A JOURNEY OF REUNIFICATION
I promised you a story yesterday, one going into a bit more detail about a couple that I visited the UNHCR Thessaloniki offices (pictured above) with – well, here you go. The two of them have given me permission to share their story as much as I’d like. They want others to hear their tale and understand that refugees are people just like everyone else, seeking safety, stability, and a happy family.
Day three in Greece began at 6:45am when I had the honor of riding along with a Syrian couple to their appointment in Thessaloniki with the UNHCR to get news on their request for family reunification. With Dimitrios at the wheel for our trek north (he really is a gem on the church team here in Katerini), the four of us chatted away in the van and I could feel their excited buzzing as we got closer and closer to the UNHCR offices. They were anxious to see what would happen and were hopeful for a positive outcome.
Back in Syria, the wife was a high school art teacher at a girl’s school and she still absolutely loves to sketch and make crafts. The husband was an engineer. Both are remarkably well educated, speak wonderful English, and seem totally ready for life on the continent of Europe. The couple has been in Katerini for the last three months. Prior to this, during their time in a refugee camp in Greece, they both served as translators between other folks in the camp and those who arrived to provide aid. One of the families they were translating for was offered the opportunity to leave the camp, but for various reasons they couldn’t yet. The couple then inquired with the aid organization about the opportunity for them to take their place, since the other family wasn’t in a position to do so. They agreed and the two of them headed to Katerini and began their relationship with the Evangelical Church in Greece.
The two began their journey from Syria in order to reunite with their four sons – three of whom are in Germany and one is in Austria. Due to the dangers posed by the warring factions in Syria, and their insistence on forcing all able-bodied men to fight with them or be killed, the boys had to flee the country in order to stay alive.
The three oldest boys left for a refugee camp in Turkey while the youngest son finished up his schooling. Being stuck alone without his brothers made him heartsick; his parents could see how he suffered and so once he finished high school they sent him to Turkey to meet up with them.
From there, the youngest son and two of the older ones left to make their way to Germany (using smugglers who took them through Hungary and Austria), where they eventually arrived and stayed in a camp there for six months before getting status. After the three arrived in Germany, they sent word to their brother who gave the last portion of payment to the smuggler and then set out to join them.
The last son journeyed in a group of twelve people total, including cousins and friends who also wanted to make their way to Germany. On their route westward, however, they were caught by police during the night in Austria and were detained. The group spent three days in a refugee camp and were then taken to a house and given aid to start new lives, such as financial support as well as social and practical help. For this reason, he is still in Austria – close to his brothers, but still separate – and is quite happy to be there.
The wife told me during our van ride chats that she feels blessed to have her sons so far away because at least she knows that they are doing well and are happy, healthy, and, most importantly, safe. Since their youngest was under 18 when the parents entered Greece, they were eligible to apply for family reunification through the UNHCR. This process takes longer than simply applying for resettlement, but the applicant is also almost guaranteed their country of choice (AKA where their family member is), whereas in resettlement it’s a toss up as to which of the 24 participating EU countries will take a person on that day.
During their meeting with the UNHCR (which Dimitrios and I were not allowed in on, so we waited in Thessaloniki during the duration of it – roaming around to distract ourselves) they received news that was neither positive nor negative: they were simply told to wait and come back for another appointment. The folks here at the Evangelical Church in Greece have received word that the couple will be accepted in Germany and given reunification status there with their sons – this just isn’t in the UNHCR system yet in Thessaloniki. The couple has already received a call from the UN offices in Athens confirming this news. Hopefully that will all clear up in the next week or so and the two of them will get a call telling them to come in sooner for another meeting – and then they will be on their way to their sons.
When I asked them about their time in Greece they both gushed about how much they love it: the wonderful people from the church who are helping them, the gorgeous Greek environment, and the life that they are enjoying in Katerini. The only problem is that they are still separated from their sons, and no parent should have to live like that. It has already been two years since they have seen their children, and I can feel how anxious they are to hold their sons again and see their faces in person. They told me that if it weren’t for their children being in Germany and Austria, they wouldn’t mind staying in Greece, maybe even in Katerini, but that just isn’t an option for them so long as their children are somewhere else.
I am humbled to have been able to share in this experience with them, and am even more humbled to be able to share their story. These two beautiful souls have touched my life and I’m blessed to have connected with them in such an authentic way.