Together again in Slovenia

Tuesday 27, May 2014 LJUBLJANA, May 22 (UNHCR) – Being separated from loved ones is an excruciating part of being a refugee. But a special partnership in Slovenia is bringing together families in emotional reunions that are, for the people involved, the next best thing to going home. In late […]

Tuesday 27, May 2014

LJUBLJANA, May 22 (UNHCR) – Being separated from loved ones is an excruciating part of being a refugee. But a special partnership in Slovenia is bringing together families in emotional reunions that are, for the people involved, the next best thing to going home.

In late April an event took place in Ljubljana that is heartbreakingly rare in the refugee community – a family is brought together.

“Freddie,” an ethnic-Kurd from Syria, stood at the entrance of the refugee centre in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana where he had been living, and tearfully embraced his newly arrived wife and four daughters, who he had been separated from eighteen months before.

During this emotional and touching reunion, seconds passed and then minutes, but a sobbing Freddie (who requested that his real name not be used) refused physically to let go of his family, as if he were fearful that he might in a moment’s notice lose them again.

Freddie’s terror of losing touch with loved ones is shared by refugees and displaced people around the world.

But thanks to a reunion programme organized by the NGO Slovenska Filantropija, the Slovenian Interior Ministry, IOM and UNHCR refugees living in Slovenia are being reunited with family members they were forced to leave behind.

Freddie’s reunion with his wife and children in April was the third reunification organized by this partnership, which began its work in September 2013.

Fund raising officer Vesna Savnik says that the key to bringing these families together is the financial support of as many as 2,000 private Slovenian donors whose generosity makes it possible to pay for airline tickets and other expenses.

According to Savnik, the support for refugee family reunions among private Slovenians surprised even her.

“We were a little cautious when we started this campaign,” she said, citing the prejudice against refugees and foreigners that exists in almost every society. “But it turned out our doubts were misplaced. Obviously, there was no prejudice in the big hearts of our donors.”

Indeed, after the programme celebrated its third reunion, Slavnik admitted feeling a little embarrassed by ever doubting the Slovenian public’s support for this cause.

But the programme was not easy to get off the ground. Although launched last year, the first reunion did not take place until early 2014, due to the time it took to locate and identify displaced family members, arrange travel documents, and reach out to donors. But this first effort was ultimately successful and in January, a Yemeni refugee living in Slovenia was reunited with his wife and two children.

Later, the programme reunited a Syrian family whose father and five-year-old son had been living in Slovenia apart from the clan’s mother and a three-year-old daughter, who had been languishing in a refugee camp in Iraq.

By bringing displaced families’ together, this programme is addressing a major source of suffering for many refugees.

Freddie’s family had been together, living a prosperous middle-class life in a large house in Aleppo, Syria, which Freddie supported from his career as a “chef” in a local restaurant. But their lives changed when Freddie and an adult son received draft notices to join the Syrian Army, and fight in the civil war that was already in its second year.

In order to escape induction into this conflict, Freddie moved his family to a village along the Syrian-Turkish border. In a desperate bid to deliver the family to Europe, Freddie crossed into Turkey and paid human traffickers EUR 3,000 to transport him to Denmark.

But this “taxi,” a truck also smuggling two other Syrian refugees, made it as far as Slovenia before being stopped by police. Freddie has been there ever since.

Freddie had no idea what country he was in when ultimately stopped, but taking refuge in Slovenia was fortuitous in more ways than one. He actually knew some Serbo-Croatian expressions taught to him by an Aleppo neighbour who had lived in Sarajevo, and he used this knowledge to pick up the Slovenian language.

But more importantly, finding refuge in Slovenia brought Freddie in contact with the reunion programme, which took up his cause and searched for his family members.

After Freddie had headed to Europe, most of his family fled into Turkey, and settled in the city of Mersin on the Mediterranean coast where his adult son and oldest daughter found partners, and married. 

He has no idea when they will return to Syria. “There it is all destroyed,” Freddie lamented, “so a normal life will not be possible even after the end of hostilities.”

With his youngest children and wife now at hand, Freddie is forging a new home in Ljubljana. The daughters go to school and Freddie is looking for a job. They all hope that they will manage in this new country.

By Blaž Habjan in Ljubljana, Slovenia