We often hear, read or watch in the news how the Syrian war has destroyed the country’s infrastructure, but behind these scenes of destruction lie stories of thousands of families who were disintegrated due to internal displacement among various Syrian cities or by seeking refuge abroad. They were forced to settle in the countries neighboring Syria or seek refuge in Europe, the United States and other countries.
In the Lebanese capital of Beirut where thousands of Syrian families live, almost all families have at least one member living abroad, either in Syria or in Europe. They all seek to be reunited, and many have been trying to find a way to reach Europe to join their children after they were left alone in this city. Others ask about the possibility of returning to Syria and wonder whether it is a good decision.
Dozens of Syrians gather daily near the Martyrs’ Square in Beirut to apply for a visa to Europe at an office that grants visas under strict requirements. Most of those interviewed by the Majalla correspondent there said that “video calls are no longer useful.”
“I want to see my son. He traveled in 2015 to Germany and already found asylum there, but he was unable to visit us in Lebanon because Beirut has repeatedly refused to grant him a visa,” said a Syrian man in his late 50s.
He said his son has a travel document but the Lebanese government refuses to grant visas to Syrians who possess only travel documents, so he decided to join his son.
“My son started working in 2017 after he sought asylum. He learned the German language, rented a house and got married, which allows him to apply for his parents to visit,” the man added, stressing that he wants to get to know his first grandson.
The Syrian man has applied for a visa to Germany, and the European office is scheduled to respond to his request about two weeks after receiving the application and all the required papers.
“I don't know if they will grant my request,” he said, “but my wife and I decided to give it a try and we have to wait for now.”
They have another option to meet their son, wife, and baby, but they will put it on hold for the present. In recent years, Erbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, has become the most accessible city for Syrian nationals. It offers a low cost travel visa within a few days. Therefore, it has become a major destination for Syrian family members who have not met for years.
The Majalla spoke to the owners of two airlines, who confirmed that “the financial crisis in Lebanon has increasingly introduced Syrians to Erbil.”
“Some Syrians who live in Beirut have traveled there in search of job opportunities, while many Syrians living in Europe ask us to provide visas for their relatives residing in Syria,” they said.
“We often grant travel visas through our offices in Damascus and Aleppo for Syrians, most of whom are elderly and want to meet their children residing in Europe,” they explained, adding that they then travel to Erbil from airports in Aleppo, Damascus and sometimes Beirut.
“Syrians residing in Europe can request visas to Erbil from European travel agencies for less than 100 euros,” they noted.
Because obtaining these visas is easy, Erbil has become a destination for disintegrated families to meet, they affirmed.
The Majalla also spoke to a young Syrian man who lives in the Netherlands and said he had worked in Erbil for years before settling in Amsterdam in 2015.
“I thought a lot about meeting my family after years of being separated,” he told the Majalla, yet he was not able to obtain a visa to enter Lebanon because he holds a travel document as per his asylum in the Netherlands.
“Therefore, the best option was for us all to travel to Erbil,” he said.
“I knew travel agencies in Erbil that would provide visas for me and my parents. Then I booked the airline tickets,” he added, noting that the whole trip cost him only $3,000, and he spent two weeks with his parents in the Kurdish capital.
This young Syrian is not the only one to arrive in Erbil to meet with his family members. Many others did so, especially after Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey put strict conditions for Syrians to obtain visas.
Erbil has also become a destination for Syrians to get married. In past years, Beirut was the main destination, yet the conditions set by the Lebanese government to obtain a visa have reduced the number of Syrians wishing to get married there.
In addition to that, the government has recently required that every Syrian wishing to enter its territory through the land crossings must have $2,000 in his possession.
A young Syrian woman who lives in Syria said she traveled to Erbil to finally reunite with her fiancé, who currently resides in Germany.
“We got married in Erbil, and then my fiancé translated the marriage contract and submitted it to the German authorities,” she told the Majalla, adding that she is now waiting for an appointment from the German consulate in Erbil to join her spouse.
Despite the lack of clear statistics on the number of Syrians who visit Erbil to meet their families or get married, travelers from Europe and Syria told the Majalla that “most of the planes heading to Erbil were almost always full of Syrian passengers.”
Erbil is not the only destination for Syrians to reunite. Some Syrians can visit Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to meet their families. However, their numbers are fewer compared to those who travel to Erbil, the Majalla learned from a source in an Istanbul-based Syrian airline.
“We are currently working to grant Turkish visas to holders of Syrian citizenship. Nevertheless, the high demand for visas to Erbil led to our cooperation with partners in the city to provide visas for those wishing to pay it a visit,” the airline owner told the Majalla.
The number of Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region is estimated at more than 250,000, and many of their family members in Syria and several European countries visit them every now and then.