KUALA LUMPUR: After six long years, the acrid smell of war and destruction all around him finally became too much for Somar Hukaima Abo Fakher to bear any longer.
The Syrian decided to flee to Malaysia in 2017. He used his savings to buy an air ticket and left in search of safety and a chance to pursue his ambitions.
Now 29, he remembers the day in 2011 that civil unrest first broke out in Syria’s capital, his place of birth, Damascus.
“I was at work, and we were watching protests in the streets on TV,” he told FMT in fluent English.
The country watched as government forces violently suppressed all the protests.
“That was the day I knew civil war was starting in Syria,” he recalled. “I realised this would be the end of everything I had known.”
The peaceful protests turned into armed rebellion, and escalated into a full-scale war affecting the whole nation and ultimately the region.
Even as the civil war grew bloodier, Somar managed to continue his Fine Arts university degree course.
His family had returned to their hometown in southern Syria and so he was living in a flat in a tower block in Damascus.
“My apartment block was bombed. Almost nobody survived that.
“I was lucky because I wasn’t there at the time. It was my 25th birthday and I had gone to spend it with my family in the south,” he said, fighting back tears, recalling the neighbours and friends he lost.
He tried to live a normal life, but it became increasingly difficult. Family members and friends were getting killed.
“When it’s really dangerous, the only thing you can do is stay in, lock the door and wait,” he said. “I stayed through the hard times in Syria; I had no intention of leaving initially.”
But when it all became too much, he decided to flee.
He was not the only one.
According to the United Nations, Somar is one of approximately 5.6 million Syrian refugees who fled the country due to the conflict. Many went to Europe but Somar decided to head east instead.
He came to Malaysia as a tourist, and ended up applying for a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) card which allows him to stay here.
While he feels welcome and safe in Malaysia, finding a job is very difficult as refugees, even with UNHCR cards, are not permitted to work. They can apply for financial assistance, but Somar prefers to make his own way.
At first he was able to earn survival money busking on the streets of KL, playing his oud, a traditional Syrian lute.
Then he and some Syrian friends formed a pick-up band which played on the streets and when they were lucky, at events.
In the end he couldn’t make enough money to live on from busking, so he switched to doing casual jobs wherever he could find them.
Now he also makes what he can by selling his artwork and handicrafts.
He leads a nomadic existence, shuttling between KL, Penang and Malacca by bus, living in guesthouses and renting rooms by the month.
“It’s hard to find stable jobs anywhere if you’re an artist, but it’s especially difficult for me here because I’m not allowed to work.”
“I don’t come from a rich family. So I can’t ask anyone back home for money as they have to take care of things there.”
Now he has sought help from UNHCR to see if there are bazaars and markets for him to sell his artwork at, so he can make a proper business out of it while he waits for a better time to go home.
When does he think that time will come?
Last year, the Syrian Army declared Damascus to be free from rebel forces after nearly seven years. YouTube videos show people dancing and singing in the streets in celebration.
While the violence may be over, Somar says the conflict has left the capital in ruins.
“It’s going to take a very long time to overcome the emotional scars and to rebuild the city. It’s still chaos there.”
He has not found his dream in Malaysia and yearns to return to Syria when the nightmare there is over.
“It’s my country. My friends and my memories are there.”