Omar, who had seemed to me, unsurprisingly, quite depressed but both perceptive and empathetic, was keen to work and had a professional youth football background, so we invited him to take over our sports activities.
We were unable to provide a football pitch, but Omar not only worked effectively on ball skills in a small school playground, but also created an extraordinary hybrid of calisthenics, acrobatics, dance and musical theatre.
Children who had had their lives broken loved it and thrived on it. I caught Omar’s eye the moment he realised he had created something truly special. The depression lifted, and Omar never looked back, eventually graduating at the American University in Beirut.
For several years, our project became part of a small educational and therapeutic paradise amid the suffering of war and tents made of tarpaulin and matchwood held together by rusting nails. And this little paradise had its angels, particularly Omar, Ammar and Hjeij.
Several things made Ammar, his 15-year-old daughter Israa, and Hjeij bid for a better life. The way the war ended in Syria (the West could have helped it to end differently) dashed any hopes of return. The family had been bombed out of its homes in Homs and Damascus, and were on Syrian President Assad’s blacklist. Their father was a political prisoner. His death not long ago, alone in a cell, with no contact with his family, was a breaking point for the brothers.
And life in Lebanon had got even more impossible. Aid projects, a source of work and modest income for some refugees, were badly hit by Covid. The international aid effort continued to fail, not helped by things like Westminster’s massive doctrinaire cut in its aid budget, in spite of promises by former Tory ministers to support refugees “where they are”.
Finally, Lebanon, which has in some ways been extraordinarily welcoming to refugees in spite of some disastrous blips, is now in the grip of hyperinflation, reducing the value of meagre humanitarian support to ten per cent of its previous value.
It was in this atmosphere that Ammar, Israa and Hjeij made their way to Belarus. In their case, they applied officially for an expensive visa at the embassy. But as a rule, for the equivalent of the price of a ruined house in Syria, President Lukashenko’s agents (sadly encouraged by Moscow) are flying refugees to Minsk.
They are put up at the Sputnik Hotel, and other accommodation, then driven to the Polish and Lithuanian borders and told to walk. If they try to return they are “pushed back”, a euphemism for barbed wire, baton charges and dogs. When Ammar showed his visa to the Belarus police, it was ignored.
They are similarly cruelly “pushed back” from the Polish and Lithuanian borders. It is a game designed to destabilise the EU’s borders, morally compromise Western governments, and weaponise the suffering of some of the most damaged and abused people on Earth.
On Saturday, Omar received a desperate message from Ammar that they were stuck in a forest near the village of Stalai in Lithuania, near the Polish and Belarus borders, with little water, only a few dates left to eat, and low phone battery. Israa was unwell with fainting fits.
I set off immediately from Scotland to Lithuania, via Poland, knowing that there was no humanitarian support in the area, that they would not give themselves up to the authorities fearing a violent “push-back”, and that there were already deep frosts in the forests.
My hope was to get food, water and clothing for them, and to try to negotiate with local people to rent accommodation I could then discreetly use as a safe house.
I knew the area well many years ago, and can get by in the languages, so I was confident I could achieve some basic stuff. Fortunately the excellent Lithuanian Human Rights Institute from Vilnius was already on the case.
Goda Jurevičiūtė had set off with journalists to search for the location Ammar had given. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees was also involved and had informed the State Guard Service. When Goda arrived, there was a helicopter hovering above the forest. She found no one at the location, only abandoned clothing.
There has been no contact from Ammar since then. I arrived 12 or so hours later. I was deeply worried by everything, and troubled that Israa had left her boots behind in the forest.
They have certainly not been detained by the police or border guards; Goda contacted them and is sure of that. My hope is that they have been picked up by human traffickers; it is ironic that there is more hope of humanity from criminals than from the murderous indifference of the modern state.
I have returned home until we get more information. There are thousands of square miles of forest along these borders. A search-and-rescue operation would require helicopters, tracker dogs and the resources of the same state apparatus now being used against the refugees.
It is far beyond the capabilities of a retired music teacher from the Scottish Borders. Of course, I shouted “Ammar” into the forest as night fell. I felt sad, stupid, helpless and lonely – probably more than ever before in my life.
I had a number of conversations with taxi drivers along the way. All were sympathetic to my Syrian friends, but also fearful of opening the floodgates and attracting a deluge of refugees. My reply was that it was not an “either/or”.
It is possible to defend borders and facilitate emergency humanitarian support to stop people from dying, without prejudice to issues of asylum and visas. The many “push-back” search helicopters could be used for air drops of food, water, tents and blankets.
At the moment, Lukashenko and Putin are winning this dirty game. The way to stop it is not to replicate their cruelty but to chop off the head of the Hydra.
A blanket publicity campaign among vulnerable communities in the Middle East and Afghanistan, including clear warning notices at departure airports, plus relevant sanctions and the non-violent neutralisation of Lukashenko’s mafia agents – they are easy to find – would cut off the flow.
Of course we also have to talk stick and (very important) carrot to the Russians. Seven more refugee planes landed in Minsk on Monday.
In the meantime, Omar, his family and friends and I must wait and hope for news. Back in Warsaw, I slept for two hours and had one of those “everything-is all-right” dreams. In it, Ammar, Israa and Hjeij appeared looking well and said they were safe in Germany.
We can only hope for the best and be ready for the worst. If there is news or location we can act on, I have promised Omar I’ll be back in the forest like a shot.
Nigel Osborne is emeritus professor of music and human sciences at University of Edinburgh