Syrian brothers together again
Ali's eyes fill with tears when he sees his younger brother Ahmed for the first time in well over a year.
As the door of the Border Force room at St. Pancras train station swings open, he throws himself into Ahmed's arms and the tears flow freely. Ali*, 21, still cannot believe this is really happening.
Only yesterday, he had received a call from the lawyer, but even then he could not believe the news. It was almost beyond his dreams.
Sixteen-year-old Ahmed* is one of four young Syrians – along with 16-year-old Khalil*, 17-year-old Abdul* and 26-year-old Mohammad* – who arrived less than one hour ago on the Eurostar train from France after a landmark ruling ended four months of limbo existence in the makeshift Calais camp dubbed "the Jungle".
"I'm really, really happy and thankful for the government here, and I hope they can help the rest of the refugees in Calais," Ahmed told me as he held his brother by the arm.
Only the day before, the UK's Immigration and Asylum Tribunal had ruled the group of three youths and one young man could enter the country and stay while their asylum applications were processed. They will live with relatives until their claims are resolved. One arrival hailed the court ruling as a way of helping people reach the UK "legally and safely".
Ahmed fled the war in Dara'a, Syria, in 2015 and travelled to Europe on a difficult and hazardous journey through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans to try to join his brother, who had left the previous year and moved to the UK.
"I am thinking of my family in Syria. Life there is very, very difficult."
But upon arriving in Calais, he found he could go no further due to much tighter border controls and restrictions since his brother had found a new home in Scotland.
"I left Syria because the life is so difficult there. There is a war and you can't live there and that's the reason why I am leaving to Britain. I also want to see if I can bring my family. I am thinking of my family in Syria. Life there is very, very difficult," Ahmed says about the situation in Dara'a, a city some 90 kilometres south of the Syrian capital, Damascus, where more than 13,000 people – many of them children – have been killed in heavy fighting since 2011, when the war began.
Ahmed’s parents and three other siblings are still in Dara’a, a town some 90 kilometres south of the Syrian capital, Damascus, which has witnessed heavy fighting since 2011, when the war began.
The court recognized the urgency and paramount importance of family reunification and ruled that the asylum claims of the four should be assessed in the UK under the Dublin Regulation, the cornerstone of the European asylum system. The case was brought to the court by Citizens UK, the Migrants Law project and Bhatt Murphy Solicitors.
Ahmed could not stop smiling. He had smiled all the way from Calais to London: at the train station in Calais, when he heard a voice announcing the train was entering the Channel tunnel, on arrival in London, and again broadly when he finally put a foot on British soil.
"These boys are like my children, like my sons."
Just a few hours earlier, he had been saying farewell to his friends and to a volunteer Syrian community leader, Abou Omar Ali, who befriended the boys and brought their situation to the attention of Citizens UK with whom he works closely.
Abou Omar Ali came to Calais train station to say a last goodbye.
"These boys are like my children, like my sons. Thank you," he told me while waving the train tickets at the Calais-Frethun TGV station.
This was a very important day for Abou Omar Ali, because it was the first legal family reunification from Calais to London.
"If these boys go to the UK, it is... because they want to go to the UK to be with their families," Abou Omar Ali added.
Approximately 4,000 to 5,000 refugees and migrants now live in "the Jungle", a sprawl of tattered and torn tents spread across muddy and waterlogged fields. The majority have fled war or persecution. They come from Sudan, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Syria and a few other countries.
"We are here because of war. There is war in our country for five years now," Abou Omar Ali said. "I am sure all Syrians, when the war is finished in our country, want to go back, because we miss it, our country, our family, our land."
"I am sure all Syrians, when the war is finished in our country, want to go back."
Among the 45,000 refugees and migrants who have arrived in Europe by the sea this year, 17 per cent are women and 27 per cent are children, including a high number who are separated from their families.
After their arrival at St. Pancras, the boys were escorted by taxi to a hotel, where a small gathering and dinner had been organized, before going on to spend their first night with their families.
The atmosphere was relaxed, but thoughtful.
"I'm happy to be here but I am also sad because I have left friends in Calais. They also have family here. I hope other people who are in the Jungle will also be able to meet their families," Ahmed said wistfully.
In a corner of the room, Citizens UK volunteers discussed other family reunification cases.
"I'm happy to be here, but I am also sad because I have left friends in Calais."
"We want to make sure no more children die trying to reach the ones they love. The pressure is massive and the responsibility is huge, because we have to make sure that everyone and anyone who have these rights can access them," said George Gabriel, a spokesperson for Citizens UK.
*Names changed for protection reasons.