June 18, 2020 / 11:25 AM / 2 months ago

From Damascus to Berlin: A Reuters journalist's quest for family reunion

BERLIN (Reuters) - It was still dark in Damascus as I walked down the stairs, my new life contained in a red suitcase. My mother stood next to the taxi door praying for my safety. My father was silent, certain that he would never see me again.

Ghada Zitouni and Isam Alkousaa pose for a picture near a cafe in the historic quarter of Spandauer Vorstadt in central Berlin, Germany, December 7, 2019. Picture taken December 7, 2019. REUTERS/ Riham Alkousaa

I lowered the taxi window and waved to my parents until they disappeared, grieving over the separation but at the same time grateful to my exhausted old city, which had finally let me go.

I had become one of the 700,000 refugees who have fled Syria and its war without end to Germany, which offered shelter under a grey but generous sky.

Since that morning in September 2014, I’ve told many stories of refugees’ attempts to make Germany more like a home by reuniting with their families here. As a journalist covering the biggest refugee crisis of the 21st century, I’ve reported about the waiting, the loneliness, the maze of the paperwork that torments the family reunification process.

This time, I am telling my story.

A year after I left Syria for Germany at age 23, my parents and I tried in vain to meet in Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan, Iran and Malaysia – some of the countries that still offer visas to Syrians. But as descendants of Palestinian refugees in Syria with no formal Syrian or Palestinian citizenship or national passport, our chances to meet were very slim.

Since the moment I left Syria behind, my life has been a litany of moments meant to be shared: I missed my parents at my graduation from my postgraduate program at Columbia University in New York after President Trump imposed a travel ban on visitors from Syria. I missed them at my engagement party; when I moved to my first apartment in Berlin; and on every Ramadan, Eid, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

WhatsApp helped to create an illusion of contact and closeness. At the beginning, the first thing I saw on my phone in the morning were missed calls from my mother. Then she learned that she could send me voice messages through the app, and they became our morning routine. She would record them while she was having morning coffee with my father, and I would listen to them on my way to German-language school or to work.

We also cherished our video calls, even though the slow internet in Syria would cut them short. But when the ones you love are seen only on the screens of your laptop or phone, they slowly become unreal, like your favorite childhood TV character: very familiar, but imaginary.

In Arabic, we call it “ghurba,” which has an unsatisfying translation of “being a stranger in a foreign land.” It’s trying to cook all your favorite dishes at once, just to reassure yourself that you can bring home back; it’s the long Netflix evening where tea is made in a cup, not the big pot your mother used to keep ready for you; it’s dreading weekends with their empty hours slowly sneaking in on quiet Friday evenings.

Then I heard about a special resettlement program offered by Berlin’s local government that offers a chance – a minuscule one, but a chance nonetheless – for Syrian and Iraqi families to reunite.

Migration has been one of the most divisive topics in Germany and Europe since Chancellor Angela Merkel decided in 2015 to open borders to more than 1 million people escaping war and persecution in the Middle East and beyond. Concerns about migration have fueled far-right parties across the continent and pushed European governments to shut their borders and seal a controversial deal with Turkey to control illegal migration. The number of asylum- seekers in Germany fell 72.5% between 2016, the year the deal was signed, and 2017.

For Syrians, even obtaining a visitor visa to Germany today is difficult because immigration authorities are sceptical that the travellers will return to the war-torn country. There are no government statistics on how many Syrians have been granted a short-stay visa in recent years because the German Foreign Ministry doesn’t record the citizenship of applicants. But in 2019, the German Embassy in Beirut granted only 7,913 short-term visas, which would include all Lebanese applicants in addition to Syrians.

Only minors with “recognized refugee” status have the right to bring their parents and minor siblings to Germany. I was an adult when I applied for asylum five years ago and didn’t qualify for a regular family reunification process.

But if an adult Syrian refugee – or an employed European Union citizen – promises to take care of all financial expenses of a family member, they can reunite in Germany through a special program for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. The resettlement scheme offers two years’ residence, with a work permit and public health insurance for family members.

The program was introduced in 2013 by many German states to resettle families of Syrian refugees whose asylum applications have been approved and already have recognized refugee status in Germany. It’s renewed on an annual basis, and the decision to extend it is made by states’ governments; out of 15 states that offered the program in 2014, only five of them have extended it for 2020.

To be eligible for the program, I had to have a stable job in Germany with long-term employment prospects and a minimum salary to demonstrate that the family member wouldn’t end up being a drain on the system.

With language and skills barriers, meeting those conditions is challenging. In the six years ending in October 2019, only 1,098 people had benefited from the program in the state of Berlin, government data showed. Out of 459 applications submitted in 2019, 173 were approved.

Having a wage of at least of 2,300 euros a month after taxes is among the most challenging conditions.

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

At the beginning of my time in Berlin as an Arabic speaker in a country facing a wave of Arab refugees, I worked with American and German freelance journalists to tell the stories of the newcomers. While translating and talking to people at Berlin’s asylum reception center, I thought that I could tell these stories on my own. But moving from being a “fixer” to a real journalist in a new language and a new country needed much more than I had expected.

It took four years, countless German classes, a master’s degree from an Ivy League school, a few internships and a year-and-half training program until I got a job contract at Reuters and met the program’s conditions.

But one condition was the hardest for me: A choice had to be made.

The Berlin migration official responsible for my case was clear that I must choose between my parents or one of my four siblings for the application. My brothers are still in school in the Syrian city of Homs, so waiting few more years to bring them here made sense. That meant either denying my sisters an opportunity to build a future in Germany or pushing my five-year separation with my parents longer, with no end in sight.

Weeks passed because I couldn’t decide. Then a German friend of mine astounded me with an offer to help.

Pascale Mueller and I had met few years earlier when she needed help translating for a Syrian refugee family for a story for Tagesspiegel newspaper during the 2015 wave of migration. We hadn’t seen each other for more than a year when she said she would act as a guarantor for one of my sisters.

I asked her to take some time before deciding, because the guarantor is financially responsible for the new arrival. If my sister claimed welfare or unemployment benefits, the government would send a bill to Pascale.

“Everyone I spoke with said, ‘I wouldn’t do it,’ but I have a good feeling about this,” Pascale said. A few weeks later we were at Berlin’s migration office signing the papers.

When life decides to give you a break, it makes you feel that the doors that seemed shut might have not been closed in the first place. When another friend of mine, a Briton, heard of Pascale’s unexpected help, he stepped in to guarantee my other sister. We needed to rush through the paperwork before Brexit happened and he was no longer a European Union citizen, but we also had to wait on the pay raise he had been promised. Each delay in Britain’s parliament that pushed its parting from the EU further away gave my sister and me a bigger chance to reunite.

Finally, he was able to sign the papers.

Within weeks, I received an email from the German Embassy in Beirut asking my family for an interview. Because Germany pulled its diplomatic representation in Syria shortly after the uprising there in 2011, Syrians who apply for a German visa must be interviewed in one of the German embassies or consulates in Syria’s neighboring countries. Lebanon was the closest and, theoretically, at least, the easiest to get in.

But like the complicated German sentence structure I have come to know so well, nothing was easy in this process. A simple appointment became a metaphor for the struggles, both bureaucratic and emotional, that the displaced face the world over.

First, my family had to leave Damascus before midnight for an 8:30 a.m. appointment in Beirut, although the trip only takes 3½ hours by road, because of a complicated entry process for Palestinian-Syrians to Lebanon. Then, at the appointment, they tried to hand over a document they’d been told to bring, but the employee said it wasn’t required.

A few weeks later, the embassy called, asking for that same document. We could either pay a driver a fee that was half my father’s monthly salary as a professor to take it to Lebanon or find someone to take it. We got lucky – the parents of a friend of mine were traveling to the consulate in Lebanon the next day for a visa interview through the same program.

But then our luck ran out again. After waiting a month for word of our application, we were asked to send the passports so “an answer” of yes or no could be stamped on the applications. This time we happily paid for a courier to take them to Beirut.

Then came the next delay: We were told there was a problem with my father’s travel document, but the authorities didn’t say what the problem was, exactly.

We called the embassy more than 100 times, with either no answer or a busy line. I tried a different emergency number dedicated for German citizens and was finally forwarded to someone who could answer my question. It turned out that the problem was my father’s passport photo: The glasses he wore made his face unrecognizable. I understood the argument. But why wasn’t this issue flagged when I had applied for the program with copies of the travel documents, or when my father was interviewed and his documents were checked at the embassy six weeks earlier? Why didn’t the embassy simply phone us, asking for a new travel document?

“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 told me in an email.

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We hired a driver, Abu Hisham, to take the passports to the embassy again after my mother received a second call few weeks later. But even that trip was fraught with potential disaster. With an empty car on the way back, he stopped to pick a man on the road, thinking that he needed a ride to Damascus. The man asked to stop for two friends of his, and they robbed Abu Hisham of all his money. But they left a brown envelope in the glove compartment that held the stamped passports.

Finally, more than six months after I applied for their resettlement, my parents were ready to fly to Germany. On a winter evening, I was at Berlin Tegel airport waiting for them to arrive. During normal times, a flight from Beirut to Berlin lands there every other evening, and Syrians are easily recognized at the arrivals’ gate: reunions with excessively arranged bouquets, cute boys dressed in black suits and old men openly crying. Even security guards tear up and smile, although they must have seen the reunion scenes many times.

I cried and cried at my father’s shoulder as he walked off the first flight he had ever taken, at age 59. I cried for all my lonely nights in Berlin, for the years that made him an old man while I became stronger, for our family home that had been pounded to ruins, for the life moments we hadn’t spent together. After five years, we were a family once more.

Reporting by Riham Alkousaa, editing by Kari Howard

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