Worlds apart: Refugee families dream of being reunited
OREOKASTRO, GREECE — It’s a sweltering summer day at the Diavota refugee camp in northern Greece.
Rouya Addin, 30, is doing what she’s done every day since arriving here in March: nothing. Nothing but sitting outside her one-room, military-style canvas tent trying to keep track of her four young children.
There’s no grass in sight, and few trees to offer shade. A few wiry boys are rigging up a swimming pool out of plastic tarps and metal rails, and a makeshift cooking fire smolders nearby, filling the air with a smoky scent. The drone of cicadas pulses in the hot air, a relentless reminder of the inescapable monotony of life in this camp of 2,000 people.
There was a time when Addin’s life as a stay-at-home mom in Damascus was a flurry of activity — cooking flatbread, cleaning, reading with the kids, gossiping with friends. Now there’s nothing to do but wait, a forced idleness more exhausting than her busy life ever was.
There’s too much time to think. As Addin sits in this dusty camp, her mind returns to the 800-mile walk across Turkey. She made the trek alone with her children, sleeping under the stars and shivering in the February frost. Sometimes she thinks of their turbulent sea crossing to Greece in a crowded, rubber dinghy, the icy water spraying her skin.
But mostly, she thinks about her husband Utep in Germany. She hasn’t seen him in a year. When the Syrian civil war reached their neighborhood in 2014 and bombs began pulverizing homes into choking dust and rubble, they fled to the mountains of northern Syria. It wasn’t safe there, either, so Utep set off for Europe, and Addin and the kids followed a few months later.
Addin’s mind is too taxed to think of anything but survival and the most basic of human desires: to make her family whole again. Perhaps one day she will recognize the historical significance of this moment, but not now.
Either way, she is part of the largest displacement of humans in recorded history. More than a million migrants last year made the same journey Addin is attempting, but even they are only part of a larger story. There are more displaced people and refugees — 65 million and counting — than at any time in modern history, and they are fleeing to Europe and other countries in a mass movement of people not seen since World War II. Where they end up will change not just Europe, but the course of human history.
Addin is just one face in this sea, unnoticed and forgotten to anyone but her closest friends and family. But she is part of an exodus that shows little sign of slowing. At its peak last year, 10,000 migrants a day were crossing into Europe — fathers carrying toddlers on their shoulders, sons pushing disabled siblings in wheelchairs, mothers clutching nursing babies, their gold rings and life savings hidden away in suitcases and socks. They came from Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan, winding their way north from Greece in a giant human caterpillar.
Addin’s timing was terrible. Just as she and her children were poised to cross the border from Greece to Macedonia, it closed, the final domino in a cascade of border closings throughout Europe. She was stuck, separated from her husband, and now she has nothing to do but wait. There are more than 55,000 migrants like Addin in Greece alone, crammed in to hastily improvised camps in forests and abandoned factories and under highway overpasses.
Addin sits outside her tent watching her two youngest children pour bottles of water over their heads, halfheartedly calling out to them to stop, but too tired to enforce her pleas. The baby’s diaper is soaked, but he’s laughing, so she sighs and shrugs. She’s distracted, partly by the kids but also by a profound weariness, her brown eyes staring into the distance as she speaks.
“Things here are not easy, especially being alone with four kids,” she says. “I really want to keep things clean and have a nice environment for the children, but it’s impossible. Everything’s dirty here. You never feel clean.”
She uses the camp Wi-Fi to talk to Utep nearly every day. He’s sad, she says. He hasn’t seen his kids in a year, especially the baby, who was just 6 months old when Utep left.
As she talks, her oldest, Seline, 7, and several other children run to the tent screaming about a snake. Addin shrugs. “It’s like this 24-7.”
“Please pray that we can go to Germany.”
This is the untold story of the migrant crisis in Europe today: After the long walk through mountains and deserts and the dramatic sea rescues that sometimes make the nightly news, the journey doesn’t end for tens of thousands. It simply stops, and each day turns into an interminable wait.
Few realized how many of the migrants, like Addin, were trying to reach family until late 2015, when women and children began to make up the bulk of people arriving on the shores of Greece. Many of their husbands or sons had already fled, hoping to find a new place to live for their families or, in some cases, to avoid forced conscription into ISIS or the Syrian regime. An untold number of families began the journey together, only to be separated in chaotic border crossings or boat accidents.
It’s hard to say how many migrant families are separated. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates tens of thousands. Germany — the top destination in Europe for asylum seekers — expects 500,000 Syrian refugees to join family members already in the country. That’s an average of one family member for each of the 428,000 Syrians who arrived last year.
Separated families can apply through the EU for reunification — a right under international law — but the process can take months or years, and not all applications are successful. Addin has been waiting five months for the first of several interviews that will determine whether she’s able to join Utep in Germany. Her chances are good, but it could take a long time.
Other families won’t be so lucky.
Farez and Hanadi Al-Hamdan left Syria for Turkey 14 months ago with their eight children. When they couldn’t enroll the kids in school in Turkey, they sent their two oldest sons, then 15 and 17, ahead to Germany to continue their education.
It was incredibly difficult to say goodbye, their mother Hanadi says. “My oldest boy didn’t want to go, but I said he had to. I said, ‘Your brother can’t go alone. It has to be two of you.’”
Now in Germany, the boys have been separated because one is now 18, and unaccompanied minors are housed separately. The boys can visit each other, but only for about an hour at a time.
“I talk to them all the time,” Hanadi says. “The youngest boy is having a hard time because in the hotel where he lives there aren’t very many Syrians, and he feels alone.”
The Al-Hamdans just learned that under a new German law, those who receive asylum must wait two years before bringing family, and reunification is now limited to immediate family members, defined as spouses or parents of minor children. Once their sons are both 18, the Al-Hamdans won’t be eligible for reunification in Germany.
“At first, I thought it was a good decision (to send them to Germany), but now I wish we were all together here in Greece,” Hanadi says.
She also misses her extended family. In Syria, where Farez was a successful entrepreneur and a teacher, he and three of his brothers lived with their families in adjacent homes in the Damascus countryside. There were pools and gardens for the kids, and they got together every weekend, filling long tables with food or going on hikes. Now the family is scattered across Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, with one brother killed in Syria and two others fighting in the Free Syrian Army.
For families who are separated, a smartphone and a Wi-Fi connection are lifelines, not luxuries. The Al-Hamdans are fortunate to be in a camp with Wi-Fi, and they talk every day with family from Germany to Syria. Hanadi dreams of returning to Syria and bringing everyone back together.
For now, she’s waiting indefinitely in the Kyllini camp in western Greece with Farez, their other six kids, and some extended family. They arrived in March, fighting to keep the rest of the family together on a perilous Mediterranean crossing in a rubber boat with 60 people on board. Halfway across the sea, the boat started to deflate.
“I tried not to think about myself at all,” Farez says. “I tried to think how I could save my wife, my mother — where are my children? One child, two, three …,” he counts, reliving the scene.
“When you see the men, the women, the children, all crying and shouting, asking God to save them — these are moments you never forget.”
‘A warehouse of souls’
The history of refugees in Europe is one of ebb and flow, but the current wave of migration is unprecedented in modern history. A record 1.3 million people sought asylum in Europe in 2015, according to Eurostat — a fourfold increase over 2014, yet only a small fraction of the record 65.3 million displaced worldwide.
Turmoil in the Middle East is the biggest driver. Since 2011, nearly 5 million Syrians have fled civil war, mostly for Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The rise of ISIS, the resurgence of the Taliban and war in the Horn of Africa have also driven millions from their homes.
The Syrian families making their way to Europe are generally middle-class — engineers, teachers, business owners — who can afford to make the journey and want a country where they can work or go to school.
Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are overwhelmed — one in five people in Lebanon now is a refugee — and they don’t allow refugees to work or provide schools for all the refugee children. Unemployment in Greece is near 25 percent. So German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement in 2015 of an open-door policy for refugees felt like a blessing to families like the Addins and the Al-Hamdans.
But the German policy had an unintended consequence: it created a magnet not just for families fleeing violence, but for tens of thousands of “economic migrants,” or people running from poverty, not war, simply seeking a better life.
There was also no system to thoroughly screen migrants, allowing perpetrators of the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks to enter Europe posing as Syrian refugees. After hundreds of German women reported being sexually assaulted by migrant men — mostly economic migrants from north Africa, it turned out — near the Cologne train station on New Year’s Eve 2015, public sentiment in Germany over Merkel’s policy began to shift.
The majority of migrants reaching Germany in 2015 were men between the ages of 18-34, which stoked public fears. It’s unclear how many were like Utep Addin or the Al-Hamdan boys, going ahead to pave the way for their families, but the dramatic increase in the number of women and children crossing to Greece in late 2015 suggests that many families were following behind their male relatives.
And although crime rates among migrants in Germany are down relative to the general population, according to government statistics, a majority of people in most European countries — especially among conservatives — still express concern that refugees will increase the likelihood of terrorism in their countries.
That’s one reason Hungary — which, as an EU border country, received more asylum applications per capita last year than any other European country — closed its borders in September 2015, erecting a razor-wire fence complete with heat sensors. Austria and Macedonia followed suit, and by March 2016, the 1,200-mile-long Balkan route from Greece to Germany, walked by more than a million people the year before, was effectively closed.
Two weeks later, Turkey agreed to stop allowing migrants to board boats to Greece as part of a controversial deal with the EU. The deal and the border closings stemmed the flow of migrants, but also divided families and left Greece, already in a deep economic crisis, stuck with caring for 55,000 people.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras vowed in February 2016 that Greece would not become “a warehouse of souls,” threatening to reject any EU deal that trapped migrants in Greece through border closures and resettlement quotas.
But seven months later, it’s exactly that, as migrants who waited out the hot summer now dread the cold winter in tent camps and detention centers — many still waiting to begin the asylum or reunification process.
Restoring family links
The Greek coast guard rescued the Al-Hamdans’ boat, and their family stayed together. For others who don’t know where family members are, several aid organizations are trying to help them reconnect.
Migrants in Greece can tell the Hellenic Red Cross where they think family members might be. Through its longstanding Trace the Face program, the Red Cross posts the person’s photo on a secure website without identifying information. Family members in other countries can describe the family member they’re seeking, search photos, and ask to have their own photos posted on the site or on posters and booklets in refugee camps across Europe.
Families at home can also post photos of loved ones gone missing on the trek to Europe. As of the end of June, 58 percent of such photos were of Afghans, and the Red Cross had helped 16 Afghan families reconnect.
The Red Cross is on the ground in most of the Greek refugee camps with its Restoring Family Links program, said Zefi Thana’soula, head of emergency response programs for the Hellenic Red Cross. It also provides SIM cards or landline access to newly arrived migrants who are anxious to let family back home know they are safe.
Family reunification is among the rights of refugees outlined in treaties at the end of World War II. But the Red Cross and other NGOs can only reconnect families; they can’t reunite them across borders. That’s up to the specific policies of European nations. But some countries are limiting family reunifications in an effort to keep the number of migrants down and make migration less attractive, even though the European Commission notes that reunification promotes social stability and integration.
The EU system for processing migrants in Greece lets them apply for one of three things: asylum in Greece; reunification with family already in another EU country; or resettlement in another EU country. The EU agreed last year to resettle 66,400 refugees from Greece, but by the end of August, only 3,054 had been resettled, with another 3,606 scheduled to depart.
The delays are frustrating for families stuck in Greece. Compared to the 1.5 million refugees who arrived in Europe last year, 55,000 in Greece is “a silly number,” Farez Al-Hamdan says. “It’s the equivalent of one stadium of people at a football game.”
The U.N. has called for additional resources to be devoted to reunification. “Family reunion cases need to be prioritized, with more officials processing them. The best way for people to start their new lives is not apart but together, as a family,” according to Daphne Kapetanaki, a UNHCR protection associate in Athens.
Improving legal pathways to reunification would prevent family members from taking illegal, “risky journeys at the hands of ruthless smugglers,” UNHCR argues.
Symbols of hope
That’s how Rouya Addin got to Greece — by paying a smuggler to put her and her four kids on a boat, a calculated risk considering more than 3,000 migrants have died in Mediterranean crossings so far this year.
“I was afraid, but I wasn’t afraid of dying because it would be better than what we were going through in Syria and Turkey,” she says. They waited at the boat launch for four days with no water or food. “The kids were miserable. It was awful.”
At the camp in Greece, they still struggle for food. The military rations provided are so bad she can’t eat them, Addin says, but she manages to buy potatoes with money her husband sends and cook them over a fire with other refugees at night. Water is plentiful and free.
Despite her bleak situation, Addin honors her guests by seating them on her one, flat pillow and offering them water. It’s all she has. Her furrowed eyebrows are made up with brown pencil and she wears a lively, if faded, pink polka-dot scarf — striking symbols of hope in this hot, lonely camp.
Addin is learning German on her smartphone to prepare for her hoped-for reunification with Utep in Germany. She’s doing her best to stay strong and control the kids until the family can be together again.
She puts her arms around her two oldest girls, pulling them close.
“I don’t know anyone here. The neighbors are great, but I don’t really have support. I’m all alone.”
Editor’s note: This article uses the term “migrant” to refer to people fleeing war or persecution as well as people moving in search of jobs and better lives. It uses the term “refugee” to describe those who have been granted refugee status or who describe themselves as refugees.