Shortly after Oudai Al Homsi, a 27-year-old Syrian computer engineer, arrived in Germany in 2015, the government introduced new rules – most Syrians would receive a temporary status called subsidiary protection, rather than refugee status.
Oudai and his wife, Alaa Msalma, had agreed that he would travel to Europe alone, hoping she and their two young children could join shortly after. But under the new rules, Syrians with subsidiary protection could not apply to bring their relatives to Germany through family reunification until March 16, 2018.
After two years of waiting, as the deadline approached, the rules changed again. Family reunification for Syrians had emerged as a flashpoint in coalition negotiations in the aftermath of Germany’s September 2017 election. Under the eventual compromise deal, the German parliament last month extended the block on family reunifications until July 31, 2018. After that, the number of relatives allowed to come to Germany will be capped at 1,000 a month.
This is Oudai and Alaa’s story, as told to the nonprofit Media Instruction, Resources and Advocacy (MIRA) in a series of diary entries over the last year. The first chapters detailed their life in Syria and Jordan are published on Refugees Deeply here; we pick up their story as they part in Jordan.
Alaa: During our time in Jordan, I had continued to keep in touch with my family back in Syria. One day, my brother called and told Oudai that he was leaving for the sea journey to Europe to start a new life. He said Oudai could join him if he wanted. Oudai had already been thinking about it. Everybody was leaving for Europe, so why not us?
We discussed the issue and agreed that our main focus was to secure a better future for our kids. We decided on going to Germany – a choice that I later came to regret. Oudai made up his mind to travel alone, of course with my permission, and told me that he would apply for family reunification once he arrived. A month after my brother’s call, Oudai was ready. We sold our most of our belongings and moved in with his family. Five days later, Oudai had bought a ticket and was ready to leave.
I will never forget that night. Every time I remember those days, I start crying. It was harder on me than the actual departure from our home in Syria. The pain was greater than going through labor. It is like your soul leaving your body. I hope to never relive a moment like that again. That night I cried nonstop. When he left in the morning, I felt my heart split into two. An hour later, he sent me a message telling me he loved me, and I missed him already. My tears did not stop for four days.
v. The Crossing
Oudai: At Amman airport, I could see my body walking and moving towards the gate, but my soul standing on the other side, refusing to travel with me but instead staying in Jordan with my family. I signed a paper granting me with exit from Jordan with no return because I am Syrian and had been in Zaatari refugee camp. This was my first time seeing a plane up close. I spent the two-hour flight to Turkey taking pictures of the sky and listening to music that stirred up memories.
When we arrived, I took a bus to Izmir on the coast. My first attempt to cross to Greece was cancelled when the rubber boat sprung a leak. The person in charge left to get a new boat but never returned. We slept on the beach and in the morning, the coast guard found us and took us to the nearest police station. They dropped us back in Izmir, and two days later I made another attempt to cross the sea.
We hid in the bushes on the beach while the rubber boat was prepared. A coast guard patrol passed by. We were watching them but they could not see us. When they moved away we loaded into the boat. The organizer pointed to a light in the distance. “Keep going until you reach the island of Samos.” One of the men took over the rudder and we began moving towards Greece. None of my family knew what time my trip was, except my little brother, who I had asked not to tell anyone until I made it to safety.
The boat was filled with over 50 people, young and old. Rain started falling and the children and women started crying. It was completely dark. We were surrounded by water and we could not see anything else. We kept going for six hours until a man on the boat saw flickering lights in the distance. “Was that a Greek island or had we returned to Turkey?” we all joked nervously. As soon as we reached the shore of Samos, I sent photos to my wife and brothers to show I had made it to Greece.
After two days on the island, I was able to leave and took a boat to mainland Greece. I crossed the Macedonian border and took the train to Serbia and then continued to Croatia. That was my last Internet connection – the rest of the journey I had no communication with my family.
When we got the Slovenian border it was dark. You could hear the sound of babies crying and people fighting with the Slovenian border control. Smoke rose from fires lit by people trying to get some warmth. After two hours, the borders were opened and I rushed to cross. We entered an open space surrounded by barbed wire and were asked to wait. We stayed in there for three days, sleeping on the ground.
Finally, we were transported to the Slovenian-Austrian border, and then to another shelter in the city of Graz, in Austria. Some people applied for asylum there, but others like me wanted to continue onto Germany. The next day, we got on a train headed to Germany.
Alaa: I talked to Oudai on the phone every day while he was in Turkey. One day, he told me that he was going to bed early. He was lying. Really, he was planning to go to Greece by sea that night. The next day, I woke up to his brother telling me that Oudai made it to Greece. I called Oudai on the Greek islands, my tears a mixture of joy and worry. His journey to Germany lasted 15 days. Our communication during that period was scarce. My joy was unimaginable when he made it to Germany.
Oudai: In Germany, we were divided into groups. I was sent to Hamburg, where I met an old friend who suggested that I head to Severin, where they are efficient at processing migrants and you can get residency in just a few weeks. This was really important to me as I wanted my family to join me as soon as possible.
When I arrived in Severin, to my misfortune they had already taken too many refugees and instead gave me papers to go to Berlin. I had heard about the slow immigration process in Berlin, but I had no choice. When I arrived in Berlin, I started the process of applying for asylum. I was full of emotions, being away from my wife and children. I kept calling them with the hope of reuniting within months.
Then at the start of 2016, the German government issued a decree to protect Syrian refugees but postpone family reunification until 2018. I waited for a decision on my case and started losing hope. My little girl does not know me except through the phone as she was so young when I left.
Months went by, until in November 2016, I finally received humanitarian protection, but family reunification was postponed until March 2018. The news devastated us. My wife started cursing when I told her. Then she fainted. I was angry that I had spent so long waiting for a decision without being able to see my family in Jordan. I appointed an immigration lawyer to submit an appeal to the Federal Immigration Court.
I now speak German after studying the language at a school here. I do not have an ID or a German passport and cannot leave Germany. I miss my family tremendously. I thank the German government for all they have provided us; however, forbidding someone from seeing their family is indescribable. I only wish to live with my family under one roof, even if it is a tent.
Alaa: When Oudai made it to Germany, our exhausting journey was really just beginning. Oudai began to apply for residency in Germany while I took care of the two kids in Amman. My life was miserable without Oudai. We would take turns comforting each other: I’d comfort him, and other times he’d comfort me. We used to tell each other: Tomorrow, we will be together again. But he is still alone in Berlin after nearly two years. They gave him temporary protection status, which prevents us from applying for family reunification until 2018.
We have discovered how much we love each other, but the distance is brutal. It is unfair to keep a father from his children. He can only see his kids through photos and hear their voices over the phone. My kids are growing up with me, but away from their father. Whenever they see a plane in the sky they yell, “Papa, Papa, come down from the plane. We miss you.” (My tears are dropping on the keyboard now. If I were writing on a paper, you would have seen the letters smeared with tears.) Oudai is part of my soul. My love is in the diaspora, far away on earth. I wish that the ends of earth will fall so that we can meet.
Oudai: It has now been over two years since I arrived in Germany. I finally got an ID, which warmed up my feelings during the cold weather. I am continuing to learn advanced German and counting the hours until I reunite with my family. According to my papers, I have the right to apply for family reunification on March 17, 2018.
The German election campaign started in 2017. The posters of candidates could be seen on the streets, on the bridges and electricity poles. The drumbeat of the election campaign melded with our pounding hearts. All of us Syrians were asking ourselves whether the winners of the election will be opposed to us or not.
To our surprise, the winning parties entered political negotiations to form a coalition government and the main topic of discussion was immigration. Some of them like refugees to be fried, others grilled, others boiled. They changed the laws and manipulated the feelings of separated families spread across the continents. Now they are asking for a freeze on family reunifications.
German political parties seem to have no feelings. I landed here without any knowledge of German, and today, I have an advanced language certificate in German in addition to a course in political science and the history of Germany, which I passed with high marks. I signed a training contract with a German company, after which I do not get any government support. None of these achievements were respected by German political parties; they lie and deceive people. They hand down decisions about people’s refugee status, and when the time comes, they change the law.
In my country, Syria, the war is fought with tanks and fighter jets, and you can see the blood. In Germany, the war is among political parties, and refugees die on the inside. The torture techniques are different, but it still feels like war. More than two years later, I am still waiting for my family and kids to join me.