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Syrians finding refuge in Africa as war at home grinds on

  • Jordi Perdigo

    Associated Press

Accra, Ghana | Sun, March 19, 2017 | 05:22 pm
Syrians finding refuge in Africa as war at home grinds on In this picture taken, Feb. 16, 2017, a child looks out from an abandoned petrol station where he and his family now live. The petrol station, badly damaged by war, is now the home of five families who have returned to Tel Abiad district, Raqqa Governorate, Syria, after fleeing from ISIS two years earlier only to find their homes destroyed. A new report by Save the Children says Syrian children are showing symptoms of ‘toxic stress’ from war exposure, and attempting self-harm and suicide. (Save the Children via AP/Jonathan Hyams)

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 the Ramadan holy month. When fighting broke out in Syria five years later, Bandenjki decided to return to this West African nation more than 3,000 miles (4,825 kilometers) away.

Now the 42-year-old tutors Quranic students outside the capital, Accra. What was once a temporary solution for his family has started to look permanent, though adjusting hasn't 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 he said his mother died of grief three days after a bomb destroyed their family home.

Bandenjki's journey with his wife and four children has been the longest. He stays in touch with his surviving relations as best as he can.

As more of his countrymen arrived in Ghana, 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 here, he said, but he believes the figure is close to 1,000.

And it's not just Ghana. Fleeing Syrians have found refuge in pockets across sub-Saharan Africa, even as far 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 neighbors, 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, program 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."

Over 130 Syrians so far 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 so far 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."

This country now feels like a second home for Bandenjki, and he calls Ghana beautiful. But he wishes more could be done to help others fleeing Syria's devastation. Many refugees are far worse off financially than he is, he said.

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 said.

But his 17-year-old son, Mohammed, has adapted quickly to life here and is studying hard at school. He managed to learn 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."