever we are.”
Expatriate remittances and their economic contribution
- According to the Central Bank of Syria, the official transfers by the Syrian private sector abroad amounted to 447 million euros in 2003 and accounted for around 2% of GDP, including seven million euros from Germany.
- In 2007, remittances by Syrians working abroad were estimated at $1250 million.
- Their transfers in 2014 were estimated as $ 1727 million.
- According to a study by the European Investment Bank, workers’ remittances to Mediterranean countries are large and constitute a high proportion of the income and GDP of some of the countries.
- The value of remittances by Arab workers abroad amounts to 24.5 billion dollars, according to a study by the Arab Monetary Fund in 2008.
History of Syrian exile
- Antonius al-Bachaalani was the first Syrian expatriate to emigrate to North America in 1854.
- Modern Arab migrations to the United States began in 1878, when the first Syrian family emigrated to America.
- The period between 1898 and 1924 was a major one for Arab emigration to the United States due to unrest in Arab countries.
- The number of Syrian migrants in 1922 was estimated to have reached 500,000, more than a quarter of Syria’s population at the time.
- In 2010, the number of Syrians (and those of Syrian origin) living in European countries was five million.
- The largest Syrian community in the world is based in Brazil, where 13 million Syrians are living as of 2010, 7 million of whom are from Homs and Latakia.
- There are no accurate statistics on the number of Syrian migrants before the revolution. While some estimate their number to have reached 20 million, some researchers found that they did not exceed 10 million by 2010. Other estimates indicate that the number of Syrians outside Syria was 53 million up until 2010, including 35 million who no longer have Syrian nationality and 18 million who still hold it.