Trapped in Damascus: A Mother’s Quest to Reunite with Her Family in Egypt

Samar reaches for her phone and dials the number she has now memorized by heart. She waits, then gets the voice mail asking her to leave a message.

Written by Ali Safar Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

She sighs and hangs up, her frustration evident. She decides to go personally to the Egyptian Embassy in the Damascus neighborhood of Kfar Souseh.

Her journey, which she makes on foot, takes two hours, during which she must pass several regime checkpoints. Previously, soldiers did not pay much attention to women passing through, but these days, they take extra care examining ID cards, especially those of veiled women. Signs of overt expressions of religion are more likely to be suspected of sympathies with the increasingly Islamist revolt, and Sunni women are more commonly veiled than Alawites. But since Samar was not wearing the hijab, the soldier manning the checkpoint let her go through quickly.

When she arrives at the embassy, one of the security guards stops her and asks that she wait while he makes a call. Two minutes later, she gets her answer. She has been denied entry to Egypt.

Samar says nothing and walks away.

Samar has been separated from her husband and two children since the end of the summer, when they fled the bloody conflict on a flight to Cairo. The Egyptian authorities allowed in her Palestinian husband and children, who carry the father’s nationality. Samar was rejected because of her Syrian passport and deported to Beirut International Airport.

Under the deposed former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, Syrian nationals were allowed into Egypt visa-free, among other measures of solidarity. But in the wake of the June 30 military coup, mounting unrest, compounded by rising anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment, led to a reversal of the visa regulations by July 9. At the time, Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman said that Syrians would be welcome with entry visas, which are normally available at the Cairo International Airport. But in effect, many have been barred from entry. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are currently over 125,000 registered Syrian refugees in Egypt.

“At the end of August, after I was deported, I applied for a visa at the Egyptian Embassy here in Damascus. They said I should come back in 21 days. They were a month late to get back to me, and then my application was rejected. I was advised to reapply and I did so. After a month, another rejection,” Samar said.

“They don’t grant the visa to anyone,” she added.

Samar’s husband tried to apply for her through the Tahrir Administrative Complex in Cairo, but that application was also rejected.

“I’m back here to try my luck once again, like the tens and hundreds of other Syrians whose families live in Egypt,” she said. “One day, dozens of us gathered in front of the embassy. An employee stepped out to say that there is no need to come personally to know if our applications were successful or not. That we could call them … but they never pick up the phone.

“In the end, I tried to appeal to the ambassador as a mother’s plea for being away from her children for months. But they refused, saying they don’t have such a thing. According to them, the matter is in the hands of the Egyptian security.”

When asked what she would do after her latest application was rejected, Samar answered: “Nothing. I will spend my time waiting!”

The journey to the embassy nowadays is no simple matter. Samar, like so many others, goes each time on foot. With security on lockdown, the roads are all either blocked or partially restricted for vehicles.

Samar returns to her home in al-Shughur neighborhood in Damascus and calls her husband to fill him in. Despite her best efforts, she cannot stop herself from crying. Her husband, who has been exhibiting symptoms of depression, tries to comfort her.

Samar speaks of her days spent alone in Damascus:

“I am a prisoner in my own home. I never leave unless it’s absolutely necessary. I fear going into the streets, and I’m scared of the shelling. My husband sent me some money a while ago so I wouldn’t need anyone’s help, especially since my entire family lives in Egypt. As soon as it gets dark, I close all the doors and spend all my time talking to my husband and children over the internet. When the power goes off, any means of contacting them is no longer available, even on the landline due to the damage to the infrastructure. I often sleep waiting for the power to come back, hoping to get back in touch with the children.”

Samar’s neighborhood is relatively safe. There are no clashes there, but the area often gets shelled. The opposition accuses the regime forces of the attacks, while state media accuses “the terrorists” of launching them. The warring sides point fingers, while the lives of residents descend into hell.

Civilians like Samar try to flee, usually to neighboring countries, in search of a safe place to pull themselves together and find opportunities to move forward. There, they will either wait for the end of the war or seek asylum, whether legally, or illegally via smugglers who provide them with routes into European countries.

Once Samar is able to reunite with her husband and children, the plan is for the family to follow the latter route.

“My husband has decided that we will go by sea,” she said. When we point out that travelling by sea could mean death by drowning, as has happened to hundreds of Syrians and Palestinians lately, Samar responds despondently:

“To die with some hope of surviving our current reality is better than to live with despair filling our hearts because of what’s happening in Syria, or to die of a mortar shell launched by our own people.”

This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri.

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