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Most Syrian refugees who have made it to Europe have got there illegally and by making perilous journeys. War in their homeland and Fortress Europe left them with no other option.
This is a different Syrian tale, one that shows another way to give sanctuary to those fleeing the war.
Syria: where it all began
Petite, bright-eyed Syrian Fatem remembers well the fear she felt when the war broke out in her hometown of Raqqa. She still shivers at the thought. “We were living in the heart of the conflict. Every time we kissed each other goodnight we thought it could be the last time,” she recalls.
Due to the conflict, her husband Khalil couldn´t work and so money was tight. They were expecting their first child but couldn´t see a doctor. Amid the water and supply shortages, the final straw came when Ahmed was born and they couldn´t buy any milk to feed him as there was none. "That was the moment when we clearly realized we couldn´t stay in Syria anymore,” says Khalil. He decided to go to Lebanon to find a job and a place to live - his young family would join him later.
The most prized possession that he brought with him was a photo album showing their happy days in Syria: their wedding, their parents, the beautiful house they lived in and the land he used to work.
First stop: Lebanon
The day that Khalil arrived in Lebanon he had to sleep on the streets. It was like a premonition, a clear warning that nothing in this country would be easy.
For four years, the family struggled to make ends meet in Lebanon, a small country with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, and where 70% of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line. Khalil worked as an electrician, a plumber and a painter, but despite this, he had to a seek a loan more than once in order to feed his family, which increased in size with the happy arrival of Mohamed who is now a year old.
The family lived in a small, dark and cramped room in a town in Mount Lebanon, an hour away from Beirut. Here, the rent is lower than in the capital. “In the beginning, the floor was bare earth and the roof was leaking. The landlord refused to fix it”, says Khalil. Their kitchen was outside, where it was hard to cook especially during the freezing snowy winters. The children fell ill often and Fatem developed an allergy, leading to a persistent cough and bouts of vomiting.
The promise of a new life
Khalil learned from a neighbor that it was a possibile to travel to Italy with a humanitarian visa - a safe and legal way to reach Europe.
After much research, the family met with the Italian organizations that have been working on securing humanitarian visas for Syrian refugees through humanitarian corridors. This initiative aims to avoid deaths at sea, and human trafficking. The Italian government has agreed to receive 1,000 refugees in two years through this project.
At first, Fatem was sceptical. She thought that the family wouldn´t be selected for a visa. But, after a few interviews, the family received the good news that they had been chosen. Syrian refugees must meet a number of criteria in order to be granted a humanitarian visa. A key criterion is that they are in a vulnerable situation, this includes families with young children, single mothers, the elderly and the sick.
Farewell to Lebanon
The night before the flight, Khalil and Fatem couldn't sleep. They were leaving behind all those they had shared the last four years with: their cousin’s family, who welcomed them into their home during their first month and who shared with them what little they had, and their neighbors, most of them Syrian, who had fled to Lebanon just like them.
But above all, they were moving further away from their dear Syria. This journey would take them far away from their loved ones, from their culture, from their land.
A heavy blow
The journey took 24 hours, starting at 4 am in Beirut and ending in the city of Cecina in the middle of Tuscany. During the bus trip from Rome to their new home, they discovered that they would have to share a flat with another Syrian refugee family. This bit of news left them anxious and confused.
However, they were quickly reassured by Oxfam staff that this was a temporary measure. Although they would eventually have their own home, it was made clear that renting a property as a refugee can be tricky.
Italy: journey's end
After they had arrived in Tuscany, they were taken by two Italian Oxfam social workers to their new temporary home: a sunny flat with a garden, a big living room with a fitted kitchen, three bedrooms, central heating, a washing machine and a TV.
Via a translator, the family learned that they would receive money every month to buy food, medicine and other essentials, for six months. They would also have WiFi in the apartment and home-based Italian language lessons so that they wouldn't have to leave their children. The family would also receive help to apply for asylum and look for jobs. At the end of the six months, the family would be considered self-sufficient.
“I never imagined we would end up living in Italy. I thought the war would only last for two or three years, but the situation just gets worse,” comments Khalil as he tunes into an ArabicTV channel to get the latest news from Syria. “I hope people in Europe don´t think we are terrorists or extremists. We are here because we are running away from the conflict." Fatem adds: “We want a future for our children. That is why we are willing to learn a new language and adapt to different customs."
“Of course we will go back to Syria when the war ends,” Fatem says without the merest shadow of a doubt. “But if a long time passes and my children feel established here, we will only go back to visit. The stability of our family comes first."
"Humanitarian Corridors" project
Oxfam is joining this unique program to help Syrians find refuge in Europe without having to risk their lives. We are aiming to support 500 people from different regions in 2017 that are currently located in Lebanon, Morocco and Ethiopia.
However, there are still thousands of refugees stuck in Lebanon and elsewhere. You can help them have a better life by helping Oxfam to help them.