Finally reunited - after more than six years apart
Elham M. is 21 years old and knows exactly how long she was separated from her father – six years and two months. From 2014 to 2020, between the ages of 15 and 21. On her mobile phone, the young Syrian woman has a timeline that illustrates how long it took until the family could finally hold each other in their arms again.
When her father, Khaled M., a civil engineer from Damascus, was finally allowed to enter Germany in October 2020, Elham, her mother and her three siblings had already had refugee status in Germany for over five years. But for a long time, it was impossible for Khaled M. to join his wife and their children. Since 2017, the GRC Tracing Service has accompanied the family through emotional depths and a bureaucratic maze involving different countries. Their hopes of living together as a family kept being dashed. But giving up was not an option for anyone involved!
The whole family left Syria in 2011, shortly after the beginning of the conflict. They first flee via Lebanon and Egypt to Libya, where the husband and father had fled previously and where he had already worked as a civil engineer. The precarious and life-threatening circumstances for the refugee family in Libya force them to flee again from there. Two and a half years later, they are in what later turns out to be a ramshackle and overcrowded boat that takes them across the Mediterranean. The crossing to Italy is expensive, so the father has to stay behind in Libya alone for the time being. Back then, they all believed they would only be apart for a short time.
Elham M. speaks excellent German after six years in Germany, but her voice falters when she talks about her flight as a 14-year-old at the time. She pauses to hold back tears when she talks about the crossing together.
“They first took us to a house near the coast,” Elham M. remembers. “My mother, my siblings and I waited there, we were in the house with many other refugees for over a month. Then all of a sudden things started happening. At night we were taken to the beach, the water was up to my belly button, it was dark, but we had to get out to the boat. First, we were taken on a small boat and later boarded a bigger one at sea, full of people.”
The journey across the Mediterranean lasts three days, a terrible memory for the mother and her children, now teenagers and older, and their father, who is far away. As shipwrecked people in distress, they are taken in by the German Navy. They reach Italy and, with the assistance of the Italian Red Cross, end up in a refugee camp. From there they call the father in Libya.
“My father doesn't really show his feelings,” says Elham M. “But when my brother called him and told him that we were safe in Italy, he cried.
Via Austria, the family finally reaches Munich by train and from there the initial reception centre in Neumünster. They are able to move into a small flat in Schleswig. “It was like a dream for us,” remembers Elham M. “At first everything was strange, but we were finally safe,” adds her mother. In 2015, the family receives refugee status in Germany.
The mother and her children embrace life in Germany and establish contacts, including with the GRC Tracing Service via a volunteer helper at school. Once a week, and later every day, they arrange to talk to their husband and father on the phone. He is attempting to join them within the framework of family reunification, but his passport, which he needs to join his family, has expired in the meantime. As a refugee, he does not dare to travel back to Syria to apply for a new passport. In the subsequent long family reunification procedure, the GRC Tracing Service advises and shows the family ways to meet the legal and factual requirements.
At this time, there is no German mission abroad in Libya that processes visa procedures in the context of family reunification. The German embassy in neighbouring Tunisia responsible for the matter could in theory accept the documents and the man could apply for a German visa there. However, Tunisia generally refuses refugees entering Tunisia from Libya, even if they can prove that they have to attend an appointment at the German mission abroad. The German embassy does not formally grant appointments, but only people with a confirmed appointment are allowed to cross the Tunisian border to apply. So what now?
For a long time, the German Red Cross Tracing Service tries to untangle the seemingly insurmountable knot. Is entry to Tunisia possible after all? Or can the application for family reunification be made at the German diplomatic mission in another country? Where could the man get the passport he needs? But nothing seems viable.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) operates an office in Tunisia and the staff there can accept the documents via diplomatic post. Thus, the necessary documents for family reunification are brought from Germany to Tunis via Geneva. From there, an ICRC employee takes them to the Libyan border, where Elham M.'s father is waiting to receive them in March 2019.
But another problem arises: He lacks a currently valid Syrian passport to apply for the visa. The Tunisian authorities continue to refuse entry to Tunis. Applying for a visa at the German Embassy in Tunisia now seems out of the question.
Khaled M. then decides to travel from Libya to Sudan. His sister applies for a new passport for him in Syria, which he can pick up at the Syrian diplomatic mission in Sudan. However, the German embassy in Sudan is not responsible for the visa application, as the applicant, Khaled M., has not been staying in Sudan for six months, so as soon as he receives the passport, he travels to Lebanon and applies for a visa in the Lebanese capital Beirut at the German mission abroad.
Finally, he succeeds. In March 2020, Khaled M. holds his visa in his hands. For the second time, Elham M. is looking forward to being able to hug her father again soon.
But in March 2020, new, insurmountable hurdles arise with the Corona pandemic: Germany and almost all other countries introduce strict restrictions on travel, which are not relaxed again until summer 2020. In the meantime, however, the father's visa has expired and a new visa is needed.
As if that were not enough, a warehouse explodes in the port of Beirut in August 2020. The local German embassy is then closed and with that, the hope that Elham M., her mother and her siblings will soon be able to see their father and husband again is dashed, for the third time. As soon as it is possible again, her father applies for the new visa.
In October 2020, Khaled M. is finally able to board a plane to Germany, his passport and a visa enabling family reunification in his pocket.
“I couldn't believe it,” says Elham M. “I didn't allow myself to believe it. We were disappointed so many times.” Even the GRC Tracing Service counsellor who has accompanied the case all these years can only believe it when she actually sees the father on his arrival at the airport.
Elham M.'s voice falters again when she thinks back to that unreal moment. “What can I say? We were all finally together again, as a whole family. I have never been so relieved.”
Today, the family lives in Schleswig-Holstein, the two younger sons still go to school; Elham M. and her brother, who is two years older, are undergoing vocational training in the medical field.