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Is Somaliland a new haven for refugees? Syrians say maybe

Some 300 Syrian refugees have chosen to make the self-declared Horn of Africa nation their home, hoping to avoid the seemingly difficult trek to Europe and life in a refugee camp.

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    Residents of Somaliland sit under a war memorial of a MiG fighter jet in the centre of town in Hargeisa May 19, 2013. The memorial was set up to commemorate Somaliland's breakaway attempt in the 1980s, and is a symbol of struggle for the people of this province.
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Abdulrahman Al Khalaf and his wife are used to starting over. The couple, then unmarried, left Syria over 20 years ago for fear of political persecution under former President Hafez Al Assad.

They sought refuge in Yemen and built a comfortable life for their two daughters on Mr. Al Khalaf’s $1,500 monthly salary as a restaurant manager. The pair observed from afar as protests broke out in Syria in early 2011.  It soon turned bloody, and there was no going home. Then war came to Yemen in March.

“We didn’t have any place else to go but here,” Al Khalaf says from his newly rented home in Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa. He plans to open a bakery as a part of a burgeoning business community and put down roots in a country which a few months ago he didn't know existed.

Amid a grinding civil war, Syrian refugees are facing tightening visa restrictions in neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, as well as a political backlash against refugees in the US and Europe. The hunt for safe havens has pushed Syrians to unfamiliar corners, such as the breakaway state of Somaliland, an unexpected alternative for a small number of refugees. 

“There are [millions of displaced Syrians], you cannot tell me the world doesn’t know [how to help us],” says Abdulqader Dabaq Kabawat, a Aleppo-born doctor who came to Somaliland a year ago to work at a radiology clinic, seeking a life outside a refugee camp.

In the late 1980s, this Horn of Africa nation was itself a source of refugees, as it fought for independence from Somalia. As a result, officials say the country has a welcoming stance on other refugee populations, including two of the most recent, Syrians and Yemenis. While Yemenis fleeing war are arriving by boat in their thousands, Syrians are arriving by air.  

“Somaliland knows they hosted us in Syria,” says Immigration Commissioner Maxamed Cali Yuusuf, who says there are about 300 Syrians in Somaliland.

Although its incipient government offers limited services, Mr Yussuf says Syrians have found a way to make it on their own in Somaliland and remain a welcomed slice of diversity. But it remains tough to make a home here, given the limited resources and a sense of isolation amid a close-knit Somali culture.  

Choosing Somaliland

Most Syrians that arrived before the war were men who worked as dentists and other skilled jobs, filling a gap in a country with  few skilled professionals and youth unemployment of 70 percent.

But as Syria’s war spread, a return home became unfeasible, so men employed here decided to bring their families to Somaliland.

Others, like Yasser, an engineer from Dier ez-zor, heard from friends that there might be jobs. He had seen friends stuck in refugee camps in Lebanon, and instead took a risk on a country that most confuse with its war-torn neighbor Somalia. 

“I searched Wikipedia,” says Yasser who asked his last name not be used for fear of his family’s safety in Syria. “Wow, I thought, Somalia is a terrible place. I’ll be going from one war to another.”

But once he realized Somaliland was safe and had its own president, passports, and currency, he took the plunge. The country was desperate for engineers for major projects like the upgrading of Hargeisa’s airport in 2012.

Today, he feels differently. As the war in Syria drags on, the idea of return has faded and the daily hardships of life here grate.  As a single man in his 30s, Yasser, who works as a translator for a construction company, is also lonely and finds Somaliland’s conservative culture limiting.

He worries that his job might end and he could no longer send money to his parents back in Syria. He says his hometown is now controlled by the Islamic State. 

“Sometimes I think about my friends going to Europe,” he says. “They get refugee status. But what do I do if I go there?”

Mr. Kabawat, the doctor, is experiencing a similar crisis. When work with his contractor fell through five months in, he worried that he would lose his visa, though immigration officials familiar with his case say that he doesn't risk expulsion. And he says that despite his decades of experience and a lack of doctors in Somaliland, he is at a disadvantage due to tribal patronage. 

But Al Khalaf, the former restaurant manager remains hopeful that Somaliland could be a new start for his twice-displaced family. Even before he opens his bakery, his wife is selling homemade Syrian sweets at a local market.

“Here you have entrepreneur opportunities, the country is booming,” he says. But for Syrians everywhere, “if you don’t have money, you cannot live anywhere."

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