Bassel Goes to Germany
Blog by Farah Sayegh, Information & Communication Manager, Save the Children Iraq.
Around this time last year, UK media interviewed a Syrian family in Erbil, featuring the family's story and struggle of multiple displacements in war-torn Syria before arriving in Iraq. I recently went to follow up with this family, hoping to document their children's positive progress one year later, but when I learned about their recent development I changed the angle of my story.
The protracted war in Syria initially displaced Fatima's family of five for one year inside the country, disrupting her children's education and depleting the family's financial resources. For over two years the family have been refugees in Iraq, where growing frustrations and an increasing sense of desperation led them to explore a most painful last resort; sending their 12 year old son Bassel alone to Europe.
Bassel's family was struggling to secure an income. His father worked sporadically inside and outside the camp, relying also on Bassel's support. The family of five relied heavily on international aid in the form of food and other essential items. However the devastating funding crisis that faced Iraq this past year resulted in huge aid cuts, not only devastating the already struggling families, but instilling a sense of hopelessness in families like Bassel's.
"My youngest daughter continuously questioned why we weren't going to collect our food aid anymore, while our neighbors were still receiving it," Fatima explained to me, "it greatly affected us negatively, but every refugee started to believe that the world had given up on the Syrian people."
On numerous occasions Bassel's family discouraged his idea of fleeing to Europe, but his persistence overruled and he embarked on the life threatening journey two months ago. Initially Bassel left Iraq with his uncle. They travelled by bus to Turkey where they waited 13 days until sea conditions were suitable for travel, took the boat to Greece and finally managed to reach Germany.
Through tears, Fatima repeats Bassel's words to her:
"Mom, I have never felt as afraid in my life as I felt on the boat. I was sure we were going to die."
The unforgettable journey across the Mediterranean in an inflatable dinghy transporting up to 50 and 60 crowded desperate souls is one that over one million took in 2015, causing nearly 4,000 deaths to date.
According to UNHCR, children made up 25% of refugees who arrived to Europe by sea in 2015. That means 1 in 4 refugees who crossed the Mediterranean was a child. Bassel was definitely one of the lucky ones, who managed to reach his final destination safely but despite this, him and his family had to pay a painful price.
Financially, it cost the family $4,000 to get Bassel from Iraq to Germany, an amount they had to borrow from every corner and are still struggling to pay back. Emotionally, no price can be put on the suffering both Bassel and his family are experiencing every single day.
Upon arrival in Germany, Bassel had to separate from his uncle as unaccompanied children get specialized assistance and in some cases an opportunity to apply for asylum on behalf of their families. Under the care of an aid agency, Bassel shares a home with two boys his age who are looked after by a caregiver. He attends school and is learning English and German. He hasn't seen his uncle since they arrived in the country, as he is now living in a different city.
"He's having difficulty with the language and I sense he's homesick. I'm in so much pain every single day. He's a child, he shouldn't have to bare all this responsibility," Fatima tells me in the midst of tears, "If we had a sufficient source of income here, my 12 year old son wouldn't be alone all the way in Europe right now."
Fatima's two year old daughter takes a seat in her lap trying to comfort her. Fatima then tells me that when an airplane passes over the camp her daughter immediately runs after it shouting 'Wait! Stop! Take me to see Bassel!'
He filed for asylum on behalf of his family, but Bassel has to wait seven months for his interview.
"Seven months is a long time. Would we even have the means to reach Europe? I hold on to his photo because part of me doubts that I will get to see my son again," shared Fatima tightly gripping Bassel's photo close to her heart.
By the end of 2015 the number of refugees who made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean into Europe topped 1 million. The international community must step up to support Syrian refugee hosting countries like Iraq so that families like Fatima's don't resort to negative coping mechanisms that put their children's safety at risk.
Painfully holding my tears back, I tried to comfort Fatima knowing that her suffering is unimaginable. Now every time I see an airplane pass above me, I can't help but remember Bassel's little sister and deeply wish for their reunion in the very near future.