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Making do in Mali

A long way from home: Syrians in unexpected places

Syrian refugees in Mali

The last year witnessed a small but growing trend of Syrians taking the long way round to Europe via Mauritania, and then overland to the north African coast. But some have end up settling for a while in Mali, along the way.

Mouna Khalil and her family arrived in Mali in 2013, after first fleeing Syria into Lebanon, and then flying to Mauritania and travelling overland. They hoped to make a fresh start, but life in the poor, majority Muslim nation’s capital Bamako was not what the family had expected. While relieved to have escaped the constant shelling and the sound of fighter jets, the harsh living conditions in their new home make them feel they have replaced one kind of suffering for another.

“Mali is a poor country. There is nothing here, no life,” says Mouna, seated on the porch of the house the family is renting on Bamako’s outskirts. 

“I wish we could leave and go somewhere else – Algeria, Morocco or even back to Syria, anywhere but here,” says her husband, Bakary.

Many of the Syrians arriving in Mali via Mauritania hope to continue onwards with smugglers and make the perilous journey through Algeria and Morocco to reach the seaside Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Between January and April this year, according to UNHCR, at least 436 Syrian refugees crossed the Mauritania-Mali border.

Others, like the Khalils, lack the money to pay smugglers and fear making long, desert treks with small children.

Mali is hardly the ideal destination for refugees. Its own four-year-long crisis has left tens of thousands of Malians displaced or living as refugees in neighbouring countries. Government resources and humanitarian agencies are strained to the limits. Many Syrians say they have received little or no assistance from the authorities or from NGOs. They rely for help on their Malian neighbours, many of whom have themselves been displaced.

“People here are poor just like us; still, everyone is helping out bringing clothes and toys for the children,” says Mouna.

A wealthy Malian businessman has offered to pay for the children’s school fees. Another neighbour paid the rent when the family was facing eviction.

Mali has only granted refugee status to 92 Syrians, while a further 10 are awaiting the outcome of asylum claims. The Khalils abandoned their efforts to be recognised as refugees and many other unregistered Syrians are thought to be residing in the country.

Idrissa Maiga, the head of a local association organising yearly trips to Mecca during the hajj, says at least 20 Syrians arrive at the Maison de Hajj every month.

“We house them for a few days while they try to find their bearings and look for other accommodation,” he says.

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