Syrian Refugee Family In Argentina Returns To 'Safer' Aleppo

A Syrian family granted asylum in Argentina has opted to go back home in spite of its calamitous state of their hometown of Aleppo. But things seemed even worse in Cordoba.

A sticker on the back of a marcher's jeans reads 'live under your own rules' and he carries a condom in his back pocket during the 17th annual gay, lesbian, transsexual and bisexual pride festival and march in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tawfiq Tourna just before leaving says "Gracias"
Gonzalo Herman

CÓRDOBA — The Touma family fled Syria's civil war and landed late last year in Argentina, with the prospect of finally finding some modicum of peace and economic stability. They settled in the central Argentine city of Córdoba, and have spent the past four months trying to adapt to the local lifestyle. But they found none of what they'd hope for — and have now decided to return home, to their devastated hometown of Aleppo.

As they were getting ready to head back to Syria, they spoke with Clarín from the terminal of Ezeiza airport outside of Buenos Aires on May 11, explaining not only is it much cheaper to live in Aleppo than Córdoba, it is actually "safer" too.

Tawfiq, the 40-year-old father, and his wife Ani Habad, 29, had arrived earlier this year with their two daughters Kristel (12) and Mari (10), all seemed tired, somewhat overcome by their situation. At the prospect of returning to Aleppo, the family said they was a mix of anticipation and trepidation. There is still little good news coming from their native country, half destroyed by a seven-year civil war that has left more than 300,000 dead.

"They came in search of a dream," says Mustafa, a family friend and fellow Syrian who has been living in Argentina for more than 30 years. "They were told they would have a house and work. But when they came, they found nothing."

Since 2012, some 1,600 Syrians have come to Argentina through various channels: the Argentine government's Syria Program (providing humanitarian visas), applications for asylum or family reunions with registered refugees, or through other types of migratory visas given by Argentine consulates. The main destinations have been the capital, the Buenos Aires province, Córdoba, Salta, Mendoza, La Rioja, Tucumán and San Luis.

The Toumas came to the town of Pilar outside Córdoba, in December 2016. Whatever they had here was provided them by sympathetic neighbors. One neighbor even took charge of the rent they had to pay for a house and its day-to-day expenses, even lending the family a car. "Everything they had came from people's individual solidarity. But they did not want live off others," Mustafa says. "They wanted to recover their dignity. The state had to help and it didn't. It made various promises it didn't keep."

We thought our daughters would have a future here.

Tawfiq told the Córdoba newspaper La Voz he was unprepared for the cost of living in Argentina. "We thought life would be cheaper here and our daughters would have a future," he said. "With $10 you can live for a week (in Aleppo), but here everything is gone right away."

But beyond the lack of economic means, the family also was shocked by the state of crime they found in Argentina. "Soon after they arrived, thieves entered their house and took everything. That does not happen in Syria," Mustafa said, translating for the family.

After the robbery, he said, Tawfiq could not shake off the fear: "He was afraid for his daughters. He would call me three times a day to say he wanted to leave."

Before they left, Cordoba neighbors and their Syrian relatives tried to convince them to stay, that returning to Syria was dangerous. But the family insisted that the situation in Aleppo had stabilized, which is partly true, even if the country is still very much a war zone. Nonetheless, the family is grateful for the few months of shelter they received, and they are carrying home with them an Argentine flag and mate equipment used to brew the southern cone's typical herbal tea.

Tawfiq, who was injured in a bombardment, said he would reopen his perfume shop in the city. "If that does not work out I can work as a taxi driver," he said. "I can't do that here."

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Dutch Cities Have Been Secretly Probing Mosques Since 2013

Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.

The Nasser mosque in Veenendaal, one of the mosques reportedly surveilled

Meike Eijsberg

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Photo of people standing on prayer mats inside a Dutch mosque

Praying inside a Dutch mosque.


Broken trust in Islamic community

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

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