Inspired by the love and support she had received from NGOs and volunteers during her own difficult times, Rehab decided to help others in need.
Rehab Al Habrat, 37, from Damascus, Syria, has lived in Cyprus for 18 years with her four children, all born in Cyprus. For the last seven years she has been an active volunteer with Caritas and most recently with UNHCR’s Refugee Outreach Volunteer program offering support and counselling to asylum-seekers and refugees. Today, Rehab and her children have subsidiary protection status.
Rehab was only 18 years old when she came to Cyprus. She never thought that she would leave Syria, but when she got married her ex-husband got a visa to come to Pafos to work. The first years in Cyprus were very difficult for her, away from her family. “I was only 18 when I came….a different place, different language, my English very basic, only what I had learned at school, so it had been a real challenge for me,” she recalls.
“When the war started in Syria, I felt guilty that I was living in safety while my family was caught up in the chaos and violence of the war,” she says.
Syria will always be in her heart and Rehab would not rule out going back when return is safe. But her four children, all born and raised in Cyprus, call Cyprus their home. “Their first language is Greek. They speak Arabic, but they know Syria only from the internet. It would be very difficult for my children to go back, so that’s not about me, it’s them that I’m concerned with. I want my children to have the chance to live safely in Cyprus.”
Rehab and her children hold subsidiary protection status that needs to be renewed every two years. This creates a feeling of insecurity with an adverse impact especially on her children who were born and have been raised and educated in Cyprus. Acquisition of the Cypriot nationality could have restored the feeling of instability by now, but the onerous requirements renders this impossible.
As a single mother, Rehab’s top priority is her children, and yet, she always finds the time and energy to care for others. Inspired by the love and support she had received from NGOs and volunteers during her own difficult times, she decided to help others in need. For seven years she has been working with the team of CARITAS in Pafos by organizing language learning and other activities for refugees and migrants through the Learning Refuge and has been supporting in the preparation and delivery of food to needy families.
Rehab and her four children Rama, Sham, Sally and Yazzan. © UNHCR Cyprus/Sebastian Rich
She also guides and supports asylum-seekers and refugees through asylum, labour and welfare departments’ procedures keeping them, at the same time, alert of the challenges involved. “After so many years in Cyprus I’ve learned a lot about the refugee laws and procedures and the government offices providing services in Pafos. So, I’m helping refugees to apply to the welfare and labour office or to apply for a job, or to help them with the hospital procedures. But I tell them the facts, that this is a long process that requires patience and courage.”
For one thing, Rehab’s experiences have made her stronger and resilient, a person with dreams and aspirations for herself. “I’ve always wanted to become a lawyer and I do hope that one day I will be able to pursue my dream and become a lawyer specializing in migrants’ and refugee rights.”
Cyprus has been her home for most of her adult life but she feels that refugees are not accepted as equals, especially the Muslims. She feels disheartened when people ask her why she doesn’t remove her hijab after so many years in Cyprus. “I wear it because it’s my choice, not because I was forced to do so but because it’s part of my tradition, my religion, my identity. That’s who I am.”