Refugees in Austria yearn for loved ones left behind
Ziad Asaad and Kholoud Al-Nadir had a big, traditional Palestinian wedding in the refugee camp they called home in Syria. Ziad found asylum in Austria. He is praying to be reunified with his bride so they can resume married life.
“I think of her every day,” he said with a sigh. “What can I do? Just go to my German classes and try to concentrate.”
Ziad, 21, and 25-year-old Kholoud are featured in a campaign by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Austria to ease the process of family reunification for refugees.
“Allowing families to be together will prevent dangerous, irregular journeys and improve their chances of integration. Happy people make good citizens,” said Christoph Pinter, head of the Austria office.
However, legal gaps and technical difficulties are keeping families apart.
UNHCR is concerned that, while those with full refugee status can apply for family reunification right away, those with “subsidiary protection” status must wait at least three years in Austria. This difference in treatment overlooks the fact that refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection share the same humanitarian needs.
“Allowing families to be together will prevent dangerous, irregular journeys … Happy people make good citizens.”
A practical obstacle means Ziad pines alone in Vienna while Kholoud is stuck in the Khan Al-Shih refugee camp near Damascus.
Austrian law says that family members must submit their applications for reunification within three months of a refugee receiving asylum. Kholoud missed the deadline through no fault of her own. Fighting between rebels and the Syrian army prevented her from leaving the camp and reaching Austrian consular officials in time.
Until their case is resolved, Ziad and Kholoud keep their love alive by chatting on phone messaging apps WhatsApp and Viber.
“The nephews are like sons to me … There was no way I was going to leave them behind.”
Ahmad Mansour, 36, a truck driver from Homs, in Syria, also depended on his smartphone to stay in touch from Austria with his family in Lebanon. So important was this contact for him – “we talked every hour, not just every day” – that he went without vital dental treatment so he could afford the phone.
The Mansours are now together, living in the village of Gaweinstal in Lower Austria, but complications made reunification far from straightforward.
Ahmad and his wife, Sara Al-Said, 31, are bringing up not only their own sons – Feras, 11, Nabil, 10 and Soheib, 3 – but also nephews Abdallah, 17, and Mostafa, 15.
“It was a romantic story,” Ahmad said. “The brothers of the Mansour family went courting the sisters of the Al-Saids. I married Sara while my brother, Mohamad, married Sara’s sister, Nadakh.”
Tragically, Mohamad, Nadakh and their six-year-old son, Mussa, were killed in a bomb attack in Syria, leaving two surviving boys, Abdallah and Mostafa. Ahmad and Sara took in their nephews and treated them as their own children, but they had no adoption papers to prove this.
“The nephews are like sons to me,” Ahmad said. “I could not take ‘no’ for an answer. There was no way I was going to leave them behind.”
Under Austrian law, only nuclear families – spouses and their children under the age of 18 – are eligible for reunification. Thanks to UNHCR mediation, a solution was found that respected the spirit of the law. The nephews were brought to Austria under a resettlement programme, while Sara and her sons came through regular family reunification channels.
Ahmad came alone to Austria, via Turkey, Greece and the Balkans, in June 2015. The nephews arrived from Beirut in March 2016, followed by Sara and the sons in June 2016. A more inclusive understanding of what constitutes a family would have allowed for a swifter procedure.
“We were apart for a whole year,” says Ahmad. “I was going crazy but when the nephews arrived, I started to feel that everything was going to be OK.”
The Mansours leave their extended family and many painful memories behind in Syria but their joy is clear as they walk in the evening through the lanes of the wine-growing village that is their new home.
“It’s too dangerous to go out. Except for buying groceries, she basically stays at home."
“I tell my children that, whatever we have been through, we must look forward now,” Ahmad said.
Ahmad is looking for work. Sara, a psychology graduate and former teacher, is making good progress with German and all the children, except Abdallah, the eldest, go to school.
Abdallah, too old for school, dreams of becoming an actor. He shows me videos of his comic sketches, including one in which he pretends to chat to his girlfriend on the phone while washing his feet and smelly socks in a plastic bowl.
Such harmless laughter and normal family life remain out of reach for Ziad and Kholoud. Both Palestinians, they were born in exile.
“The camp where we grew up in Syria was like a city,” he said. “I met Kholoud on the street there and I liked her. When we got married, we had 200 guests at the wedding.”
Ziad left Syria in 2015 to join his father, already in Austria. Kholoud stayed with her parents and found herself trapped in Khan Al-Shih camp by the fighting. She is still in danger, and Ziad worries about her constantly.
“It’s as if she’s in prison,” he said. “It’s too dangerous to go out. Except for buying groceries, she basically stays at home. It is the same every time the regime takes over a place; the people are punished. Either the city becomes like a ghost town or the citizens live as if in prison.”
Ziad said two of his cousins were kidnapped and later found dead, and other relatives were killed in attacks by government forces.
Why did Ziad not take Kholoud with him when he set off for Europe?
“We could not afford the journey for two,” he said, adding that he would not want to subject her to the dangers of a hazardous sea crossing.
“The boat I was in overturned twice and we were rescued and sent back to Turkey, before the third attempt was successful. I thanked Allah then that Kholoud was not with me, as we narrowly escaped death.
“When she comes to Austria, I want her to fly in and I will go to the airport to meet her.”