“No one should have to risk their life to reunite with their family”

With her own life in danger, Manal made a decision no mother should have to make: she fled to safety in Denmark, leaving her children behind.

Manal awaiting a decision on her asylum application in Denmark. © UNHCR/Magic Hour Films

Sitting together in their kitchen in Copenhagen, Manal and her three children are glad to be together. Manal has received political asylum, and her children have received temporary protection status in Denmark which means they can finally live together. But when recounting what they had to go through to get to this point, the mood changes fast. “I don’t even know if it’s good or not for me to remember.” Manal says. “I can feel it in my body.”

Manal was working for the Syrian Ministry of Justice when the violence of the country’s conflict came too close for comfort. Running out of options, she made a decision that no mother should have to make: she fled for her life, leaving her three children behind.

Manal’s home was destroyed by bombs and bullets as the fighting raged. After she received a direct threat from rebels and a judge was murdered, she realized her own life was in danger. There was too little time and money to organize the journey for all four of them, so her plan was to go alone in the belief that her children would be just a few steps behind her. It would be more than a year before she saw them again.

Manal reached safety in Denmark in December 2014, but her worries were far from over. She learned that she would have to wait three years to obtain the right for her family to join her. That meant three more years of worrying about her children in Syria and the prospect of them making the dangerous journey to Europe by themselves.

“No one wants to live without their children.”

“I had one wish,” she said. “To see my children. I could never imagine to live my life without them. No one wants to live without their children.”

Desperate, Manal turned to people smugglers to bring her family to Denmark as soon as possible.

Their journey began in October 2015, when Sarah wrote that they had found someone to take them across the border into Turkey, and from there arrange a boat to Greece. Manal was excited when Sarah wrote that they had finally reached the coast and would board the dinghy next morning at dawn.

After that, Manal heard nothing. She went to bed fearing the worst and woke up to news that a boat heading to Lesvos from Turkey had broken down. Many of those on board had fallen into the sea. It was the boat she knew her children were on.

Manal’s world collapsed as a news report spoke of the numbers of men, women and children who had drowned. Alone in the asylum centre and racked by guilt, she curled up into a ball, shivering and unable to move.

“What is the meaning of life if your children have died?”

By the fourth day, Manal found a photo of a drowned boy who looked just like her eight-year-old son Karam. He has the same curly brown hair, the same eyes, the same innocent face. The photo was blurred but it could easily have been him.

“What is the meaning of life if your children have died?” she asked herself. “All they wanted was safety, and now they are dead because I said that Denmark was a safe place to come to.”

Ten days later, a message appeared in Manal’s Facebook inbox. It was short and from a stranger, but still the most precious message a mother could receive. It read, simply: “Your children are alive. They are in Turkey.”

Despite Manal’s fears for their safety, the three children tried crossing the sea again – and finally managed to reach the island of Lesvos in Greece.

The journey through Europe took them almost a month until they were finally reunited with their mother in Denmark in November 2015. By then, they had already been separated for more than a year.

Today, Manal and her children are in Denmark – together and safe, but the memories of the past are still haunting them. “No one should have to cross an ocean and risk their lives to reunite with their family,” Manal says. “No one.”

Manal with her three children, Karam, 8, Joudy, 13, and Sarah, 18. © UNHCR/Johan Bävman


Sea of Sorrow, Sea of Hope is a documentary film about Manal and her fight to save her children from a war-torn Syria. It is a window into the reality of thousands of refugee families separated by conflict, borders and increasingly restrictive laws in Europe and the world – laws that are forcing many to risk their lives on dangerous smuggling routes.

See the trailer below:

For more information about Sea of Sorrow, Sea of hope, see the official website of the documentary: www.seaofsorrowseaofhope.com