Updates From a Friend
A lot has changed since I first met Ayah in Lebanon.
Over this summer, I befriended a wonderful young lady, Ayah, whom I wrote about in a previous blog post. She was essentially living the experience that my team—The Syrian Refugee Initiative—and I set out to explore in Jordan: the social, economic, and emotional impact of family separation on refugees. Ayah is from Syria and had been living on her own in Lebanon for three years, attempting to reunite with her family who was resettled in Germany following the onset of the Syrian crisis. Ayah had been continually denied reunification because she was over 18 years old. Most reunification regulations in Europe have a limited definition of ‘family’ and approve requests for either an adult applicant’s spouse and children under 18 or for a minor’s parents. This legal definition of what constitutes a minor does not necessarily apply in all contexts, especially where many young adults are accustomed to living with their families until marriage, for example.
At the end of the summer, with Ayah fighting for reunification from Lebanon, a German judge once again denied her and her family’s appeal for the third time.
As a team of eight—both Columbia University and Jordanian researchers—we conducted 85 in-depth interviews with Syrian refugee families in urban, rural, and camp settings across Jordan in July and August. Now back at Mailman and in my second year of studying public health in the Program on Forced Migration and Health, my team and I have been analyzing our qualitative data and presenting our preliminary findings to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and at schools across the Columbia University campus. We have found that family separation occurs at distinct times while fleeing Syria, and that through this process, social networks are broken, causing psychosocial stresses and unintended consequences including the changing of roles within families: children were entering the workforce rather than attending school, women were working more commonly outside of the home, and many mentioned increased tensions between parents and children. We found that life in Jordan presents hardships that are exacerbated by separation, especially regarding the costs of living, healthcare, and housing. In Ayah’s case, she faced significant challenges searching for work in order to support herself in Lebanon. “I can't get a job, even If I could then I'd be underpaid…Just because I’m Syrian,” she told me. We also found that reunification policies and procedures are complex, expensive, obscure and that they fuel separation. This could not be more apparent with Ayah: complicated policies split up her family, causing them to appeal in courts multiple times, and now, continually add confusion with each denial. There is so much uncertainty around what can be done and when Ayah and her family will be together again.
With the most recent denial of her request, an NGO that heard about Ayah’s case reached out to help, ultimately providing her with a flight to Europe, a visa, and housing support for a year. While she is not in Germany, the hope is that reuniting from one EU-member state to another is likely to be much easier and will ultimately bring Ayah to her family. The Dublin III Regulation, for example, determines which EU State examines an application and it can be influenced by where family members are located within Europe.
Five months after meeting Ayah in Lebanon, I am happy and hopeful that her journey to be with family is (hopefully) nearing an end. But the pathways that she ultimately had to take to get to this point frustrate me.
That an NGO had to appeal to its donors, submit proposals, and raise funds to bring a daughter back to her parents and support her family’s reunification shows there is something incredibly wrong with the current pathways that provide for individuals like Ayah. The system failed Ayah. A system meant to protect the most vulnerable.
NGOs should not have to fill the gaps of a country’s policies. They do not have the resources to support individual cases of separated families, as funding ebbs and flows depending on donor preferences. Rather, governments need to recognize their role in family reunification pathways, which must be supported and strengthened. Reunification policies should be viewed as a means of reinforcing the critical importance of social ties and family unity, instead of another policy to further exacerbate separation. Families split by conflict have the right to be together again.
This is just one example of why policy must take into account nuances such as Ayah’s: single young individuals who are adults in the eyes of the law, yet clearly would be safer and more financially, psychosocially, and emotionally secure with their families.
As Ayah adjusts to her new city, the hurdles remain all too familiar: policies, approvals, and distance still exist between her and her family. We must re-assess the purpose of family reunification policies. Let's support bringing families back together again.
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