Syrians give back to the country that gave them refuge and hope
BUDAPEST, Hungary, December 11 (UNHCR) - Standing in their modest apartment in the Hungarian capital, Syrian refugees Yasser and Abeer proudly display the instruments which they are using to build a future and give thanks to the people of their new country.
The couple hold up scissors, combs, curlers, and a hairdryer, the tools of a professional hairdresser, which is the trade Yasser adopted after arriving in Hungary. Yasser hopes one day to run his own beauty salon, working alongside his wife, who is a beautician.
But for now, Yasser is using his new vocation to give back to Hungary, by offering free haircuts to the poor. "That's the least I can do," Yasser said. "Hungary embraced us and I'm very grateful for that. It's a poor country, but they nevertheless help refugees."
The previous week, he had given four free haircuts to people in the neighbourhood. But for Yasser, this charity is more than pay back; it has become a ritual he now embraces for peace of mind. "Life is much easier when we care about each other," he said.
This wisdom was hard earned. Yasser was a Damascus pharmaceuticals salesman, husband and father of two daughters when the Syrian crisis erupted in March 2011. In a short time, his world was overrun with violence. He saw neighbours being cut down by gunfire in the street and he himself was wounded in the arm by shrapnel while trying to helop others. His family's situation grew desperate.
Yasser resolved to leave Syria with his family. Escaping first, Yasser journeyed to Europe, and ended up in a Hungarian government-run reception centre for asylum-seekers where, despite its austerity, he immediately felt safe. He tended a vegetable patch, and built a stone garden that spelled out the word "Hungary" - a tribute to the land that had given him sanctuary.
He was granted refugee status, and then, with the help of a local human rights NGO and UNHCR partner, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, started the process to bring his family over. Ten long months after leaving his war-ravaged homeland, he received a phone call from Zoltan Somogyvari, a Helsinki Committee official, telling him his wife and daughters were on their way.
"When I got the good news," Yasser said, "I kept on thanking Zoltan over the phone, again and again." Somogyvari admitted that the reunion of Yasser's family was a rare success. "Such processes are usually painfully long and don't always end happily," he said.
According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, there are between 60 and 80 applications for family reunification in Hungary, and thousands more across Europe each year. Many of these are not granted. A new report from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and the Red Cross EU Office says that refugees in the European Union often face excessive red tape when seeking to reunite.
Families are often separated while fleeing conflict and war. This could have devastating consequences on their well-being and ability to start anew. UNHCR believes family reunification procedures should ensure respect for the right of refugees to family unity as it is a key principle of European rights law.
Being apart was difficult for Yasser and Abeer. The 10 months she was alone with the children in Damascus while Yasser searched for sanctuary abroad were particularly difficult. "I was living in a destroyed city with two little ones to care for," Abeer said. "To feed them, I sold everything, and lost hope." Yasser also worries about his mother and brothers in Syria. The government recently turned down Yasser's application to bring them to Hungary; he is appealing.
Yasser and his family were fortunate, and now they are working hard to start anew. Daughters Ruaa, aged six, and Yara, aged seven, attend school and Yasser is honing his skills as a hairdresser, a trade that will allow him to work side by side with his wife. "We will do everything together from now on," Abeer told UNHCR.
Despite Yasser's optimism, his family faces challenges. Yasser's daughters struggle with traumatic memories of the Syrian war. And for now, the family is living on financial support from the Hungarian state, as well as from savings and loans from friends. But Yasser says he will one day launch a family business. "We want to open our own beauty salon," he said, "so we won't need help from anyone else."
By Balint Linder in Budapest, Hungary