Where Do We Meet? Mobility for an Exiled Nation

For the lucky ones that reside in countries that have granted them a legal status that allows them to travel abroad, the question of “where do we meet?” has become predominant.

01 March 2017

The Middle Eastern culture is full of nostalgia rooted in a history of ongoing waves of immigration and exile. Pre-Islamic poetry always began  with a trope referred to as the “Lamenting the Remnants” (Al-Buka’ ͑ala al-Atlal), expressing nostalgia and longing for times, places, and people long gone in a perpetually better past, regardless of the actual theme of the poem. This is attributed to the predominance of the nomadic culture in the Pre-Islamic Arabian desert peninsula.

In the Levant, the waves of migration were often related to political and economic instability. This has perpetuated longing and nostalgia. By the end of the 20th century, there was no household in Syria that did not have first or second degree relatives living abroad.

However, the scale of the Syrian exodus today has reached unprecedented levels. According to recent reports, the percentage of displaced Syrians has reached up to 45% of the population, and a fifth of all Syrians have left the country all together. But unlike previous waves of migration, the violent nature of this latest exodus has led to shockingly bad living conditions for many of these immigrants and refugees.

As the number of people fleeing increased, more countries around the world shut their borders to Syrians. The social impact this has had on Syrians has been devastating.

While most were already used to seeing family members on holidays once or twice a year, the reality is that now first degree relatives, such as siblings and adults’ parents, are often stranded in whatever country they have ended up in. They are unable to leave the country of their residence or unable to enter their relatives' country of residence. "We also lived in the Gulf when we were kids, but we had all summer at grandma’s place with all our cousins every year,” says Rima1, a mother of two who now lives in the Netherlands. She rarely has the chance to travel to see her mother and sister.

For the lucky ones that reside in countries that have granted them a legal status that allows them to travel abroad, notwithstanding the limitations often enforced on such permissions, the question of “where do we meet?” has become predominant.

Rima and her children have been granted an asylum residence permit for five years in the Netherlands. They left Damascus after their neighborhood in the suburbs became too dangerous due to clashes, bombings, and roadblocks.

"Sometimes there are moments when I stop to look around me and think: how did we end up here? What am I doing to my kids raising them here?" asks Rima.

Their first destination was Egypt, where Syrians could enter, live, and work legally in 2012. After the military coup in mid-2013, legal conditions suddenly shifted against Syrians, and Rima left with her family to Turkey, a country where Syrians were still allowed to enter.

However, after almost 2 years of trying to find work to little avail due to language obstacles, lack of work permits, or a clear legal status, they decided to sell their house in Syria and buy their way into Europe. Her husband went first, and she and her children followed through the family reunification process.

However, her elderly mother was left behind alone in Turkey. Rima’s brother, who is currently a U.S. Green Card Holder was hoping to bring their mother to live with him as soon as he is granted U.S. citizenship, but the odds of that happening during the Trump administration now seem slimmer than ever.

Their third sister, who lives and works in Lebanon, is unable to visit any of them. Now, none of them can visit their mother, stuck alone in Turkey, after semi-impossible visa regulations were introduced for Syrians.

In 2011, Syrians could enter Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria and Libya for example with no visa or a simple one upon arrival at a border. Today, only Lebanon regularly grants entry visas at the border to Syrian passport holders, with increasingly difficult conditions and limited durations. Syrians with temporary European travel documents require prior Lebanese visas, which are very hard to get. Syrian passport holders with European or GCC residency permits for over 6 months may be granted visas at ports of entry to Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

The obscure and fluctuating nature of visa regulations in most countries neighboring Syria is extremely common, leaving room for corruption and individual profit.

While visas for the US and the EU Schengen have always been difficult to attain, they are now almost impossible to obtain. This has led to many turning to smugglers. Regularly reviewing the countries that do not require prior visas and countries that actually do grant Syrians visas has become a new norm. This information is often communicated informally rather than officially due to many countries, such as the UK and most recently Turkey, claiming to have functional legal procedures for Syrians to obtain a visa, but actively blocking them when considering the percentage of granted applications from Syrians.

Since most of the almost 30 countries that don’t require visas in advance tend to be far, such as Malaysia, the total costs of flight tickets alone (at least $750 per person in this case) make the option out of most Syrians' financial reach.

Being one of the luckier families that are not financially constrained, Rima’s family might still be able to meet once every year or so in Lebanon while her Syrian passport is still valid. However, her husband would be unable to join them, since he does not have an exit stamp from Turkey on his passport, a condition every Syrian needs to fulfill in order to enter Lebanon.

Furthermore, the time constraints on such a reunion are very tight. Refugees and asylum permit holders in the Netherlands are only allowed to leave the country for a specific number of days. Additionally, the amount of time one can take off work is also limited.

According to Rima, the most worrying aspect is raising her children so detached from family and culture. “I now give Arabic classes on a voluntary basis every Saturday in my house to the children of a few Syrian families we’ve met here to help them socialize and stay in touch with the language. Our residency here is not permanent. If Holland decides to send us back at the end of these 5 years, my children need to be able to integrate again in Arabic.”

Rima’s story is echoed in that of Lilas’s, with a tougher ending, although Lilas’s primary problems were not related to language.  A divorced mother of three, one of whom was born very sick, Lilas in 2009 remarried, to a Libyan man living in Syria. According to Syrian laws, the custody of her children are granted to her mother if she remarries, which allowed Lilas to stay in close touch with them.

After the Arab Spring, work conditions became hard for her Libyan husband in Syria and they had to move to the Gulf, leaving her kids behind. She gave birth to her fourth child abroad. As a Syrian woman, she does not have the right to grant her child Syrian citizenship. At the same time, the Syrian government was de facto blocking entry permits to Libyan citizens, which prevented her from leaving her newborn to visit Syria. “My husband was overtly against Qaddhafi.” explains Lilas, "Even if they do give my baby a visa, he fears we could get stuck [in Syria, and face problems because of his political background]. They would never allow him in. Anything is possible nowadays, it was just too risky."

During that period, Lilas's sick daughter’s health deteriorated suddenly, and she died in Syria. Lilas was unable to go see her before her passing. "I know I couldn’t have saved her life, but it ripped my heart to not be there in her final moments. I can’t risk my baby losing me too. It was the right decision to take,” she says.

Inside Syria, the issue of senior citizens has become more troubling than ever. Elderly parents left behind by their children now form a large percentage of the population inside Syria. Their living conditions, with little to no social support services available, have become dire. Many countries grant spouse and minor children family reunification rights. However, this is not the rule everywhere nor is it sufficient to unite families with children over 18 years old or seniors.

This has led some seniors to create their own new solutions. Umm Firas, a retired mother of two in her seventies, currently lives in the safer areas of Damascus. Both her children moved to Lebanon for work and security reasons. When her husband got too sick for her to take care of him on her own, they hired a male nurse to live with them. He was in his mid-30s and had lost his home and family to clashes in his hometown.

After her husband died, Umm Firas had to struggle with the Lebanese border control every time she tried to visit her children; she was forced to stand in long queues for hours, endure humiliating treatment at the hands of officers, before finally being allowed to remain for few days after paying 70$ USD per night for a hotel booking she did not even need, a condition for tourist visa entry.

Soon she gave up traveling back and forth, and decided to marry the young nurse they had hired. She had discovered she could trust him and had gotten used to having him around. Umm Firas now lives with him and his elderly mother in her house in Damascus.

“We were in shock when we heard of it.” says Rania, her 40-year-old-daughter, “She did not tell us in advance. We were so worried, we didn’t know who this stranger was. But it has now been over a year, no disasters yet. If it works for her, then it’s more than I can offer her now unfortunately.”

[Main image: An updated world map (2017) showing the visa requirements for Syrian citizens (Passportguy at English Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)].

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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad