The Syrian family waiting for a French visa to safety


Many Syrian refugees living in Turkey have gone to the French Consulate in Istanbul in the hope of obtaining a visa that will allow them to travel to France in safety. But only a small number ever get granted this precious document. Mediapart's Carine Fouteau tells the story of one Kurdish family from Syria who were twice forced to flee the fighting and who are now desperately waiting for a visa from the French authorities that would restore hope to their shattered lives.

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For four years the family has lived in exile, their lives dogged by worry and fear. It was back in April 2013 that this Kurdish family of six brothers and sisters plus their parents had to flee their home city of Aleppo, chased out by bombardments from President Bashar al-Assad's troops, rebel forces and jihadist fighters. Overnight they left everything behind them: their friends and relatives, their home comforts, their house, their neighbourhood, their daily routines and their professional and social status.

At first the family took refuge in Kobanî in northern Syria before they had to flee again when the Islamic State tried to take control of the town. In September 2014 they overcame appalling circumstances to make it across the border into Turkey and having sought, in vain, to cross the Aegean Sea and secretly enter Europe they decided to go down the official and legal route to seek sanctuary.

So it was that the family went to the French Consulate in Istanbul in the autumn of 2016 and asked to be allowed to enter France and seek asylum status. They were formally interviewed by the French authorities on March 3rd, 2017, and must now wait anxiously for the official response, knowing that this may be their last chance to get asylum.

Had the family made it onto French soil their chances of being granted refugee status would have been all but certain, as 97% of all such requests from Syrian asylum seekers inside France have been accepted by the French authorities. However, the likelihood of being granted such status when you are outside France is greatly reduced. In common with other European Union countries, France has handed out just a trickle of these so-called “asylum visas” which allow people to come to the country legally to make a formal application for asylum. There have been just a few thousand granted, in fact, since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, even though around five million Syrians have been forced to leave the country in that period. For the EU members states do have the means to stop the repeated and deadly sinkings of refugee boats in the Mediterranean by allowing families to enter legally to seek asylum. Not only does this allow the refugees to come in safety, it also stops them having to pour money into the hands of traffickers who profit from the migrants' despair.

The family at the Grand Station restaurant in Aleppo before the war: the photo has been altered to protect their identity and to prevent reprisals against members of the family still living in Syria. The family at the Grand Station restaurant in Aleppo before the war: the photo has been altered to protect their identity and to prevent reprisals against members of the family still living in Syria.
Two of the members of the family Mediapart has spoken to – their names have been changed – are Azad, aged 29, a former French teacher, and his 27-year-old sister Rokan, who taught English. Today Azad is working more than 12 hours a day on a poverty wage in a metalworking factory. Rokan, meanwhile, is confined to the tiny flat into which her family is crammed, a family which grew a little larger two months ago when her brother Sardar's wife gave birth to a son. “I've always been used to working, to going out freely,” she says. “Now that's over, I'm shut up here. We don't know anyone in Istanbul, it's a big city and we don't have any friends. Bearded men roam the streets looking at women with suspicion. The flat is dirty and insect-infested. The other day we found a scorpion at the entrance door. Some of us have developed skin complaints.” She adds: “It's worse than a camp.”

Rokan spends her time working on plans to get her family out of there. She also thinks of her old life in Syria: “My parents were married in Aleppo, we grew up in the Kurdish district, we're from there. We had a spacious house, we went to university.” Her father ran a building materials factory and her brothers and sisters worked or were studying. Rousheen had studied economics and then been recruited by a bank; Heveen taught people how to read and write; Suzan studied chemistry and Sardar the law. “We were happy, we had plans - the war ruined our lives,” says Rokan. “It destroyed our future,” adds Azad.

In 2011 Aleppo, with its population of nearly 2.5 million split between 65% Sunni Arabs, 20% Kurds, 10% Christians and 5% Alawites, became a centre of protests against the Assad regime. People took to the streets in large numbers and the protest movement gradually increased. In 2012 the protests led to armed conflict between government forces, rebels and jihadists, with massacres sometimes taking place. At the start of 2013 the city was in the hands of the opposition and the Syrian economy minister Qadri Jamil compared the situation to the siege of Leningrad in World War II, with all supply lines cut off. “We experienced poverty from that moment on,” recalls Azad. “My father had to sell his lorry.”

In April 2013 the situation in the city's Sheikh Maqsood neighbourhood where the family lived changed dramatically; soldiers from the Kurdish Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎ (YPG) or People's Protection Units who had until that point generally supported the Assad regime joined the rebels' cause. In reprisal the regime bombed this largely Kurdish district on April 6th, 2013. Then a week later a Sarin gas attack killed three people – a mother and her two sons – and harmed 17 others in one of the first uses of chemical weapons in the Syrian crisis.

“The shooting didn't stop for a whole night,” says Azad. “The next morning an aeroplane bombed our neighbour's house. My sister gathered our documents into a bag, we left the house and ran into the street. Our house was also later hit and we went to seek shelter with relatives. During this time the bombs carried on raining down and there were people everywhere in the street, some dead people too. It was incredible, all these dead people in the street and no one to help us, no association, no one,” he says.

As their home district had been devastated, Azad, Rokan and the rest of the family had little choice but to leave. They took the road north to Kobanî in northern Syria, on the border with Turkey, where there is a sizeable Kurdish community. This was the beginning of their exile from their home city. The brothers and sisters and their parents had to live in two rooms. They survived by growing a few vegetables on a narrow strip of land. They tried to help other exiles by giving free lessons to children who had missed schooling because of the war. “We tried to forget the suffering of the fighting,” says Azad.

After several months of respite the war caught up with them again. In September 2014 Islamic State forces invaded the town which had been held by troops from the YPG and PKK. “Daesh [editor's note, Islamic State] said that Kurds were non-believers and they wanted to end the Kurdish presence,” recalls Azad. “There was fighting all around us, we were trapped,” adds Rokan. “Daesh started killing civilians.” So once again the family gathered its belongings and with dozens of others took to the roads heading to the Turkish border, with the aim of leaving Syria. “We were under fire as we walked. I saw a child sit on a bomb with his mother and the bomb exploded; there were bodies of dead animals everywhere,” says Rokan with tears in her voice.

But already Syria had become an open-air prison. The barriers at the border crossing were down and only opened randomly a few hours a day, causing a scramble among people waiting to get across. To stop the influx of migrants the Turkish authorities had started building a wall between the two countries. Rokan describes those days as the worst of her life. “We even slept on the ground for two days, without water, food, anything. A crowd was massing at the border in the hope of getting across. People were suffocating, there were lots of children; I saw some of them crushed to death. It was terrible.” she continued: “As a family we all held hands so we wouldn't get separated. We didn't let go. In the end we succeeded in getting across to the other side. A cousin was waiting for us, he took us in a taxi.” Azad also has awful memories of those days. “It was a crazy escape, when I think of it I cry. What did we do to deserve seeing all this suffering?”

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