“EIGHT OF my cousins have been killed. My father passed away in July 2013 but I couldn’t go to his funeral,” said Firas Naddah, a British-Syrian national.
“I used to go back every year. Now, because of the fighting, I haven’t seen my family for three years. I’m homesick for the first time.”
Mr Naddah, 47, lives in Wrexham after moving to the town 13 years ago to study at Glyndwr University.
An IT specialist, he has just finished his Master of Business Administration(MBA).
But despite having built up a strong network of friends in the area, his life has been marked by a conflict 3,000 miles away.
Firas left Syria to pursue his education in the UK just a few months after President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, came to power.
The regime, previously headed by Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad, has been soundly criticised by human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Even so, life in Syria was, for Mr Naddah and his family at least, characterised by stability.
“I come from Tartous. It sounds like the Welsh for ‘potatoes’,” he joked.
“Society in Syria is very close-knit. Our families stay together.”
When I asked him about censorship, arrests of journalists and rumoured “disappearances” under the regime, Mr Naddah frowned.
“I can’t say anything about that. For us, life was not bad. It was not democratic but people of different faiths lived side-by-side.
“We had access to free education, free healthcare, and most of all, we had peace.”
All that changed in 2011 with the advent of the Arab Spring.
Mass anti-government rallies gave way to violence, with protesters clashing with loyalist troops.
Now Mr Naddah fears militant Islamist groups like the Al-Nusra Front, branded a terrorist organisation by the UK government, are fuelling the conflict.
The situation has left Mr Naddah physically cut off from his family.
He said: “I used to be able to get a direct flight from Manchester or Heathrow. This is the time of year I’d normally visit. Now it’s impossible.
“I talk to them all the time but I am not there. It’s very hard, very difficult.”
More difficult still is being stranded so far from his family during times of grief.
Eight of his cousins were killed between July 2012 and February 2013. One was killed on New Year’s Eve.
He said: “Eight of my cousins were killed within seven months. Some of them were officers in the forces but some of them were doctors, ordinary civilians.
“My cousins and I played together, we went to school together. Some were younger than me and I knew them from when they were born.
“Because, as a society, we are close-knit, perhaps 500 or 600 people will turn up for a wedding.
“Maybe 1,500 people will gather for a funeral. In sadness we come together. But I could not be there for any of them.
“It’s a horrible thing to have happened. It was a terrible time. My aunt had two sons, one 31, one 24. Now she has none.”
Other members of his family have thankfully escaped danger.
He said: “My brother, a dentist, had his surgery bombed. He was lucky as he was away visiting family.”
According to the US, 1,429 Syrians were killed in a nerve agent attack in the al-Ghouta region of Damascus on August 21, although the official death toll has not been established.
Since then, the US has threatened direct military force against the Assad regime.
Conflicting intelligence on the source of the attack has left the situation murky but one thing is clear: Syria represents a modern human tragedy.
Mr Naddah welcomed the recent announcement that Sweden was opening its borders to limited numbers of Syrian refugees but he spelled out the issue in stark figures.
He said: “People have escaped to Turkey and surrounding countries but the numbers are huge. Lebannon has seen two million Syrians arrive. They can’t cope.
“Even in Syria itself, there are 23 million people. They are internally displaced, moving to safer zones. In my city, the population is normally 300,000. Now they have a million. These people have left their homes, left everything because of the rebels. It’s not fair.”
Mr Naddah is non-partisan but has taken part in an anti-war demonstration in Wrexham, one of many around the country that sought to prevent UK and US military intervention in the conflict.
He said: “I don’t want my country to be bombed by the West. It’s enough for people to be at risk of rebel attack. If America gets involved, it will be another Afghanistan or another Iraq.
“It will not just be soldiers who die if there is an air strike.
“Many more people will die. Civilians will be killed, cities will be destroyed. People don’t want to see another Iraq.
“I’m not political but Syria is my home and my family is there.”
Mr Naddah is also concerned about the cultural impact of the civil war, although he was pleased by the tenderness and understanding of Wrexham people who have supported him.
He said: “This has changed the way Syria sees the world. It was the cradle of civilisation. It was where the Ugaritic cuneiform script, one of the oldest alphabets, began.
“If I say ‘Syria’, people will just think of a desert – but it’s much more than that. It’s a beautiful place with a long history. And it’s a modern place where people work and live.
“But it will become one of those places where, if you hear the word, you will think of bombed cities and terrible pictures.”
Images from the chemical attack were undoubtedly harrowing, prompting calls for intervention.
What Mr Naddah wants to see is a measured, diplomatic response to this complex situation.
He said: “I don’t want to see extremists and religious fanatics come to power in Syria. I’d like there to be democracy, although that is not likely for a long time.
“Killing Syrians will not help. I would like to see the UN provide a stable diplomatic platform for talks between factions within the country and for America to stand back and stop threatening aggression.
“I know there is bloodshed on both sides but I believe the way out is to sit together and resolve it.”