“When there is war in your country, this means you are a refugee,” says Mohammad.
He’s eight years old.
He’s showing me his new hamster, brought over by a neighbor that day, and his pot plants – all of them succulents – housed in the corner of the balcony of his family's small flat in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
“He doesn’t really understand what happened to us in Syria,” says his father, Ahmad. “But he remembers a little. Sometimes he has bad dreams. He was only six when we left, and Fatima was two.”
On hearing her name, Fatima looks up from her drawing with concern. She knows stories from back home can be a sensitive subject.
The family are seeking asylum in Malaysia, and are currently living on the outskirts of the capital city. The apartment they call home is in a big block of yellow flats. It has a living space, a tiny kitchen, and two bedrooms. They share this apartment with another refugee family. There are red bars on the windows; in the distance, you can just about see the glass-and-steel high rise buildings of the city's business district.
Of the 178,100 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia as of November 2019, around 46,610 are children below the age of 18.
Their father Ahmad speaks English well and worked at an embassy in Damascus. ISIS fighters found out that Ahmad had skills and information they could use.
They began monitoring him and intimidating him.
“My neighbor joined ISIS and then he started to ask me why I hadn’t done the same. Fighters started to corner me and threaten me with an ultimatum: join, or else. Outside my house and on my car, they left threatening messages – working for an embassy was a dangerous job. They considered me a kafir, a traitor. I thought they would soon kill me,” says Ahmad.
The family decided that it would be best for Ahmad to leave. He hoped that once he was gone, ISIS would leave his family alone. He fled through Turkey to Thailand in 2015. There, he found a job as a chef and sent money back to his wife Soraya whenever he could.
It was difficult – she never knew when she was about to run out.
"What people don’t realize is that before the war, my life in Syria was very beautiful and normal like any other life," says Soraya.
"We were living very happily - happier than you can imagine. My son Mohammad was just 1 and a half years old when the war started. He didn’t have the chance to see Syria.
"One day, there was a tear gas attack and my children were hit. I took them to the hospital; I told them, Please help my babies, they can’t breathe! It was dark. There was smoke and fire everywhere.
"The next day, there was another bomb. It was a car bomb near our house which was close to a school."
Mohammad points to a small scar.
"From that attack, a piece of glass cut his forehead. But he was one of the lucky ones," continues Soraya.
"People were screaming Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar! as they took the bodies of little children out from the school.”
A washing machine in the kitchen makes the floor tremble as it spins a load dry.
“Do you hear that? It sounds like the bombs in Damascus. They made the floor shake in the same way.”
“If someone gave me another nationality, I would kiss their hand," says Ahmad. "I love Damascus and I wish I could go back again. But everything now is dark."
"Everyone has changed. The war has changed them. Conflict makes people put themselves first; it becomes a game of survival."
Soraya, Ahmad, and their children decided to move from Thailand to Malaysia. One reason why they chose Malaysia is because of the country’s diversity. It is a Muslim-majority society with a relatively large Arabic community - the block of flats the family lives in also houses refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen to name a few. Another reason is because asylum-seekers can enter Malaysia on tourist visas which can be obtained on arrival.
While they have left conflict behind, they still face some big challenges ahead. Malaysia is not a State Party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. This means they do not have an asylum system in place to regulate the status and rights of refugees. As a result, refugees have no legal status in Malaysia and are considered synonymous with illegal migrants.
Refugees can apply to UNHCR for documentation, but this is only an ID card that indicates that the person carrying the document should not be forcibly returned to a country where their lives may be at risk. It is not a work permit and does not accord work rights, and youth and children do not receive education. Refugees carrying UNHCR documentation can benefit from reduced foreigners’ fees at public hospitals. However, these reduced are often still too expensive.
Many refugees therefore resort to illegal, informal work, like cooking and cleaning in restaurants or hotels, or transporting goods across the city. This is what Ahmad does every so often - but in doing this he risks exploitation and arrest.
Working illegally influences public perception, as some feel that refugees are coming into the country to take jobs and benefit economically.
All this deepens the profound sense of insecurity and trauma that accompanies their forced displacement. It also prevents them from making a meaningful contribution to Malaysia during their stay in exile.
Security is what worries Ahmad the most. He and his wife are older parents. Both have diabetes and struggle to afford insulin – as a result, Ahmad’s teeth have fallen out, he is losing sight in one eye, and he has nerve pain down his legs.
“I want to be useful in Malaysia, I want to work even if it’s just to volunteer. I have skills."
“People think that we can just go back home," he says. "But where would we go back to in Syria? Our house is gone, our livelihood is gone, our dignity is gone. The Syria I know is dead."
“I want what is best for my children..."
“I want them to be free."
Since this interview, the family have been issued UNHCR documentation. Watch the documentary of their story, click here.
Names have been changed for protection purposes.
This story is brought to you by ExtremeLives, a project by UNDP and the European Union uncovering stories of people affected by violent extremism. ExtremeLives is also supported by Facebook. For more information, visit our website.
For more on UNDP's work on migration, check out Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe
Words and photography by Mailee Osten-Tan