Elderly Syrian survives sea voyage in quest to reunite with family in Germany

Telling the Human Story, 17 March 2014

© UNHCR/J.Akkash
Sabria, seen here in Athens, has been waiting for years to be reunited with her children and their families in Germany. Now, after a dramatic journey, her wish is about to come true.

ATHENS, Greece, March 17 (UNHCR) Elderly Syrian refugee Sabria Khalaf has become a fatalist after nearly losing her life on the high seas in her quest to be reunited with her family in Germany.

Scarred by the ordeal and worried about her health, the Syrian Kurd great grandmother fears she is running out of time. "I want to hold them, hug them and then die," said Sabria, whose journey had stalled when she first met UNHCR in late December.

But, with the subsequent support of the UN refugee agency, the intervention of Greece's Asylum Service and the swift cooperation of the German immigration authorities, Sabria's dream is at hand. She was due, today, to leave the small apartment in Athens where she has been staying with her son and keeper, 70-year-old Kanan, and fly with him to Germany.

It's amazing that Sabria, whose exact age is not certain, got this far after the trauma of a rough sea crossing and rescue at sea during an attempt to reach Italy from Turkey. Despite this setback and legal obstacles to a reunion, her family in Germany never gave up hope.

But it was only when UNHCR became involved that the efforts at reuniting the family began to move forward. UNHCR gave advice and briefed Sabria and her family about their status, rights and obligations.

Then the Greek Asylum Service, alerted to the case and after approaching UNHCR, contacted Sabria and her son and registered them as asylum-seekers. An application for family reunification was submitted to Germany under European Union regulations on asylum, especially as they pertain to family unity and age. The Germans accepted the request on March 4, paving the way for today's reunion.

"We hope that this good example will be followed by many others, where states will make all efforts to facilitate reunification of refugee families," said Laurens Jolles, the refugee agency's regional representative.

The irony is that Sabria has lived a largely uneventful life. It's only now in her twilight years and far from home and her friends, that her life has become filled with drama. She was born in Al Qahtaniyah in north-east Syria and spent most of her life there.

Over the years, all of her children except the faithful eldest son, Kanan, left Al Qahtaniyah and sought their fortunes elsewhere. Her daughter Bilmaz and son Sherwan went further afield, starting a life in Germany many years ago. Sabria had not seen them since.

Al Qahtaniyah was not affected when the Syria crisis began in March 2011, but the war came to them the following year. "We went without food for many days," recalled Kanan. "We are too old to queue for 24 hours for food or to go scavenging," he added. In the middle of last year, Sabria and Kanan decided to try and join their relatives in Europe, including more than 30 grandchildren and great grandchildren.

But getting there proved more difficult than they imagined. In late December, after several months in Turkey where they could not apply to be reunited, they set out from the southern coast on a rusty, leaking boat heading for Italy. But they ran into heavy weather and the boat began listing.

"I was dead for three days," Sabria told UNHCR. She said the passengers, originating from Afghanistan and Syria, were locked in three cabins when the weather turned. The storm made her seasick.

The Greek coastguard was alerted and towed the boat and the 97 people on board, including 49 children and three suspected people smugglers, to the Peloponnese port of Pylos, where local authorities and the Greek public gave them clothes, food and medicine.

When her son Sherwan heard from UNHCR that his mother was in Greece, he flew in from Germany for an emotional reunion after 20 years apart. She still could not quite believe that she would soon see her other children. "I am already close to death. But what should I do? They are the apples of my eye," she said.

Some 53,000 Syrians claimed asylum in Europe in 2013, some of whom had been legally residing in European Union countries.

By Ketty Kehayioylou in Athens, Greece

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