Just over three years ago I never expected that my work as an amateur actor would force me to flee my country, Syria, and fear for my life. I performed in a theater play with several colleagues exposing the aspects of corruption in Syrian universities.
That fateful show led to the arrest of four out of the 10 people in the theater by the Syrian intelligence service (muhabbarat). One of my friends had his tongue cut during interrogation.
I was supposed to be the fifth person arrested but I paid an airport official to remove my name from a computer database for 20 minutes, the time needed to pass through a screening checkpoint. From there I flew to the United Arab Emirates and received a threemonth visa for $400. It was expensive but my mind was preoccupied with the fear of the muhabbarat and their punishments; it made me happy to get the visa that seemed like a lifeline.
When I arrived in the UAE I was very optimistic; this was an Arab country and I expected to be welcomed.
We had been taught in school that all Arab countries are part of our homeland. But the truth was terribly different and the treatment shocking.
THE UAE SLAVE SYSTEM OF LABOR
After over a month and half looking for a job in Sharjah (one of seven constituent emirates of the UAE), I was accepted at a supermarket, being paid a pittance. I had no choice but to accept the job, as without work I would be deported when the visa ran out. I signed a contract with the supermarket owner, who is linked to an emirates “guarantor.” The guarantor is the emirati citizen who sponsors a foreign worker and often takes money in exchange. The wage was about $200 a month. After signing the contract I took it to the labor ministry which endorsed it even though the wage was abysmally low.
I worked alongside 10 other workers from Asian countries in the supermarket. We had to work from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. and it was difficult, but I had no choice but to accept it. Rejection meant the guarantor could cancel my work permit. Under UAE law a person who has his work permit canceled by the guarantor cannot receive another for six months, meaning he is totally at the mercy of the system. If he doesn’t like the work he will be deported or find himself living illegally.
This came at the beginning of the Syrian revolution, before a new law banning giving Syrians work permits or visas to stay in the country. I was patient – until the worst came and the employer stopped paying salaries.
Together with the other workers we complained to the labor ministry in Sharjah and the ministry ruled that we be given a fraction of our owed wages.
Now I became an illegal resident, working sometimes as a teacher of accounting and living in fear that I would be caught and deported at any time. A year passed and I lived from hand to mouth. Then I found a good job and thought I could receive a new work permit. But I had been listed as a “runaway” by my previous guarantor. Thinking that the authorities would show tolerance due to the situation in Syria, I turned myself in.
Unfortunately they did not show tolerance and when I applied for a passport they asked me to settle with the guarantor. I called and begged that my name be removed. He demanded 10,000 Dihams ($2,700) – far beyond what I owed. The passport department then ordered my arrest and detention. It was decided that I would be deported. I was shocked and screamed that I wanted human rights. They responded, “we do not recognize human rights.”
IN DEPORTATION PRISON
After being informed that I would be deported I was transferred to a prison in Sharjah. For six days I witnessed horrible events, which could fill a newspaper all by themselves. We were put in a prison with criminals and drug dealers; mixed in with people who had Hepatitus C, which was common among some of the Indian workers. There was no health care and no measures to insure our safety.
Syrians were given two choices: Either we could leave the country, or be sent to a solitary dungeon to be kept in a two square-meter room with little food and undrinkable water. We were forbidden to talk to people in this confinement. Those who chose this second option remained there until the psychological torments convinced them to leave. Those, like me, who made the choice to leave were held for a few days so our deportation documents could be prepared.
Then we received two other choices: Return to Syria and the UAE will pay for the flight, or choose another destination and pay for the ticket ourselves.
The worst status was for Syrians whose passports had expired and who didn’t want to return to Syria.
The Syrian consulate in Sharjah requires the prisoner to come personally to renew the passport, but the prison authorities refuse to allow that, so the result is that the passport can only be stamped to return to Syria. Luckily my passport had not expired so I chose to travel to Turkey, a country which does not ask for a visa for Syrians.
The prison conditions were very bad. I suffered because I am diabetic. Despite requests for medicine they only brought a tablet after three days. Even after waiting all day for it, it wasn’t clear if it was for diabetes or was just an aspirin.
We were deprived of our basic human rights, even the use of a phone was permitted just once. I asked a friend to bring my stuff from where I had been staying.
I had to pay for the call and if I made an objection, the response was: “so go and die in Syria.”
Eventually I did leave the UAE and arrived safely in Turkey. I write all this just to let the world know the real face of the UAE and the tragedy of the Syrian people.
I call for international human rights organization to visit the prisons there and protect those inside them.
The author, whose name has been altered to protect his identity, lives in Turkey.