Student Voices
Aug. 14 2017

Refugee Lessons

I’m nearing the end of my time in Amman, Jordan, on my summer practicum, meaning I only have a few weeks left to experience as much as I can: deserts, mountains, seas, cities, delicious food, and wonderful, welcoming people. I’ve been keeping my family updated on sights and experiences through instant messaging apps like Whatsapp. “This is Petra! It’s beautiful!” I’ll send them with a picture, next to which little blue checkmarks indicate they received it instantly. Isn’t technology amazing? 

What’s great about using these technologies in Jordan is that it makes the distance between family shrink. But I wonder if it would feel the same if I didn’t know when I would see my family next?

Petra, Amman, Jordan, Syrian refugeeBefore arriving in Jordan, I studied the basics of the spoken Levantine Arabic dialect (Marhabaa! Ismi Lainey!) in Beirut for one month. There I met a young lady, Ayah, who is soft-spoken, yet strong-willed, and incredibly kind-hearted. She told me she wants to be a veterinarian and spent her free time at a local pet-shop. Over the next few weeks, Ayah and I met in cafes and studied together: myself, Arabic, and her, German. 

Ayah is from Syria, and her parents were resettled in Germany. When she applied for reunification to be with them, her request was denied. She had just turned 18, and Germany considered her a self-sufficient adult.

Germany’s policies for family reunification — and most European countries’—prioritize children, but only those under the age of 18. After 18, separated young adults must prove dependency (emotional, physical, or financial) in order to be considered for reunification. So, Ayah learns German while waiting on updates. Like me, she is currently communicating with her family via Whatsapp, but unlike me, she has been away from her family for over three years.

Even if Ayah was 18, does it make sense to keep a family separated? Would it be better for all of her family to be together? It seems counterproductive to the purpose of asylum if her parents are provided protection, but worry about their daughter alone in Lebanon, a small country that faces a myriad of challenges related to hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees. (These challenges include social tension, discrimination, insufficient financial support, and the government’s decision to suspend registration of refugees in May 2015.)

lainey_freels_wadirum.jpgAs it happened, my friendship with Ayah personalized an issue I have been working on here in Jordan with the Syrian Refugee Initiative. I’m here with seven Mailman classmates and Jordanian colleagues to understand and document refugee experiences like Ayah’s in a country that faces similar challenges to Lebanon. We’ve been conducting in-depth interviews with Syrians separated from family members, looking at the barriers to reunification — including countries’ logistical, procedural, and legal requirements — and the impact that separation has on families.

Germany’s age requirement is far from the only hurdle. For example, family sponsors who apply for reunification three months after their status determination must prove sufficient living space, health insurance, and financial subsistence for themselves and their family members. Spouses may be asked to prove they are able to communicate in German on a basic level before entering the country. Germany also suspended family reunification for two years for those issued residency permits under “subsidiary protection” status after March 2016.

Amman, Jordan, Middle East, Syrian Refugee Initiative

With support from the Columbia Global Center in Amman, the Syrian Refugee Initiative was commissioned by UNHCR to assess the impact of separation on families’ livelihoods and their overall wellbeing. In Ayah’s case, safety is a major concern. She told me she does not feel safe in Lebanon without her parents, mainly due to discrimination. It has also been next to impossible for her to find a job since work permits are limited to just a few sectors such as construction and agriculture.

I believe our research is important not only in elevating the voices of separated refugee families, but also in supporting the global community in crafting policy responses. This research will allow us to engage in evidence-based advocacy in an effort to improve current family reunification programs. We aim to disseminate findings to policymakers, academic journals, humanitarian actors, and other communities of practice.

While technologies like WhatsApp have been so important in keeping families in communication, I am hopeful that in the future, policies will make it unnecessary by allowing Ayah and others to reunite with their loved ones.


Lainey Freels is a second-year MPH student in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health and part of the Program on Forced Migration and Health. She graduated cum laude from UCLA in 2012 before joining the University's International Education Office as an International Programs Advisor. From 2014 - 2015, she was a Princeton University Fellow with the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation in Vietnam. 

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