The women’s migration stories shed light on some of the human costs of European countries’ hardening stance toward refugees and migrants, and cold-hearted and often seemingly arbitrary asylum policies. Their stories also testify to the strength and resilience of women on the run.
Warm brown eyes, blond dyed hair and an infectious smile, Aida* is a Kurdish woman from the predominantly Kurdish district of Afrin in northern Syria. I first met Aida in Souda refugee camp on Chios island in the fall of 2016. Back then, Aida, her husband and their three small children were sharing a small tent with another family from Syria. The children were all sick with tuberculosis, and the family pleaded to be transferred to a hostel in town where several vulnerable families lived. Their request was denied, and the young family had to face the cold winter living in their flimsy tent.
Aida and her husband often invited volunteers for tea and coffee in their tent. At that time, Aida barely spoke English, so her husband and friend translated for her. “As a mother, I just want my children to be happy and safe”, she told me and other volunteers repeatedly. We nodded and encouraged her to stay positive. I remember thinking that Aida and her family, a Kurdish Syrian family from Afrin with three small children, had a strong and convincing case, and would eventually be granted asylum. But I was wrong.
Nearly two years later, I visited Aida and her family in a refugee camp in central Athens, where they now live in a small container. In order to earn some extra money, the family uses half of the space in the container to run an informal grocery shop. I was invited to sit down on the family’s beds in the other end of the container, but we quickly ended up sitting in a circle on the floor, as is customary. Hospitality is a bedrock in Kurdish and most other Middle-Eastern cultures, and Aida served tasty plates with hummus, tomatoes, olives, spicy egg, bread and olive oil. Later, we were given sliced watermelon and coffee with plenty of sugar. When I visited another evening, Aida prepared home-made pizza.
While I was happy to see the family again, it was distressing to hear about their situation. After living in limbo in Greece for more than two years, Aida and her family had recently their asylum application rejected for the second time. Aida and her husband were determined to appeal their case and hired a lawyer, but the lawyer exploited their situation and ran away with their money. Aida’s husband was understandably frustrated and had started to lose faith in the system. “We have seen so many families from Syria come and go, but we are still here”, he said, and added: “The asylum system is not for people like us who follow the rules”. The prospect of being sent back to Turkey, the country which in the spring of 2018 violently occupied the family’s hometown Afrin, was understandably terrifying. Turkey is not a good place for refugees in general, but Kurds are particularly stigmatised and frequently mistreated.
Despite all the difficulties she faced, Aida tried to remain positive. Her oldest son and daughter were attending school in the afternoons, and Aida was happy that her children were learning to speak both English and Greek. Her children had also made many friends in the camp, which, relative to other camps, had a nice playground and some sports facilities. But the family’s youngest son was struggling. He often had nightmares and woke up screaming or crying.
After having received their second rejection, Aida and her husband are also facing a tough decision. Before the lawyer betrayed their trust, she had told the family that they had a good chance of winning their appeal. Should they put their trust in the demonstratively flawed system, and stay in Athens to challenge their rejection in court? Or should they spend all their savings on fake passports and try to reach Germany, or another country in Northern Europe, through illegal means? Neither of the options were good, the parents agreed. But they were not left with any choice. As Aida and her husband insisted, they had not risked their children’s lives trying to reach Europe, only for them to be sent back to ‘hell’ in Turkey or war-torn Syria. “I will do everything for my children”, Aida told me last time I spoke with her. How I wish Europe would treat Aida and her family with the same hospitality they have shown me and other volunteers!
Mursal, meaning rose in Persian, is 28 years old and was born and raised in Afghanistan. In 2007, she married the love of her life, Benjamin.** Due to the increasingly fragile and uncertain security situation in their country, the couple decided to leave Afghanistan. Benjamin left first. Benjamin migrated to Norway in 2011, where he applied, and eventually received, residency. After living in northern Norway for about two years, Benjamin applied for family reunification with Mursal, who was waiting in Afghanistan. But Benjamin’s application was denied on the grounds that he did not earn enough money, and because UDI (Norwegian Directorate of Immigration) did not believe their marriage certificate was valid. Benjamin was determined to reunite with Mursal and bring her to safety in Norway. He therefore moved to Oslo, where he was able to get enough work to earn the required income for family reunification. Benjamin also travelled to Iran and got a new marriage certificate issued. Yet, despite these efforts, Benjamin’s second application for reunification with his wife was also rejected by UDI. Suspiciously, however, the reason given for the rejection had now been changed. Controversially, UDI now argued that Benjamin, who had converted from Islam to Christianity in 2010, could not apply for reunification with Mursal, who is Muslim, because their marriage was no longer valid according to Sharia law.***
While Benjamin was doing all within his power to get Mursal to Norway by legal means,
Mursal was living with her sister in Afghanistan. It had been several years since she last saw her husband, and the country was getting increasingly unsafe. One day, Mursal decided to leave. She escaped via Iran to Turkey, where she risked her life crossing the sea in an overcrowded dinghy, to reach Lesvos. When migrants arrive on European shores, they are often happy and grateful, as they believe the worst part of their journey is over. But unlike her husband, Mursal arrived in a Europe hellbent on keeping its borders closed, and migrants and refugees out.
I met Mursal when she was living alone in Moria refugee camp on Lesvos. Notorious for its precarious and undignified conditions, Moria is particularly unsafe for women, who face heightened risk of sexual and other assaults. According to a rapport published by Oxfam in 2018, many women sleep with diapers to avoid using the communal toilets at night.
Mursal lived in an area of the camp that is designated single women, female-headed households and minors, but still felt unsafe, both inside and outside the camp. Confronting her fears, Mursal nevertheless started to come to our activity centre in nearby Moria village, where she could use the Wi-Fi, drink tea, listen to music, practice yoga, and meet up with other women. Mursal also served as a skilled and helpful translator in our bi-weekly English classes for women. Benjamin came to visit her on Lesvos, but could not stay for long, as he had to return to his work in Norway.
After Mursal finally received her black stamp, she left for Athens, where Benjamin again came to visit her. Their plan was to get remarried in Greece, so Benjamin could re-apply for family reunification. But it did not work. Life in Athens was difficult and lonely for Mursal, as it often is for single men and women on the run. Mursal was so afraid of being sent back to Afghanistan that she nearly stopped eating and slept poorly. Like many other people stuck in ‘limbo’ on the doorstep to Europe, she eventually did not see any other options than leaving Greece through illegal means. Criminalised by ‘Fortress Europe’, Mursal was eventually detected by the police in Poland and put in jail. Terrified over what had happened to his wife, Benjamin travelled to Warszawa and paid for her bail. Their love story has yet to receive a happy ending. Mursal currently lives in a refugee camp in northern Germany. Meanwhile, Benjamin is pursuing his last legal option to achieve family reunification by challenging their rejection in court.
Mursal’s story sheds light on some of the human costs of European hardening stance towards people on the run. From a Norwegian perspective, her story is also particularly dreadful as it shows how far the Norwegian state is willing to go to prevent people in need from entering our borders. Norwegian politicians often speak about the importance of assisting women on the run. In the preface to their newly released strategy for Norway’s humanitarian politics, the government promises to “increase their support to protection (of refugees), with a particular focus on women’s rights and the fight against sexual and gender-based violence.” In reality, however, Norway’s support of the EU-Turkey deal and increasingly strict asylum policies at home are leaving women like Aida and Mursal with a horrible choice. Either they must stay in Greece under precarious, uncertain and undignified conditions, and hope that they will eventually be judged as ‘vulnerable enough’ to receive asylum in Greece, or be subject to resettlement -rather than deportation. Or, they must once again risk their lives and health and travel illegally across Europe in search of a safe and dignified home.
In the spirit of International Women’s Day, and the ongoing fight for full gender equality and security, we must not forget about the plights of women outside our national borders. In solidarity with women like Aida and Mursal, we must also challenge the physical and legal barriers that prevent women on the run from pursuing safety and freedom.
* Aida’s name and some identifying characteristics have been changed or hidden to maintain her family’s anonymity.
** Mursal and Benjamin asked to use their real names and provided a picture.
*** UDI argues that for a marriage performed overseas to be valid in Norway, it must be valid according to local laws. Family law in Afghanistan is a combination of state legislation, local customary law and sharia law. While the legal system in Afghanistan is currently changing in the context of the rebuilding of the state, sharia law is still applied. Specialists on Afghanistan have argued that it is morally appalling that the Norwegian state make asylum decisions on the basis of a legal framework they, in other contexts, considers to be in violation of human and women’s rights.