NOGINSK, RUSSIA —
In a non-descript, three-room apartment in the town of Noginsk, outside Moscow, Syrian kids are learning Russian. Their teachers, who also give classes in English and Arabic, are a mix of Syrians, Russians, and Syrian-Russians.
Most of the Syrian families with children at this makeshift school fled Aleppo before Russia began its bombing campaign there.
“They try not to discuss that with us,” says Laila Rogozina with the Civil Assistance Committee charity, which runs the classes. “That is why I can't say what they think about this conflict. I do not think they are happy. They have some relatives living there who either disappear without any news from them, or flee in an unknown direction.”
Before Russia began its air campaign in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad, many Syrians ended up in Russia, given the business and family ties that the long-standing relations between Damascus and Moscow have produced.
Despite the war, the Russian authorities have granted refugee status to only two Syrians, leaving thousands with only temporary legal status, including children.
“Women and children are turned down in getting temporary asylum during the war period, while all the mass media report that we keep bombing Aleppo and the majority of the refugees come from Aleppo,” says Rogozina in exasperated disbelief.
Many of the Syrians in Noginsk and nearby towns overstay their temporary visas, remain undocumented, and work illegally in sewing factories to earn a living.
Afraid of authorities, their children are shut out of Russian schools.
Even Syrians who have lived in Russia for decades and have become Russian citizens say there is little sympathy from officials.
“The people among themselves don't complain and take it all for granted,” says Arabic translator Khadizh Ismail Muhkamed Basil Adib. “But the officials treat them badly. In a word, it is hard to be a Syrian here right now.”
Adib has lived in Russia more than twenty years but only received Russian citizenship two years ago. He says his brother was killed in the war in Syria.
The Syrian community tells him their biggest challenge in Russia is getting the legal documents allowing them to live and work here.
“Unfortunately the migration service here is very corrupt and in Moscow they don't receive Syrians at all,” says Adib. “If Syrians go to apply [for legal status] they say they'll deport them out of the country.”
Riyad, a Syrian-Russian businessman who did not want to give his last hame, moved from Aleppo to Russia in 1989 and became a citizen.
“When the war in Syria began, I invited my family here," he says. "They came, we thought the war would be over soon within a month or two, but it's been going on for a long time - six years.”
Since the war in Syria started, the visas the Russian authorities have granted his family, including his wife, are only temporary.
“Then the authorities refused its extension and suggested we go back," he says. "We said we couldn't, as it was impossible to return to a country at war.”
Riyad says their home in Aleppo was destroyed and one son, a soldier in the Syrian army, was killed.
One son married a Russian and was able to get Russian citizenship.
Two other sons joined a boatload of migrants on the dangerous journey from Turkey to live in Germany.
Although they are safe, the family’s separation has left Riyad bitter about what it means to be a Russian citizen.
“We don't like it here as it's not our country,” he says. “We want to live where we were born and where we have grown up. Let us live here while the war is raging. When it's over, we'll take the first plane. Why don't we have respect for one another here in Russia? Why don't we understand one another here?”
Meanwhile, Syrian kids play outside of their charity-run school and a neighboring prison.
But their classes may have to be relocated, because winter is coming and they lack central heating.