The first part of Abeer’s and her four daughters’ escape, was probably similar to that of many others that were fleeing Syria at the time when the war broke out. Like many others she managed to get to Turkey but soon discovered that there was no future there for her or her children. In February 2016, she made the difficult choice of leaving her four girls with their grandmother in Istanbul, while she paid smugglers a large sum to take her on one of the overcrowded boats over to Lesvos. It was a cold winter on the Greek islands, and the ocean had already taken many lives.
She managed to get to Lesvos. She stayed in Moria camp a few days longer than necessary to help out a medical organisation with English translation. Those days were going to prove catastrophic for Abeer, who was already delayed in her journey.
By the end of February 2016, the Macedonian border was closed. Europe had clearly demonstrated that they wished to put a stop to the flow of refugees across the continent. Abeer is on the Greek side of the barbed wire fence, and immediately understands the consequences of this. She understands that a reunion with her girls might be much further away than she had imagined when she said goodbye a couple of weeks earlier.
In Idomeni, where thousands of refugees soon gathered, Abeer meets a Norwegian man named Thor. The retired man from Hvaler, Norway, was volunteering for A Drop in the Ocean for the third time in less than six months. Thor was one of the volunteers who was part of the first team of volunteers sent by A Drop in the Ocean to Lesvos. They established a friendship, and after contacting me in Oslo, we agreed that the waiting time in Greece could be used for something meaningful. A Drop in the Ocean needed volunteers at several places in Greece at this time, and Abeer leaves for Chios to help the Drop team. She stays there for five months, working alongside other volunteers from around the world. Friendships were created. One of the friendships was with Sofie, a lawyer from Trøndelag, living in Oslo.
I will never forget 19th of August 2016. I was in Berlin and on my way to give a speech. Right before I went on stage, I received an SMS from Abeer, who at this point was a close friend even though we had never met. It was a picture of a very happy woman, wearing a straw hat and holding a Norwegian flag – at Oslo Airport! We met in Oslo a few days later. The meeting was very emotional and was filled with both laughter and tears.
This is when the real challenge started. The girls had already been living without their mother in Turkey for far too long. Abeer needed to apply for asylum in Norway. The application was delivered the day after her arrival, and Thor drove her to the asylum centre in Råde. The wait is very long. Before her asylum is settled, she cannot start the process of getting her girls to Norway safely. She knows that it can take up to 6 months to receive an answer. In the middle of December 2016, we call the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration to ask about her application. After waiting in line for 30 minutes, we finally make it through. The message we received was both pleasing and heart breaking. “Why are you calling here? Abeer was granted asylum two months ago”.
The Norwegian Directorate of Immigration had sent the documentation to the wrong police district, and Abeer had therefore never received the message about her asylum. Two months! Two months of additional separation from her children! Two months that could have been used to apply for family reunification were lost.
But there is no point in lingering over this mistake. Now we needed to focus on her family reunification. It will prove to be a difficult process, with a lot of people contributing.
Applying for reunion
Apparently, the girls need to book an appointment with the Norwegian embassy in Ankara to apply for reunion with their mother. In the calendar where one can book appointments, there are no available time slots. The whole calendar on the website is removed, and the message on the website merely says that we have to wait until a new calendar is published. If that is going to take a month or a year, no one knows. Thor and Sofie are following closely, and I do the same. Abeer and her kids miss each other but are communicating daily via Skype.
March 2017 has arrived. A calendar suddenly appears on the embassy’s website, and the next available appointment is in six months. HALF A YEAR until the girls can deliver their application at the embassy. An eternity for two girls that have celebrated their 7th birthday without their mother. An eternity for a 17-year-old who is carrying an enormous responsibility towards her three younger sisters. An eternity for a mother, who is feeling hope, frustration and fear.
We continue to look out for available time slots in the calendar, hoping there might be a cancellation. And there is! On the 24th of April, I receive a message from Thor. There is an available appointment in Ankara on the 3rd of May. In 10 days! Will it be possible for Abeer to receive a visa so that she can accompany her girls? How could we otherwise get the girls to the embassy? The distance between Istanbul and Ankara is 450 km. It is not safe for four under-aged Syrian girls to travel this distance alone. The girls have barely left their apartment in Istanbul. We use the day to plan, and by the end of the day we have the solution. Abeer, as a Syrian citizen living in Norway, will not be able to get a visa for Turkey, but Thor says that he can accompany the girls.
The good helper arrives in Istanbul
On Monday 1st of May, Thor arrives in Istanbul. Sofie and Abeer have used the last couple of days to sort out all the necessary paperwork and give Thor authorisation to accompany the girls. We hope that the girls can reunite with Abeer shortly after the meeting at the embassy. Imagine if Thor can bring them back to Norway? We try not to be too hopeful. It is already dark when Thor reaches the city, and he sends us the following message: “Hi, a small update: the journey went fine, and google maps worked perfectly with WiFi in the car. It is getting dark, so I will meet the girls tomorrow. I am looking forward to meeting them”.
Tuesday 2nd of May. Thor picks the girls up from the apartment at 8am and the five-hour drive to Ankara begins. We receive another message from Thor in the early afternoon. “We have arrived at the hotel and the girls are enjoying some luxury. I hope tomorrow will be as good.” Two hours later: “We got a visit from the police… but it went fine. Soon dinner. We are having a good time.”
An unexpected turn
The meeting at the embassy was supposed to start at 10am the next morning, just at the hotel next door. We thought nothing could go wrong, but we were mistaken. At 10pm in the evening, Thor calls me. I was almost unable to understand what he was saying. He was obviously stressed and anxious. Turkish police had arrived in big black cars. Some of them guarded the exits of the hotel, while others stormed in to pick up the girls.
Terrified, the girls called Abeer who told them NOT to open the door. The police showed Thor some documentation in Turkish, which he was obviously unable to understand. With help from the director of the Radisson, who acted as translator, and the vice-council of the Norwegian embassy, Abeer, who thought that her children were being kidnapped, was convinced that it was better if her children voluntarily went with the police. The premise was that Thor could accompany them to where they were going to be held in custody. At 1am on the 3rd of May, Thor and four terrified girls left the hotel and drove through Ankara in a police car. They stopped at the hospital for a quick check-up, and then further to the police station where they were held in custody. Thor had to leave the girls.
A sleepless night turned into day, and the appointment with the embassy was only a couple of hours away. The girls spent the night in a tiny cell, without even enough space to lie down. Thor did not get permission to pick the girls up and take them to the meeting at the embassy, as the Turkish police did not approve of the authorisation he had received from Abeer. They required the authorisation to have a stamp from a public notary. Abeer and I drove to the courthouse in Sandvika to sort out the necessary stamps, and we got them to send the documents directly to Ankara. Time moved slowly as we waited, and we received a message from Turkey: they would not approve documents in English and required that it was translated into Turkish by an authorised translator. In the meantime, the four girls were waiting in a small cell.
Meeting at the Embassy
Thor managed to get in contact with the embassy, and fortunately they understood the desperate situation. Thanks to their assistance, the authorisation got translated into Turkish and sent to the police who approved it. At 3pm, Thor could finally pick the children up from custody. The next available appointment at the embassy was in four months, but luckily, they kindly set up a new appointment the following morning. The 4th of May, at 9:51am, we receive a message from Thor: “We are at the embassy now. The application has been delivered, and interviews will soon be conducted. DNA samples have been taken from the girls. The processing time is maximum 6 months, but as soon as Abeer has taken her DNA tests it can move faster”.
Waiting, waiting, waiting
It has been two and a half months since the girls had their DNA test in Ankara. Abeer has still not been called in for a DNA test in Norway, and she is obviously very affected by the situation. She finally gets a date; the 18th of September. Four and a half months after her children had their tests. This is surprisingly long as family reunifications involving children are supposedly prioritised!
A month later, the 18th of October, Thor is going back to Turkey again. He is going to bring the girls back to the Norwegian embassy in Ankara to sort out their travel documents. Fortunately, there weren’t any problems this time, but they were told that they needed to go back to the city where the girls were first registered in order to receive their travel documents. It was the city of Hatay, close to the Syrian border, 655 km away from Ankara. While Thor was driving towards Hatay, I was trying to figure out where exactly the office he was going to is located. The address that we have is not to be found on Google Maps. I have a Turkish contact, Mehmet, who is helping us to the best of his abilities. He calls the office to confirm the location, and tells us that the office is drowning in work and that it will take time. Luckily, most of the people in Hatay speak Arabic. The children’s applications to leave Turkey are delivered on the 20th of October. It has now been one year and eight months since they last saw their mother. At the office, they tell them that they will receive an answer in six days. That is way too long for Thor and the children to stay in the small city, which is very much affected by the war in Syria. They therefore started the 11-12 hour drive back to Istanbul.
Thor is back in Norway, while the girls are waiting to see if they will be allowed to travel. In Norway, Abeer is nervously waiting. She has been waiting for a long time, and knows that it might just be a couple more weeks before she is reunited with her children. My six-year-old daughter, who is soon turning 7, has got to know Abeer’s children via Skype. She tells Abeer that “If they are not here by the 6th of November, I will need to postpone my birthday party”.
The final stage
On the 26th of October, my Turkish contact Mehmet called the office in Hatay. The girls needed to go back to the office, a 12-hour drive away, to get their travel documents. In the meantime, Thor has got the flu, and is therefore not sure if he will be able to travel back to Turkey to accompany the girls. I volunteer as a back-up. Luckily, Thor gets better and decides that he can travel. Thor, Mehmet and the oldest girl, Maya, travel back to Hatay, to avoid the three youngest girls having to make the long journey. Bringing Mehmet proves to be invaluable – thanks to him they got all the travel documents on that day. Otherwise, they would have to wait another day. On the last day of October, we receive the following message: “the trip was successful, and Mehmet was able to get vital information required at Ataturk airport. We finally have all the papers”.
3rd November 2017, only hours before the reunion, Thor writes; “We have checked in and passed the passport control. Only the flight remains… what a wonderful feeling!”
Witnessing the reunion between Abeer and the girls at Gardemoen is a moment we will never forget. Finally, the family is together again!