The rare story of a Syrian family who came to Europe on a humanitarian visa
Text: Laura Hurtado / Oxfam Intermón
The story of this family is unusual. Most Syrian refugees who have made it to Europe have got there illegally and by taking perilous journeys. War in their homeland and Fortress Europe left them no other option.
But here is a different Syrian tale, which shows there are other ways to give sanctuary to those fleeing the war.
Syria: where it begins
Petite, bright-eyed Syrian Fatem remembers well the fear she felt when the war broke out in her hometown of Raqqa. She still shivers at the thought. “We were living in the heart of the conflict. Every time we kissed each other goodnight we thought it could be the last time,” she recalls.
Due to the conflict, her husband Khalil couldn´t work and so money was tight. They were expecting their first child but couldn´t see a doctor. Amid the water and supply shortages, the final straw came when Ahmed was born and they couldn´t buy any milk to feed him as there was none. “That was the moment when we clearly realized we couldn´t stay in Syria anymore,” says Khalil. He decided to go to Lebanon to find a job and a place to live – his young family would then join him.
The most prized possession that he brought with him was a photo album showing their happy days in Syria: their wedding; their parents; the beautiful house they lived in; the land he used to work.
First stop: Lebanon
The day when Khalil arrived in Lebanon he had to sleep on the streets. It was like a premonition; a clear warning that nothing in this country would be easy.
For four years, the family struggled to make ends meet in Lebanon, a small country with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, and where 70% of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line. Khalil has worked as an electrician, a plumber and a painter, but despite this, he has had to seek out loans more than once in order to feed his family, which has grown with the birth of Mohamed, who is now 1 year old.
Their home is a small, cramped and dark room in a town in Mount Lebanon, an hour away from Beirut. The rent is lower here than in the capital. “In the beginning, the floor was bare earth and the roof was leaking. The landlord refused to fix it”, says Khalil. Their kitchen is outside, where it is hard to cook especially in the freezing snowy winters. The children often fall ill and Fatem now has an allergy, leading to a persistent cough and bouts of vomiting. “I suffocate in this room,” she says.
The promise of a new life
One day, Khalil learned from a neighbour there was a possibility to travel to Italy with a humanitarian visa – meaning in a safe and legal way.
After much research, the family met with the Italian organisations that have been working on securing humanitarian visas for Syrian refugees through humanitarian corridors. This initiative aims to avoid deaths at sea, and human trafficking: the Italian government has agreed to receive 1,000 refugees in two years through this project. While welcome, this is just a token number as the conflict in Syria has pushed more than 5 million people to become refugees in neighbouring countries. But those behind this initiative want to focus on how lives can be saved if there is a political will, rather than on the numbers, for now.
At first, Fatem was sceptical. She thought that they wouldn´t be chosen to travel to Italy. But, after a few interviews, the family was selected.
Syrian refugees have to meet a number of criteria in order to receive humanitarian visas. A key criterion is that they are in a vulnerable situation, such as families with young children. According to UNHCR, this vulnerable status also applies to unaccompanied minors, single mothers, the elderly and sick, and those who have been abused or tortured.
Why a person wants to go to Italy is also taken into account as well as their chances at success in a new environment. “Adaptation is not the same for a young educated person as for an illiterate elderly one,” explains Simone Scotta, from Mediterranean Hope, who has been working on the family’s case from Lebanon. “Many Syrian refugees think everything will improve once in Italy, but we insist on explaining that the culture is very different, that nobody speaks their language and that they will lose the support network they have in Lebanon.”
The night before the flight, Khalil and Fatem couldn’t sleep. They had been crossing out the days on their calendar for months, their suitcases ready and waiting in a corner of their tiny home. They shed some tears, feeling happy and sad: torn by their situation.
They were leaving behind all those they had shared four years with their cousin’s family, who welcomed them into their home during their first month and who shared with them what little they had, and their neighbours, most of them Syrian, who had fled to Lebanon just like them.
But above all, they were moving further away from their dear Syria. This journey would take them far away from their loved ones, from their culture, from their land.
A heavy blow
The journey took 24 hours, starting at 4am in Beirut and ending in the city of Cecina in the middle of Tuscany. During the bus trip from Rome to their new home, they found out they would have to share a flat with another Syrian refugee family. This bit of news left them perplexed and fraught.
But they soon found out from Oxfam, the NGO in charge of their accommodation during their first year, that this was a temporary measure. Though they would eventually have their own home, it was made clear that renting property as a refugee can be a tricky task.
Italy: the end of the journey
Upon their arrival to Tuscany, two Italian social workers from Oxfam brought them to their new temporary home: a sunny flat with a garden, a big living room with a fitted kitchen, three bedrooms, central heating, a washing machine and a TV.
Via a translator, the family learnt that they would receive money every month to buy food, medicine and other essentials, for six months. They would also have WiFi in the apartment and home-based Italian language lessons so they don’t have to leave their children. The family would also receive help in how to apply for asylum and look for jobs. At the end of the six months, the family would be considered self-sufficient.
“I never imagined we would end up living in Italy. I thought the war would only last for two or three years, but the situation just gets worse,” comments Khalil as he tunes in to an ArabicTV channel to get the latest news from Syria. “I hope people in Europe don´t think we are terrorists or extremists. We are here because we are running away from them, from the conflict.” Fatem adds: “We want a future for our children. That is why we are willing to learn a new language and adapt to different customs.”
When we say goodbye, we ask them if they would like to go back to Syria when the war ends – if they would like this tale to end where it began. “Of course we will go back,” Fatem says without the shadow of a doubt. “But if a long time passes and my children feel established here, we will only go back to visit. The stability of our family comes first.”
Photos: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam