© UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis
Barly waits anxiously in the arrivals hall of Athens International Airport “Eleftherios Venizelos”. He holds a colourful bouquet of flowers to offer to his wife, Rachel, and their four children. They will soon meet each other again after eight years of separation.
Barly’s family is traveling from their homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A minor setback with lost luggage delays their exit to the arrivals hall, and Barly casts worried glances at his watch. He is afraid that something has gone wrong and their long-awaited reunification will not happen.
“The waiting lasted too long; time was passing and I didn’t see my family. I almost fainted, I drank some water to recover”, Barly recounts.
His family experienced the same anxiety. Their flight from Kinshasa to Istanbul and then to Athens takes almost nine hours.
Once the luggage issue was resolved, Rachel and the children went out to the arrivals hall and saw Barly. They ran into each other’s arms and tears of joy rolled down their faces.
“I was eager to arrive and see my dad”, 13-year-old Joy, the youngest child of the family, said. Joy was only five years old when his father left DRC. At the time, he was asking his mother again and again why his father had left, assuming he had abandoned them.
Barly Baruti, a journalist and cameraman for a TV station in his home country, was imprisoned and tortured for filming the violent clashes that erupted during a protest. He had to flee the country to save his life. The nightmares from the traumatic experiences of those years are still haunting him.
After a perilous journey, Barly arrived in Greece in March 2016. He was recognized as a refugee in November 2017 and one month later applied for family reunification, so that his wife and their four children could come to Greece and they could live all together in safety. It took five years for the positive decision of the family reunification to be issued in November 2022, and one more year for the visas to be issued and for the family to finally arrive in Athens in late October 2023.
Family reunification is a right for recognized refugees under both Greek and European law. However, challenges arise due to the objective inability or great difficulty to produce certain documents required by the legislative framework. Prolonged delays in document validation by diplomatic authorities, coupled with the absence of Greek consular authorities in some countries where the relatives of recognized refugees reside, compound the challenges. As a result, there are significant delays, with some family reunification cases pending for as long as twelve years!
The Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), in partnership with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, provides legal assistance at every stage of the complex process of family reunification, from application submission to family arrival. In instances of rejected decisions, GCR appeals to national courts, and, if necessary, to the European Court of Human Rights.
The Baruti family reunites again after many years of separation in the arrivals hall of Athens International Airport “Eleftherios Venizelos” © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis
The Baruti family. From left to right: David, Olive, Joy, Barly, Caleb and Rachel Baruti. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis
“This is the grim reality for recognized refugees in Greece regarding family reunification. It is a long and difficult process that includes several stages, as well as communications with Greek embassies and consulates for document validation and the issuance of entry visas”, explain Eleni Kagiou and Chara Katsigianni, the GCR lawyers who supported Barly throughout these years to navigate the demanding family reunification procedures.
Since August 2021, 187 cases of family reunification have been supported through the legal assistance programme implemented by GCR in collaboration with UNHCR. Eighty-three people have arrived in Greece so far to be reunited with other members of their families.
At the same time, UNHCR advocates for the acceleration of the procedures and the necessary flexibility within the current legislative framework, which requires some changes.
“The right to family reunification and the principle of family unity are extremely important for refugees. Facilitating family reunification contributes to refugees’ mental health, empowerment and integration efforts. At the same time, it is a safe and regulated avenue for people to move, without having to resort to smuggling networks”, says Lydia Bolani, Senior Solutions Associate with UNHCR Greece.
Throughout the years when Barly’s wife, Rachel, raised their four children alone, she faced the challenges of not only coping with the absence of their father and the resulting psychological traumas for the children, but she also had to face the huge challenge of collecting and verifying all the necessary documents for the family reunification process.
During this period, Barly was trying to integrate in Greece without having his wife and children by his side. Although he was facing health problems, he had to find a job to support his family financially, while also missing out on precious moments in his children’s everyday life.
“In the early days, there were neither jobs nor targeted support for refugees. Sometimes I would wrap myself in sheets and cry”, Barly recalls.
Now, employed in a large hotel in Athens, Barly has learnt Greek and English and feels integrated. His priority is to help his wife and children integrate here too.
The family study Greek together and discover new words. The word that Rachel repeats again and again with eyes full of gratitude to those who have supported their struggle to reunite is “Efcharisto” (“Thank you”). Barly’s favorite Greek word is “Elpida” (“Hope”) and when he pronounces it, a smile appears on his face.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I had lost hope. I was trying to pass on hope to my children too, because if we lost it, we wouldn’t be together again”, Barly says.
After their reunion, the Baruti family make dreams for the future. Their eldest son, 21-year-old David, wants to work and at the same time pursue his passion for football as an athlete. Eighteen-year-old Caleb dreams of studying electrical engineering. Olive, his younger sister by one year, aims to complete her education and study Medicine “so as to save lives and take care of people”. Joy, who doesn’t leave his father’s side, aspires to become a football player.
“I want to see my children succeed and be there to support them and show them how much I love them. Even during the many years we were apart, I was always thinking of them. Now, I dream and hope for a better life”, Barly says.