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As their country crumbles, Syrians wrestle with the "terrifying" prospect of life as refugees

U.N. official calls Syrian refugee crisis "cruel beyond belief"
U.N. official calls Syrian refugee crisis "cruel beyond belief" 01:44

Damascus — Saleem sees no hope for his future in Syria. At just 25, he's made a good living as a singer at a restaurant in the capital's old town. Now he's saving whatever he can to finance what he expects to be a "terrifying journey to seek a new life abroad."

His plan is to get into Lebanon first, and then try to get onto a plane to Turkey. From there, he'll have to rely on people smugglers, using boats, buses, trains or whatever is necessary, to reach Germany or some other safe haven in Europe.  

"It is not easy, I know," he tells CBS News.

He also knows he'll have to pack light. He chokes on his words and his eyes go red as he lists the few "cherished items" he can't leave behind, among them, a photo of his mother and his music, which will remind him of home.  

Syrians line up to buy bread at a shop in the town of Binnish in the country's northwestern Idlib province on June 9, 2020. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty

Over almost a decade of civil war, Syria has become a country of shifting borders, but clear lines: There are lines for bread, lines for gas, lines for sugar and rice. There aren't nearly enough jobs, and power shortages mean routine blackouts.

The war has already driven more than half of Syria's people to flee their homes. More than 5.5 million have fled the country, creating the largest population of refugees in the world. An estimated 6.6 million more have been displaced within Syria's borders, according to the United Nations.

When the conflict began in 2011, it was relatively easy for people to leave the country. Those without money for a plane ticket poured out in waves of tens of thousands across land borders into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. But one by one, those exits have been restricted, or closed off entirely.

Program aims to help Syrian refugees recover from psychological trauma 07:52

This week the government announced that it would reopen Damascus' international airport on October 1, with safety measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. That may be of little help, as Syrians are widely denied entry visas to other countries these days.

President Bashar Assad's forces — thanks to help from Russia — have regained control over most of the territory they lost to rebels in the still-simmering civil war, but the country's economy is in tatters. 

Syria's infrastructure and finances are crumbling under the weight of years of international economic sanctions, government corruption and infighting, and what seems to be a vastly underestimated coronavirus epidemic.

In government-controlled areas, prices on staple items can rise several times over the course of a day, forcing many stores to close as they simply can't cope with the chaos. Some essentials, including sugar and rice, are being rationed by the government. But even those, along with medicines, are becoming harder and harder to find at all.

Inside the lives of children living in the Syrian civil war 02:29

Conditions are so bad that many Syrians — irrespective of age, education or economic status — are still contemplating taking their chances and leaving the country however they can.

Muhideen, 36, tells CBS News that a sense of duty to his parents has kept him in Syria for years, giving him "cold feet" every time he considered fleeing the country.

"Now even my dad and mom are pushing me to travel and settle with my wife and two sons elsewhere, given the increasingly difficult living conditions and bleak future," he said, noting that bakeries across the country are running out of flour and gas stations are running out of fuel. 

Drivers line up for gas in front of a gas station in the Syrian capital Damascus, April 15, 2019.  LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty

Syria's gas crisis is plain to see. Drivers line up for hours every day across the nation, many finally reaching gas stations only to be told the fuel tanks have run dry.

"I woke up at 5 a.m. and went to a nearby station. I waited for six hours but failed to get even a liter of gas. I will give it another shot tomorrow morning," Samira, a 42-year-old mother in Damascus, tells CBS News.   

Most of the Syrians we spoke to said they would leave their country if they had the opportunity, but even in these dire circumstances, it's never an easy decision.

"The hustle does not end when I get out, as I would need to deal with the psychological toll of being far away from loved ones whose lives are falling apart," said Muhideen. "I would feel guilty if I go, but I would also feel guilty if I don't."

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