Elderly Syrian survives sea voyage in quest to reunite with family in Germany

Telling the Human Story, 17 March 2014

© UNHCR/J.Akkash
Sabria, seen here in Athens, has been waiting for years to be reunited with her children and their families in Germany. Now, after a dramatic journey, her wish is about to come true.

ATHENS, Greece, March 17 (UNHCR) Elderly Syrian refugee Sabria Khalaf has become a fatalist after nearly losing her life on the high seas in her quest to be reunited with her family in Germany.

Scarred by the ordeal and worried about her health, the Syrian Kurd great grandmother fears she is running out of time. "I want to hold them, hug them and then die," said Sabria, whose journey had stalled when she first met UNHCR in late December.

But, with the subsequent support of the UN refugee agency, the intervention of Greece's Asylum Service and the swift cooperation of the German immigration authorities, Sabria's dream is at hand. She was due, today, to leave the small apartment in Athens where she has been staying with her son and keeper, 70-year-old Kanan, and fly with him to Germany.

It's amazing that Sabria, whose exact age is not certain, got this far after the trauma of a rough sea crossing and rescue at sea during an attempt to reach Italy from Turkey. Despite this setback and legal obstacles to a reunion, her family in Germany never gave up hope.

But it was only when UNHCR became involved that the efforts at reuniting the family began to move forward. UNHCR gave advice and briefed Sabria and her family about their status, rights and obligations.

Then the Greek Asylum Service, alerted to the case and after approaching UNHCR, contacted Sabria and her son and registered them as asylum-seekers. An application for family reunification was submitted to Germany under European Union regulations on asylum, especially as they pertain to family unity and age. The Germans accepted the request on March 4, paving the way for today's reunion.

"We hope that this good example will be followed by many others, where states will make all efforts to facilitate reunification of refugee families," said Laurens Jolles, the refugee agency's regional representative.

The irony is that Sabria has lived a largely uneventful life. It's only now in her twilight years and far from home and her friends, that her life has become filled with drama. She was born in Al Qahtaniyah in north-east Syria and spent most of her life there.

Over the years, all of her children except the faithful eldest son, Kanan, left Al Qahtaniyah and sought their fortunes elsewhere. Her daughter Bilmaz and son Sherwan went further afield, starting a life in Germany many years ago. Sabria had not seen them since.

Al Qahtaniyah was not affected when the Syria crisis began in March 2011, but the war came to them the following year. "We went without food for many days," recalled Kanan. "We are too old to queue for 24 hours for food or to go scavenging," he added. In the middle of last year, Sabria and Kanan decided to try and join their relatives in Europe, including more than 30 grandchildren and great grandchildren.

But getting there proved more difficult than they imagined. In late December, after several months in Turkey where they could not apply to be reunited, they set out from the southern coast on a rusty, leaking boat heading for Italy. But they ran into heavy weather and the boat began listing.

"I was dead for three days," Sabria told UNHCR. She said the passengers, originating from Afghanistan and Syria, were locked in three cabins when the weather turned. The storm made her seasick.

The Greek coastguard was alerted and towed the boat and the 97 people on board, including 49 children and three suspected people smugglers, to the Peloponnese port of Pylos, where local authorities and the Greek public gave them clothes, food and medicine.

When her son Sherwan heard from UNHCR that his mother was in Greece, he flew in from Germany for an emotional reunion after 20 years apart. She still could not quite believe that she would soon see her other children. "I am already close to death. But what should I do? They are the apples of my eye," she said.

Some 53,000 Syrians claimed asylum in Europe in 2013, some of whom had been legally residing in European Union countries.

By Ketty Kehayioylou in Athens, Greece

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

Iraqi Refugees in Syria: 2,000 New Arrivals Daily

The UN refugee agency is increasingly alarmed over the continuing violence in Iraq and distressed about the lack of an international humanitarian response to deal with the massive numbers of people being displaced. After an assessment mission in November last year, UNHCR officials warned that the agency was facing an even larger humanitarian crisis than it had prepared for in 2002-03. But UNHCR and other organisations are sorely lacking in funds to cope with the growing numbers of displaced.

In an effort to fill the massive gap in funding, UNHCR in January 2007 launched a US$60 million appeal to cover its protection and assistance programmes for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey, as well as non Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people within strife torn Iraq.

The longer the Iraq conflict goes on, the more difficult it will become for the hundreds of thousands of displaced and the communities that are trying to help them – both inside and outside Iraq. Because the burden on host communities and governments in the region is enormous, it is essential that the international community support humanitarian efforts.

Posted on 5 February 2007

Iraqi Refugees in Syria: 2,000 New Arrivals Daily

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie meets Iraqi refugees in Syria

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie returned to the Syrian capital Damascus on 2 October, 2009 to meet Iraqi refugees two years after her last visit. The award-winning American actress, accompanied by her partner Brad Pitt, took the opportunity to urge the international community not to forget the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who remain in exile despite a relative improvement in the security situation in their homeland. Jolie said most Iraqi refugees cannot return to Iraq in view of the severe trauma they experienced there, the uncertainty linked to the coming Iraqi elections, the security issues and the lack of basic services. They will need continued support from the international community, she said. The Goodwill Ambassador visited the homes of two vulnerable Iraqi families in the Jaramana district of southern Damascus. She was particularly moved during a meeting with a woman from a religious minority who told Jolie how she was physically abused and her son tortured after being abducted earlier this year in Iraq and held for days. They decided to flee to Syria, which has been a generous host to refugees.

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie meets Iraqi refugees in Syria

Germany: New Hope in KeilPlay video

Germany: New Hope in Keil

Teenage refugee Abdullah was resettled in Germany, where he was finally able to get the life-saving medical help he needed to treat a blood disorder.
UNHCR: Looking for Safe ShoresPlay video

UNHCR: Looking for Safe Shores

2014 has been a record year for movements by sea with desperate people take terrifying risks for the slimmest chance to reach safer lands.
Germany: Sounds of SilencePlay video

Germany: Sounds of Silence

Born deaf, little Abdu fled the war in Syria at age three. Now he lives in Germany, where surgery and hearing aids are transforming his world.