Originally published in The Daily Beast, 3 May 2012
About a 30-minute drive west of Cairo, hundreds of young Syrians are yearning to go to war.
They are living a rootless existence in 6th of October City, the satellite settlement now home to thousands of civil war refugees. Many of them share the same goal: to return to their homeland and take up arms against Bashar al-Assad.
For some, there is only one man who can help: Abu Samer (not his real name), perhaps the most prolific recruiting officer for anti-Assad rebels in Egypt. Formerly a wealthy Damascus-based businessman, 51-year-old Abu Samer now spends much of his time – not to mention large sums of his own money – sending hundreds of young Syrian refugees back to their homeland to join the war against the Baathist regime.
He told The Daily Beast that he meets up to 150 people a month who are looking for help to find a way back home and join the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). Many of the young men approaching him are activists who were forced to leave their country either under pressure of their families or because they were wanted by the feared secret police.
“People here are losing family members or watching reports of torture on television,” said Abu Samer, speaking in one of the dozens of new Syrian restaurants which have sprung up around 6th of October City. He himself has lost 32 members of his own family in the Syrian war. “A third-year medicine student came to me the other day wanting to return after 12 of his family members were martyred,” he added.
According to the United Nations, there are now more than 150,000 Syrian refugees based in Egypt. Some of them came from wealthier families who could afford to flee a little further afield than the countries bordering Syria. But others, after landing in Egypt, are struggling to make ends meet in an economy which is sinking to its knees.
In its report published in January, the UN’s refugee agency in Egypt called for $10 million to assist Syrians who had fled their homeland. But for those who cannot bear to continue watching the immolation of their country, Abu Samer is often their best bet. He says that since last September he has spent about $31,000 on the travel costs of new recruits, flying them out to Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey. The money comes from his own pocket, he said, as well as donations from the expat Syrian community in Egypt.
On arrival they are met by Free Syria Army contacts, who ferry them onwards to the front or one of the various FSA training camps for those who lack military training. The young men – and apart from a solitary 23-year-old woman, all the fighters have been male –have to meet a strict set of selection criteria. All must be over 20 years old and have an ability to use weapons – a measure, says Abu Samer, which is necessary for “their own safety.” There is also an “intelligence check.” Phone calls are made to contacts in Syria to establish the political credentials of those applying and whether they are affiliated with the government regime.
In Abu Samer’s mind, there is another, equally important reason for checks. “We’re careful not to have any extremists,” he said. “One of the people I didn’t send sat down with me and said, ‘Abu Samer, the Sunni Muslims are the majority in Syria. We should rule the country, and we need to go backand kill all of the Alawites and Druze,” a reference to two of Syria’s religious minorities.
He added that he had received requests from foreign jihadists wishing to join the fight, but declined to support them. “I am convinced that no one can liberate Syria but Syrians,” he said, adding that most of the foreigners who came to see him were Islamists.
One of those hoping to receive Abu Samer’s benefaction was an 18-year-old man from 6th of October City who gave his name as Abu Bakr. Rolling up his checked, purple shirt, he revealed three bullet wounds in his chest which he said he received after being shot by government forces during a protest in Damascus back in January of last year. A thick, 10 cm-long scar ran down his abdomen from the resulting operation. “Syria is my country and I will not leave it,” he said. “This war was imposed on us.” He added that with Abu Samer’s blessing, he would fly out of Cairo in a month’s time.
His feelings were echoed by another young man, who called himself Basel. The 18-year-old fled war-torn Homs one year ago after being detained by security forces. “I want to return to Syria and die there,” he says. “It’s better than dying here.”
Abu Samer’s munificence does not simply extend to funding the anti-Assad military jihad. He has also spent around $62,000 on food and medical supplies, while around half of the 300 or so Syrians he has sent home since last September are returning to carry out humanitarian work.
For the families of those left behind in Egypt – some of whom lose their main source of income when the men of the home depart – he also provides a monthly replacement salary. Among those who receive this cash is a 43-year-old who gave her name as Um Qasim. Both her 56-year-old husband and her two sons have returned to Syria to wage war against President Assad, she said, leaving her back in Egypt. “I’m very happy that they have gone,” she said. “They are defending their land and defending their honor.”