by Riham Alkousaa
Fadia Al-Khatib, a mother of five, came to Germany by herself. The 44-year-old Syrian woman and her husband decided that she would seek asylum first and then apply to bring her family over. Hundreds of Syrian women are making similar decisions, risking their lives for a chance at a new life. According to an Amnesty International report issued in December 2014, Germany and Sweden together have received 96,500 new Syrian asylum applications in the last three years, representing 64 percent of all such applications in the EU.
“A quarter of the newcomers from Syria and Iraq are women who came on their own," estimates Hacub Sahinian, a Syrian Armenian priest who spends hours each day helping Syrian families at the refugee transit camp in Friedland, Germany. "Men have to stay with the kids because they can protect them more."
"Syrian women, especially Muslim women," Hacub Sahinian notes, "do not travel alone." But circumstances are changing traditions and Hacub has met women who have left their children with friends or relatives and travelled to Germany alone after their husbands were killed or arrested.
“I was the one who had to leave," Fadia explains. “We lost our house in Harasta, outside of Damascus. I lost my job as a teacher and if my husband left we would have had no means of supporting our family.” Fadia's husband works as an electrician for the equivalent of $150 USD a month, which, Fadia adds, "is hardly enough to support six family members in Damascus.”
When I hear Syrian women’s stories, I realize how lucky I am. For me the trip was easy. I had a regular visa to join a journalistic fellowship with the Goethe-Institut, a German cultural institute that encourages inter cultural exchange. But, it is not that easy for most Syrian women.
The Syrian refugees who make it to Germany and Sweden are the minority. In total, more than 10 million Syrians, or 45 percent of the country’s population, are estimated to have been forced from their homes due to the conflict. Of those, 6.5 million are displaced within Syria and approximately 4 million people have sought refuge in other countries. According to a November 2014 report released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 3.8 million Syrians - or 95 percent - are now in just five host countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
Fadia arrived in Germany in August 2014 after her visa for Spain expired. She had gone to Spain to join her brother, a Spanish citizen, but could not find work because she could not speak Spanish. Since refugees in Spain are not offered the same support starting out as in Germany and Sweden, she applied for humanitarian asylum status at the Friedland camp.
“It’s been seven months since I saw my kids. I know that this will come to a good end, but I miss them so much.” Fadia’s eyes fill with tears as she talks about her family. She spends more than three hours a day on the Internet with them and is learning German and taking the required steps to bring her family over to Germany.
It generally takes six months to bring ones family to Germany after receiving formal refugee status. The procedure includes two interviews with the Ausländerbehörde, the Foreigners' Registration Office.
During the three months May AboAnaaj, 34, waited at Bramche camp in lower Saxony for her first Ausländerbehörde interview she could hardly walk. Carrying her groceries was a daily struggle. May's back problems stem from her kidnapping in 2012 while taking a taxi from the market to her home in Damascus. Her kidnappers beat her and demanded her husband pay 1 million Syrian pounds, the equivalent of $9,000 USD, for her release. May was unable to identify her kidnappers or to which party they were affiliated. She cannot speak openly about what happened. Her husband borrowed money from family and friends to get her out.
After May’s husband paid the kidnappers, she fled with him and their two children to Jordan. But May, a Palestinian Syrian, was not permitted to enter Jordan with her family. According to Human Rights Watch, Jordanian authorities began denying entry to Palestinian Syrians in April 2012, and officially declared a non-admittance policy in January of 2013. In declaring the policy Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour argued that Palestinians from Syria should be allowed to return to their places of origin in Israel and Palestine and that “Jordan is not a place to solve Israel’s problems.”
Instead May went to Egypt by herself. She tells me, “After two years of loneliness in Cairo, I decided to make the risky trip from the Egyptian coast to Italy. I went on a boat from Alexandria to Milano and we were lucky enough to reach land after eight days at sea.” When her husband sends photos or voice clips of Marwan, now five, May collapses. Her baby girl, now three, only knows her mother as a green name on Whatsapp, a free, mobile messaging tool.
Travelling alone was a challenge for May's flat mate, a mother of three who asks to remain anonymous. The 40-year-old Kurdish woman from Afrin, near Aleppo, walked from Turkey through Bulgaria, Serbia, and Austria to reach Munich where she applied for asylum. The trip took 15 days and she was the only woman in a group travelling by foot.
“I saw men crying of cold and thirst and I stood still. We have kept in contact with each other, and they always tell me that I inspired them to continue on the path.” Walking so long and in such conditions led to her losing her toenails, which took three months to grow back. She explains that she chose this route to immigrate because of its cost, only €500 for this trek (equivalent to about $565 USD). This is very cheap compared to how much other Syrians are paying to be smuggled into Europe.
Depending on the way one makes the journey, it costs between $4,000 USD for passage on a boat crossing the Mediterranean to $12,000 USD for a forged visa and a plane ride to a European airport, 24-year-old Nour Bouhasan tells me. Prices are not negotiable with the smugglers since demand so far exceeds supply. Nour travelled from Greece to Hamburg via plane.
Nearly 3000 people were shipwrecked in the Mediterranean in 2014 according to an International Organization for Migration (IOM) report. In May's words, “At sea it doesn't matter if a refugee is a woman or a man. We are all the same, confronting death and our destiny.”
For these women on their own in a totally different country, society, and culture, their experiences are much more than a trip to Europe. “I don’t feel that I need to tell my husband every detail about my life as I used to do,” Fadia says. “I am more independent now.” Fadia is not just learning German but also trying to extend her network with the German society, attending social events and lectures to integrate the refugees into German life. For May, the long distance relationship between her and her husband makes them “like new lovers talking to each other all day. When you lose someone you start to feel his importance and this is happening with us.”
Over the past three months getting to know these women, I have heard many more stories than I can write about. Each woman has a different story and a different way of arriving here. But they all share the hope of building a better life in Germany, building a future that will not be demolished easily by war. All of the women have learned what it means to be an independent woman in a Western country. Some women’s stories come to a close with three years of residency. Other women are waiting. I too am waiting. Will I be able to bring my family here?
About the Author: Riham Alkousaa is 24-year-old Palestinian Syrian Journalist based in Berlin, Germany. She holds a BA in Faculty of Media from Damascus University. She was previously employed at Sham FM Radio in Damascus, Syria; Syria Today Magazine, and by the online magazine Aliqtisadi. Riham has been published on the website Huna Sotak and the print publication Assafire. Her current focus is cultural events and issues in higher education in the Middle East. Visit Riham's blog rihamkousa.wordpress.com where she writes about herself, her dreams, and her daily life. Riham tells The WIP, "I have two homes that I lost; my Palestine in 1948 and my Yarmouk Camp (south of Damascus) in 2012. I dream of a better Syria, a new Syria where everyone can have his/her own fair share. I dream of going back home."