Syrian father of eight fights to give his family a future
Jobless in a refugee camp in Jordan, Mahmoud Al-Bashawat, 39, knew he had to do something to secure his family’s future. Leaving his wife, seven daughters and small son behind in a caravan in the desert, he set off alone for Europe.
Little did he know that the process of being reunited with them would be almost as fraught as the journey over sea and land to Austria. “I couldn’t see any future for them. Our future was shattered in the ruins of Syria. This is why I came to Europe, for their sake. We were parted for two-and-a-half years,” he says.
UNHCR is campaigning to ease some of the practical obstacles that can make it difficult for refugees to obtain their legal entitlement to family reunification. The right to reunification applies to nuclear families, including children under 18. Some 130,000 asylum seekers arrived in Austria in 2016-17 and many received refugee status and with it the right to family reunification in a matter of months.
In Mahmoud’s case, the sheer cost of travel documents was a problem and he had to take out a crippling loan to buy passports for his family. In addition, his eldest daughter Abeer had just turned 18 and strictly speaking was no longer eligible. There was a risk she would be left stranded, alone in Jordan.
“It has been an emotional rollercoaster for us,” admits Mahmoud’s wife, Hayat Elwees, 38, finally settled with all her children in an airy four-room apartment in Vienna.
Before the Syrian war, the family lived in a house in the Damascus suburb of Sayyeda Zeinab. Mahmoud, a carpenter, had a successful windows business. “We would never have left Syria if it had not been for the war,” he says. “We had a good life there.”
Shelling drove them first to the southwestern Syrian city of Daraa, where the couple’s youngest child, Ali, now five, was born. But then fighting engulfed Daraa and they had to flee again, this time to Jordan, where they found refuge in a camp funded by the United Arab Emirates.
“It was OK, caravans in the desert, about 3,500 people in the camp. But thousands more were arriving. It was not a good prospect,” says Mahmoud.
In 2015, he took the decision to go to Europe and, as a first step, flew to Turkey.
“It was very hard for me when my husband left,” says Hayat. “I was all alone with my children in the camp.”
“We kept in touch on WhatsApp, EVERY DAY,” says 17-year-old second daughter Ghadeer emphatically.
However, Mahmoud did not tell his family when he was making the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, as he did not want to worry them. Only when he had arrived safely did he send a photo from Greece. “I was so surprised and happy, I cried,” says Hayat.
Mahmoud continued through the Balkans and Hungary, reaching Austria by train in September 2015. Five months later, he gained refugee status and the process of applying for family reunification could begin.
In Amman, the Austrian embassy required the family to produce Syrian passports. The Syrian embassy charged US$400 dollars per passport – $3,600 dollars for nine people – money Mahmoud didn’t have. And the clock was ticking, as their Austrian visas were only valid for four months.
“I borrowed the money from friends, 100 dollars here, 200 dollars there, lots of very small loans,” says Mahmoud. “We didn’t understand why we couldn’t get laissez-passer travel documents. I had to pay money to the very government that was making us flee. I am still paying off the loans now.”
"We couldn’t live as a family ripped apart. Family is the most precious thing.”
Worse was the problem that Abeer had turned 18. Initially, she received a rejection from the Austrian authorities. “I was afraid I would have to stay behind all by myself, with the rest of my family leaving,” she says.
“I was going crazy,” says Mahmoud. “I couldn’t abandon Abeer; I would rather have returned to Jordan. We couldn’t live as a family ripped apart. Family is the most precious thing.”
Luckily, with help from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Abeer, now 20, was included in an alternative resettlement programme. She actually arrived in Vienna on a separate flight two days before the rest of the family came this January. Now all of them are learning German.
“Thank God we are together, with a fresh start,” says Mahmoud. “My children saw nothing but war and missed out on their education.”
The little ones are going to school and kindergarten while Abeer and Ghadeer are revising their plans.
Ghadeer, who had hoped to be a dentist, is considering nursing. Abeer, who dreamt of being a doctor, might instead become a beautician. Soon she will also become a wife, as the family has just announced her engagement to a fellow Syrian living in Klagenfurt.
“Come to the wedding,” says Mahmoud expansively. “We will have a big Syrian feast.”