Middle East

Two separated migrant sisters from Syria now worlds apart

Fawziyeh, a 52-year-old Syrian woman, attends an interview with Reuters at her house in a small town south of Beirut, Lebanon April 15, 2015. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

BEIRUT: In a small town south of Beirut, Fawziyeh keeps her apartment immaculately clean despite its crumbling walls and the plastic sheets flapping across its windows. She shares the three-bedroom flat with 12 others including her five children – all, like her, refugees from Syria.

Almost every day she gets cellphone messages from her younger sister Rabab, in Germany.

They both fled their homeland three years ago, and their divergent lives capture the fates dealt to millions of Syrians forced from their country by its four-year civil war.

Rabab, a 42-year-old widow, and her two teenage children are among the few thousand Syrians selected by a rich European country for resettlement. They live in a comfortable house and receive free education and health insurance.

Fawziyeh, 10 years her senior, was not resettled. In Lebanon, she is one of more than 1 million Syrians with no legal right to work and little aid. She and her children cannot return to Syria, she said: Neighbors there told her the façade of their old apartment block was blown away.

Thousands of other Syrians have gambled on paying people smugglers a few thousand dollars to board leaky boats that could carry them to a better life on the other side of the Mediterranean.

“I think about going to Europe ... but I don’t think about going in a boat because the life of my family is much more precious,” Fawziyeh says. Last year 42,323 of the 170,100 migrants who arrived in Italy by sea were from Syria, according to the International Organization for Migration (IMO). So far this year, Italy says, nearly 2,000 have died.

The chance of a refugee winning official resettlement in a rich country such as Germany according to United Nations data is small: around 0.5 percent. Around 90 percent of the 4 million people in what the U.N. calls the worst refugee crisis since World War II now live in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

The two most generous wealthy countries, Germany and Canada, have promised to take 30,000 and 11,300 refugees respectively but have yet to receive anything like that. The U.K., which supports armed Syrian insurgents, has taken in 143. Russia, which supports the Syrian army, and Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, have each taken zero.

In all, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR thinks about one in 10 Syrian refugees in the region are, like Rabab, vulnerable enough to need resettling. That’s a total of 400,000 people. It has asked rich countries to help resettle one third of that number – 130,000 between 2013 and 2016. A UNHCR official described that goal as “ambitious.” The official said that asking to resettle all 400,000 was not realistic.

Rich countries have also promised cash. But the U.N. says it has received only 19 percent of the $4 billion it asked for.

That leaves people like Fawziyeh facing a tough choice: Forge a life in Lebanon, return to war, or risk the sea passage.

Fawziyeh shares Rabab’s blue eyes and soft croaky voice, and is thrilled that her younger sister is now in Europe. “She suffered a lot, I’m so happy for her,” Fawziyeh said.

The pair were so close as little girls that their family called them “the secret keepers.” Their regular contact today is a mixed blessing, Fawziyeh said. The contact reveals a stability she may never see. “She is going shopping, getting stuff for her house. She is sitting at home, her children are going to school, her house is organized, she’s secure and provided for,” Fawziyeh said.

The sisters left their respective homes in 2012. Rabab, who lived in the now-devastated city of Homs, fled first; Fawziyeh, who lived amid farmland and orchards outside Damascus, left a few months later.

Like many Syrians, the women initially sheltered with their extended families in Syria. Then their money ran out. The conflict spread.

Rabab headed for Lebanon. Initially, she was refused entry and had to take the children back to Damascus to sort out the paperwork. While they were there, her son was wounded in an explosion.

Fawziyeh held on. Rebels took over the area and the government responded with airstrikes. Later that year, the area was hit by rockets containing Sarin gas, a nerve agent.

By the end of 2012, both sisters had crossed into Lebanon.

Unlike Turkey and Jordan, which house half of Syria’s refugees, Lebanon has no formal camps. Various factions in the government have refused to let the U.N. and other aid agencies set them up, worried they could become permanent.

Many refugees live in rented housing, self-made camps or with local families. Lebanon’s media and some political figures accuse refugees of harboring Islamist militants. Others say they take jobs, undercut wages and overload hospitals. Lebanon, which suffered its own civil war from 1975 to 1990, brought in new rules this year that forbid Syrian refugees from working.

Rabab’s family lived in a damp, oily garage, with no water or electricity. “Life became impossible,” she said. The family had registered with the U.N. as refugees but she felt she had no rights.

Fawziyeh was luckier. She and her husband, a thin man with a thick silvery moustache, found work picking weeds from a farmer’s fields.

Rabab’s only hope of resettlement was with help from the UNHCR. The U.N. agency says it chooses people based on “acute vulnerability,” including those who have been subjected to torture and violence, women and girls at risk, the elderly, sick, or disabled.

As a widow with dependents, Rabab fitted: In February 2014 she was chosen. Weeks of interviews followed; finally, she applied for a German visa with UNHCR backing. Last Nov. 18, Rabab and her two children headed for Felsberg, a small town close to the French border.

“The reception in Germany was so great,” she said. “They gave the children toys and sweets.”

Rabab’s flat is furnished, has wooden floors and freshly painted walls. There are trees outside and an old church sits on a hill. Through her windows, she can see a playground and her neighbor’s neat flower garden.

“It was like we were given a new birth date,” she said, sitting at a table in her kitchen, which has new blue cabinets.

Rabab’s daughter, 19, is working on her German and wants to be a journalist. She sits across from Rabab in a denim jacket with her 16-year-old brother. As their mother talks, they browse on a laptop and mobile phones.

“When Syrians have the chance to leave, it means they are getting a new life, they are getting a new hope,” Rabab said.

“It wasn’t only my children. It’s the whole generation.”

Back in Lebanon, Fawziyeh uses an old Singer sewing machine to make dresses for fellow refugees. The rent on her fourth-floor apartment is $300 a month.

She can barely afford medicine, she said.

She wishes she could join her sister. “It would have been a chance for my children to leave.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 28, 2015, on page 8.

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