From Damascus to Berlin: A journalist’s quest for household reunion

By Riham Alkousaa (Reuters)

Berlin, June 18

It was nonetheless darkish in Damascus as I walked down the steps, my new life contained in a crimson suitcase. My mom stood subsequent to the taxi door praying for my security. My father was silent, sure that he would by no means see me once more.

I lowered the taxi window and waved to my dad and mom till they disappeared, grieving over the separation however on the similar time grateful to my exhausted previous metropolis, which had lastly let me go.

I had turn out to be one of many 700,000 refugees who’ve fled Syria and its warfare with out finish to Germany, which supplied shelter beneath a gray however beneficiant sky.

Since that morning in September 2014, I’ve advised many tales of refugees’ makes an attempt to make Germany extra like a house by reuniting with their households right here. As a journalist protecting the most important refugee disaster of the 21st century, I’ve reported concerning the ready, the loneliness, the maze of the paperwork that torments the household reunification course of.

This time, I’m telling my story.

A yr after I left Syria for Germany at age 23, my dad and mom and I attempted in useless to satisfy in Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan, Iran and Malaysia — among the international locations that also provide visas to Syrians. But as descendants of Palestinian refugees in Syria with no formal Syrian or Palestinian citizenship or nationwide passport, our probabilities to satisfy had been very slim.

Since the second I left Syria behind, my life has been a litany of moments meant to be shared: I missed my dad and mom at my commencement from my postgraduate program at Columbia University in New York after President Trump imposed a journey ban on guests from Syria. I missed them at my engagement social gathering; after I moved to my first condominium in Berlin; and on each Ramadan, Eid, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

WhatsApp helped to create an phantasm of contact and closeness. At the start, the very first thing I noticed on my cellphone within the morning had been missed calls from my mom. Then she discovered that she may ship me voice messages by means of the app, they usually turned our morning routine. She would file them whereas she was having morning espresso with my father, and I’d take heed to them on my approach to German-language college or to work.

We additionally cherished our video calls, despite the fact that the gradual web in Syria would lower them quick. But when those you like are seen solely on the screens of your laptop computer or cellphone, they slowly turn out to be unreal, like your favourite childhood TV character: very acquainted, however imaginary.

In Arabic, we name it “ghurba,” which has an unsatisfying translation of “being a stranger in a foreign land.” It’s attempting to prepare dinner all of your favourite dishes directly, simply to reassure your self that you would be able to convey house again; it is the lengthy Netflix night the place tea is made in a cup, not the large pot your mom used to maintain prepared for you; it is dreading weekends with their empty hours slowly sneaking in on quiet Friday evenings.

Then I heard a few particular resettlement program supplied by Berlin’s native authorities that gives an opportunity — a minuscule one, however an opportunity nonetheless — for Syrian and Iraqi households to reunite.

Migration has been one of the crucial divisive matters in Germany and Europe since Chancellor Angela Merkel determined in 2015 to open borders to greater than 1 million individuals escaping warfare and persecution within the Middle East and past. Concerns about migration have fueled far-right events throughout the continent and pushed European governments to close their borders and seal a controversial cope with Turkey to regulate unlawful migration. The variety of asylum- seekers in Germany fell 72.5% between 2016, the yr the deal was signed, and 2017.

For Syrians, even acquiring a customer visa to Germany right now is troublesome as a result of immigration authorities are sceptical that the travellers will return to the war-torn nation. There aren’t any authorities statistics on what number of Syrians have been granted a short-stay visa lately as a result of the German Foreign Ministry would not file the citizenship of candidates. But in 2019, the German Embassy in Beirut granted solely 7,913 short-term visas, which would come with all Lebanese candidates along with Syrians.

Only minors with “recognized refugee” standing have the best to convey their dad and mom and minor siblings to Germany. I used to be an grownup after I utilized for asylum 5 years in the past and did not qualify for a daily household reunification course of.

But if an grownup Syrian refugee — or an employed European Union citizen — guarantees to maintain all monetary bills of a member of the family, they will reunite in Germany by means of a particular program for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. The resettlement scheme presents two years’ residence, with a piece allow and public medical health insurance for relations.

The program was launched in 2013 by many German states to resettle households of Syrian refugees whose asylum functions have been accredited and have already got acknowledged refugee standing in Germany. It’s renewed on an annual foundation, and the choice to increase it’s made by states’ governments; out of 15 states that supplied this system in 2014, solely 5 of them have prolonged it for 2020.

To be eligible for this system, I needed to have a steady job in Germany with long-term employment prospects and a minimal wage to display that the member of the family would not find yourself being a drain on the system.

With language and expertise limitations, assembly these circumstances is difficult. In the six years ending in October 2019, only one,098 individuals had benefited from this system within the state of Berlin, authorities knowledge confirmed. Out of 459 functions submitted in 2019, 173 had been accredited.

Having a wage of a minimum of of two,300 euros a month after taxes is among the many most difficult circumstances.

“It’s is not that easy to earn this amount when one has immigrated here recently,” mentioned Engelhard Mazanke, the top of Berlin’s migration workplace.

At the start of my time in Berlin as an Arabic speaker in a rustic going through a wave of Arab refugees, I labored with American and German freelance journalists to inform the tales of the newcomers. While translating and speaking to individuals at Berlin’s asylum reception heart, I believed that I may inform these tales by myself. But shifting from being a “fixer” to an actual journalist in a brand new language and a brand new nation wanted rather more than I had anticipated.

It took 4 years, numerous German lessons, a grasp’s diploma from an Ivy League college, a couple of internships and a year-and-half coaching program till I received a job contract at Reuters and met this system’s circumstances.

But one situation was the toughest for me: A selection needed to be made.

The Berlin migration official accountable for my case was clear that I need to select between my dad and mom or one in every of my 4 siblings for the applying. My brothers are nonetheless at school within the Syrian metropolis of Homs, so ready few extra years to convey them right here made sense. That meant both denying my sisters a chance to construct a future in Germany or pushing my five-year separation with my dad and mom longer, ad infinitum.

Weeks handed as a result of I could not determine. Then a German buddy of mine astounded me with a proposal to assist.

Pascale Mueller and I had met few years earlier when she wanted assist translating for a Syrian refugee household for a narrative for Tagesspiegel newspaper in the course of the 2015 wave of migration. We hadn’t seen one another for greater than a yr when she mentioned she would act as a guarantor for one in every of my sisters.

I requested her to take a while earlier than deciding, as a result of the guarantor is financially accountable for the brand new arrival. If my sister claimed welfare or unemployment advantages, the federal government would ship a invoice to Pascale.

“Everyone I spoke with said, ‘I wouldn’t do it,’ but I have a good feeling about this,” Pascale mentioned. A number of weeks later we had been at Berlin’s migration workplace signing the papers.

When life decides to offer you a break, it makes you’re feeling that the doorways that appeared shut might need not been closed within the first place. When one other buddy of mine, a Briton, heard of Pascale’s surprising assist, he stepped in to ensure my different sister. We wanted to hurry by means of the paperwork earlier than Brexit occurred and he was now not a European Union citizen, however we additionally needed to wait on the pay elevate he had been promised. Each delay in Britain’s parliament that pushed its parting from the EU additional away gave my sister and me an even bigger likelihood to reunite.

Finally, he was in a position to signal the papers.

Within weeks, I acquired an e-mail from the German Embassy in Beirut asking my household for an interview. Because Germany pulled its diplomatic illustration in Syria shortly after the rebellion there in 2011, Syrians who apply for a German visa have to be interviewed in one of many German embassies or consulates in Syria’s neighboring international locations. Lebanon was the closest and, theoretically, a minimum of, the simplest to get in.

But just like the difficult German sentence construction I’ve come to know so properly, nothing was straightforward on this course of. A easy appointment turned a metaphor for the struggles, each bureaucratic and emotional, that the displaced face the world over.

First, my household needed to go away Damascus earlier than midnight for an 8:30 a.m. appointment in Beirut, though the journey solely takes 3½ hours by highway, due to a sophisticated entry course of for Palestinian-Syrians to Lebanon. Then, on the appointment, they tried handy over a doc they’d been advised to convey, however the worker mentioned it wasn’t required.

A number of weeks later, the embassy known as, asking for that very same doc. We may both pay a driver a price that was half my father’s month-to-month wage as a professor to take it to Lebanon or discover somebody to take it. We received fortunate — the dad and mom of a buddy of mine had been touring to the consulate in Lebanon the subsequent day for a visa interview by means of the identical program.

But then our luck ran out once more. After ready a month for phrase of our utility, we had been requested to ship the passports so “an answer” of sure or no could possibly be stamped on the functions.

This time we fortunately paid for a courier to take them to Beirut.

Then got here the subsequent delay: We had been advised there was an issue with my father’s journey doc, however the authorities did not say what the issue was, precisely.

We known as the embassy greater than 100 occasions, with both no reply or a busy line. I attempted a distinct emergency quantity devoted for German residents and was lastly forwarded to somebody who may reply my query. It turned out that the issue was my father’s passport picture: The glasses he wore made his face unrecognizable. I understood the argument. But why wasn’t this problem flagged after I had utilized for this system with copies of the journey paperwork, or when my father was interviewed and his paperwork had been checked on the embassy six weeks earlier? Why did not the embassy merely cellphone us, asking for a brand new journey doc?

“Due to the very high number of applications in some cases, not all details relevant for any specific applications may stand out at first glance when first filing the application,” the German Foreign Ministry advised me in an e-mail.

We employed a driver, Abu Hisham, to take the passports to the embassy once more after my mom acquired a second name few weeks later. But even that journey was fraught with potential catastrophe.

With an empty automobile on the best way again, he stopped to choose a person on the highway, pondering that he wanted a experience to Damascus. The man requested to cease for 2 pals of his, they usually robbed Abu Hisham of all his cash. But they left a brown envelope within the glove compartment that held the stamped passports.

Finally, greater than six months after I utilized for his or her resettlement, my dad and mom had been able to fly to Germany. On a winter night, I used to be at Berlin Tegel airport ready for them to reach. During regular occasions, a flight from Beirut to Berlin lands there each different night, and Syrians are simply acknowledged on the arrivals’ gate: reunions with excessively organized bouquets, cute boys wearing black fits and previous males brazenly crying. Even safety guards tear up and smile, though they will need to have seen the reunion scenes many occasions.

I cried and cried at my father’s shoulder as he walked off the primary flight he had ever taken, at age 59. I cried for all my lonely nights in Berlin, for the years that made him an previous man whereas I turned stronger, for our household house that had been pounded to ruins, for the life moments we hadn’t spent collectively.

After 5 years, we had been a household as soon as extra.

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