I Escaped Syria but I Can’t Escape European Bureaucracy – by Mohab
Which is why I developed an app to help other refugees like myself deal with the Dutch authorities.
This article is part of our New Neighbours series, in which young refugees from across Europe guest edit VICE.com. Click here to read the introduction.
Mohab* is a 19-year-old refugee from Syria. He grew up in the city of Hama, and arrived in the Netherlands last year.
And so I’m here, in Amsterdam, learning Dutch and trying to do my own thing. My parents are still in Syria, in the city of Hama. They’ve risked everything and stayed behind so my brother and I can have a future – but I can’t just go on with my life like nothing happened. My life was in Hama – school, sports, my friends, my family. It makes me sad to think about all that, even though I’m safe and comfortable here.
The city of Hama is now known for the protests that took place in 2011 and the massacres in 1982, but it’s also my hometown – I have so many beautiful memories there. My parents love travelling and cooking, both of which we would often do together. I had to flee Hamas and Syria when I was barely 18 years old. I had just finished high school and was pretty proud of myself for it; I had worked so hard for my good grades. But I was at an age that the Syrian army could draft me, they could draft anyone who was able to fight. My mother wouldn’t accept that, and did everything in her power to get my brother and me out of the country. My parents sold our family home, and used their savings and the money from the sale to send us away.
My younger brother is currently in Sweden, he’s still underage. We’ve applied for a ‘family reunification’ so that our parents can get to him, but the process is so much more complicated than we could ever have imagined. In order to gain entry to the country, my parents have to be interviewed at a Swedish embassy. There’s obviously no Swedish embassy in Syria or in many neighbouring countries any more, which means my parents would have to travel to Turkey. Anyone who knows what’s happening in Syria right now, knows that traveling to the North is very dangerous. My parents are old and don’t have a lot of money – frankly, it’s becoming more dangerous for them by the second. I’m worried they’ll die.
My parents sold our family home, and used their savings and the money from the sale to send my brother and me away.
Last week, we heard that they might have a better chance at getting a visa if they can travel to Sudan, where Sweden has an embassy. But even if they manage to get there and go through the interview process, they’ll have to wait a long time before they’re told whether they can get a resident permit. Rental prices are incredibly high in Sudan, which means that my parents would have to travel to Sudan for the interview and then go back to Syria and wait to hear if they can leave for good. It’s unfair. They should be able to travel to Europe more easily because of their age – definitely more easily than my brother and I were able to (and mind you, that trip was a horrific exercise in human misery). But this is what Europe is like right now.
There’s nothing I won’t do to help my parents. So as soon as I got my permit, I went to an NGO here in the Netherlands to see if they could help me apply for family reunification, to get my parents to Europe. But they weren’t very helpful. One of the employees even said: « Don’t waste our time; you’re not a minor, so you don’t have any chance. Sometimes life can be very cruel. »
I decided that I didn’t care what they said, I was still going to try and apply for family reunification. And so I did. I’m currently waiting for my request to be rejected, so I can then file for appeal with a lawyer, hoping that a judge will see me and hear my story. It’s not fair that I cannot get my parents here safely because I am over 18, while at the same time I’m considered too young to receive the financial benefits that other refugees get from the Dutch government.
I was one of the few refugees in the centre that would speak up about how long we had to wait for our visa applications to be processed. I didn’t understand why the rest just kept their mouth shut and tried to kill time. We have the right to say what we think or what we feel. Of course I was grateful to be safe but my family is not. Life in the emergency refugee centre was hard – we didn’t have any money and had nothing to do but wait. Some locals helped out, but these were mostly Amsterdam citizens, not NGO workers.
All I want right now is for my parents to be safe and to do my bit to help others. Then I can relax and start planning my future.
A lot of the men in the centre became angry and nervous from waiting that long. Some had money but those who didn’t, couldn’t sleep or eat. Of course we were warned not to steal or do anything bad while we were waiting, because we could risk losing our visa request. So no one complained, no one protested. Those of us who speak English were able to do a bit more than the others – like starting Dutch classes or travel around with Dutch people. But a lot of the refugees couldn’t do anything but try to stay in touch with their family.
I decided it was time to do something about it all, and came up with an application that helps refugees deal with Dutch bureaucracy. You can find a lot of information online but it’s splattered across many different governmental and non-governmental websites. There wasn’t one place where everything came together. I bundled all the information in a smartphone app called RefInfo, which helps Arabic and English-speaking refugees figure out their first steps. It tells you how to apply for a visa and how to request a family reunion, but also how to learn Dutch when you live in a refugee centre. We have a lot of users already, so I am currently trying to get it translated into Tigrinya for refugees from Eritrea. All I want right now is for my parents to be safe and do my bit to help others. Then I can relax and start planning my future.
* Last name has been redacted for safety purposes.