Freed from Islamic State, many Syrians leave Raqqa

Raqqa, the former capital of the Islamic State (IS) and home to around 300,000 people, is now free.

However, many of its inhabitants want to leave. Those who own property try to sell it to save for the trip to Turkey. Those who have no money find it difficult to get by.

At least 3,000 people left Raqqa for Turkey in 2021, said the co-chairman of the city’s civil council, Mohammed Nour.

In some ways, the city’s recovery from IS rule is clear. Cafes and restaurants are full of people. Kurdish-led forces stand guard in the main streets.

But poverty is widespread. People line up for basic items like bread. Young unemployed people are seated. Water and electricity are limited. Many live among the bombed-out ruins.

Local officials say at least 30% of the town is destroyed.

Poverty and unemployment push young men into the arms of IS. Kurdish investigators say the new IS recruits captured last month had been lured by the money. At the same time, the Kurdish-led city government received apps of 27,000 job seekers last year, but had no jobs.

Milhem Daher, a 35-year-old engineer, is selling his house, businesses and properties to pay a smuggler to take him and his family of eight to Turkey, a key road for Syrians trying to get to Europe.

He plans to leave as soon as he has enough money.

Daher has survived Raqqa’s recent violent history, including the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 and the 2014 takeover by IS militants who turned the city into a capital. A US-led coalition dropped thousands of bombs on the city to drive out ISIS.

IS left the city in 2017 and lost its last territory in Syria in 2019.

Today, Daher is selling what remains of his bankrupt businesses to start a new life. He needs $10,000.

In Raqqa, having money can also be a problem because kidnappings are on the increase.

Property developer Imam al-Hasan, 37, was abducted from his home and held for days by assailants. To secure his release, he paid $400,000, money belonging to him and traders who entrusted their savings to him. He complained to local authorities, but said nothing had been done. A month after the event, bruises are still visible on his face and legs.

Al-Hasan also sells his house and possessions. “There’s nothing left for me here,” he said.

Two of Al-Hasan’s relatives, who left in September and recently arrived in Europe, said that in addition to economic problems, it was the threat of further violence that prompted them to leave.

“At any moment the situation can explode, how can I stay here?” says Ibrahim, 27.

He and Mohammed, 41, spoke on the condition that only their first names be used. They worried about the safety of their wives and children who still lived in the city.

Back in Raqqa, Reem al-Ani, 70, is making tea for two. His son is the only one of four children to have remained in Syria. The others are spread all over the world.

The stairs leading to their apartment are filled with bullet holes, remnants of fighting against IS.

She got used to a quiet house. She said of her children, “I miss them.”

I am John Russell.

Samya Kullab reported this story for The Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.

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words in this story

recruit – nm a person who has recently joined a company, organization, etc.

application -not. a formal, usually written request for something (such as a job, school admission, loan, etc.)

smuggler – nm to move (someone or something) from one country to another illegally and secretly

road – nm a way to get from one place to another

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