Syrians finding refuge in sub-Saharan Africa

Sunday 23/04/2017
Very far from home. Abdul Ghani Bandenjki sits outside of the school where he teaches in Tema in Ghana, on March 18.

Accra, Ghana - As desperate Syrians flee the devastating war in their country, some are finding refuge in sub- Saharan Africa, includ­ing Ghana.
One imam from Aleppo, Abdul Ghani Bandenjki, first visited Gha­na in 2006 after being invited to of­ficiate at prayers during Ramadan. When fighting broke out in Syria five years later, Bandenjki decided to return to the West African coun­try more than 4,800km away.
Now the 42-year-old tutors Quranic students outside Accra. What was once a temporary solu­tion for his family has started to look permanent, though adjusting has not been easy.
“We just want the war to end so that one day we can go back to our country,” Bandenjki said in Arabic.
As millions fled Syria, his broth­ers and sisters left for nearby Tur­key and Lebanon. Other family members scattered across Europe. His father, however, refused to leave and Bandenjki said his moth­er died of grief three days after a bomb destroyed their home.
Bandenjki’s journey with his wife and four children has been the longest. He said he stays in touch with his surviving relations as best as he can.
As more of his countrymen ar­rived in Ghana, often bewildered, he was asked to become the Syrian refugee community’s liaison with the local government. There are no firm statistics on the number of Syrians in Ghana but Bandenjki said the figure is close to 1,000.
And it is not just Ghana. Fleeing Syrians have found refuge in pock­ets across sub-Saharan Africa, even as far away as South Africa. An es­timated 300 are in Somalia’s rela­tively peaceful breakaway north­ern territory of Somaliland.
In contrast to the millions living in camps in Syria’s overwhelmed neighbours, the Syrians here find themselves relatively free.
“I think what makes Ghana dif­ferent is the fact that we have a very generous asylum policy,” said Tetteh Padi, programme coordina­tor for the Ghana Refugee Board. “They are free to move about. They can go out, look for work. I know for a fact that is not the case in other countries. In some countries, refugees are not even allowed to leave the refugee camps.”
More than 130 Syrians have been granted refugee status, Padi said, and other requests for asylum are being considered.
Ghana’s government has not pro­vided food or lodging assistance but provides help where it can, Padi said. “The state is providing them with security, the state is pro­tecting them. We’re issuing them with documentation, which is very critical.”
Ghana feels like a second home for Bandenjki and he calls the country beautiful. However, he wishes more could be done to help others fleeing Syria’s devastation. Many refugees are far worse off fi­nancially than he is, he says.
The lack of support and work opportunities in Ghana, plus the high cost of living, drives many Syrians to pursue a move to devel­oped countries in North America or Europe.
“Ghana is not really ready to host refugees,” Bandenjki says.
His 17-year-old son, Mohammed, adapted quickly to life in Ghana and is studying hard at school. He learnt English in about five months, the teen said.
Of his family’s fate, Bandenjki said simply: “We are patient until God finds us a solution.”
(The Associated Press)