Length: 20 minutes.
In 2012, Mayada fled Syria with her two sons, Adeeb and Rabieh. They settled in Lebanon, but in 2015, suffocated by growing restrictions against Syrians in Lebanon, Mayada fled to Sweden on her own. Her plan was to apply for family reunification and, in a matter of months, bring then-11-year-old Rabieh and 16-year-old Adeeb to Sweden. It didn’t work out.
Swedish authorities rejected Mayada’s family reunification application. After several appeals, Rabieh was accepted and traveled to Sweden in 2019, but Adeeb was left behind—he turned 18 before Swedish authorities reached a final decision.
Mayada and Adeeb have not seen each other for seven years. This is the story of how one Syrian family has navigated prolonged absence and frustrating asylum policies.
“Twice left behind” is the first episode of “Distance,” the second season of Syria Direct’s podcast “Qayd.” This series tells the stories of Syrians who reached safety in Europe and applied for family reunification, but fell through the cracks of asylum rules. It is also about those they left behind.
This podcast was produced by Alicia Medina and edited by Mateo Nelson, illustration by Rami Khoury, and a soundtrack by Eli Ishac and Carol Abi Ghanem. Narrated by Alicia Medina. Dubbing in English by Samer Dada and Ola Muchref. This series was produced with financial support from the European Endowment for Democracy (EED).
MAYADA: My name is Mayada, I’m from Damascus, Syria.
ADEEB HOJA: My name is Adeeb Hoja, I’m 23, from Damascus.
MAYADA: I don’t want a life without my children.
ADEEB: I haven’t seen her since she left in 2015.
ALICIA MEDINA (HOST): This is the first episode of “Distance,” a podcast by Syria Direct. This series explores how Syrian families have navigated years of separation after they received asylum or another protection status, but were denied family reunification.
What happens when the plans of a mother to unite with her children, or a wife with her husband, never materialize? What happens to those who get left behind?
This is a story of those who fall through the cracks of European asylum systems.
MAYADA: Hi, hello?
MEDINA: That’s Mayada, speaking from Oxie Malmö, Sweden.
ADEEB: Hello, can you hear me?
MEDINA: And that’s her son, Adeeb, sitting in a coffee shop in Saida, Lebanon. For the last seven years, three thousand kilometers and multiple borders have kept them apart.
(NEWS CLIP: We return to the latest powder keg in the Middle East, Syria…)
MEDINA: In 2011, thousands of Syrians took to the streets to protest the rule of Bashar Al Assad. (PROTESTERS CHANTING) Protests faced brutal repression, and a war broke out that continues to this day. (CHANTING)
Back then, Mayada was living with 6-year-old Rabieh, and 11-year-old Adeeb, in Midan, Damascus. She divorced her husband in 2009, and he hasn’t really been in the picture since then.
Mayada worked in a pharmacy, and they were doing all right
MAYADA: My kids were very good at school. My son Adeeb was first in his class. I worked as a pharmacist. I didn’t have a pharmacy, but I could get by and provide for my children.
MEDINA: As violence spread, at first Mayada didn’t want to leave their home in Midan. But the clashes crept closer, and the family fled to Mayada’s aunt’s house just outside Damascus. Adeeb has vivid memories from that time.
ADEEB: I remember a tank came once and fired on the protestors. Fifty people were killed. It was close by, we were maybe 500 meters from the tank when it fired. The whole house shook. We were children. Me, my brother and my cousins were crying. We hid under the tables.
MEDINA: Later they moved to another aunt’s house, near Darayya, a town in south Damascus.
ADEEB: From the balcony, we saw the helicopters dropping barrel bombs on Darayya. We were close to it, you could see the bombs falling, the explosion. It shook the building.
MEDINA: In 2012, as the uprising turned to war, Mayada got a permit from a judge to take her kids to Lebanon against her ex-husband’s wishes. For six months, they traveled back and forth between Lebanon and Syria. At first, Adeeb kept going to school in Syria, but war got in the way.
ADEEB: Every week a student from my class would get kidnapped and disappear.
MEDINA: In 2012, an average of 100 civilians were killed everyday in Syria.
ADEEB: There were 100 checkpoints between my school and my house, and at every checkpoint, I was stopped and searched. They asked what’s your name, etcetera.
MEDINA: Mayada decided they would stay in Lebanon.
(STREET SOUNDS IN LEBANON)
MEDINA: For a while, life in Lebanon felt somewhat normal. Mayada worked at a pharmacy, and Adeeb was again, according to his mother, the top of his class. Still, Mayada hoped to return to Syria, and even planned to open a pharmacy there.
MAYADA: A friend and I, we were working on opening a pharmacy together. She was doing the paperwork and the décor, ordering products. I wanted to go back. I never thought I’d leave my country one day—not one percent.
MEDINA: But her hope to see things fixed in Syria, and to return home, faded as months and years passed by. By 2015, Syria’s war was at its height. The Islamic State had emerged, and controlled vast territories.
And Lebanon, a country of six million people, hosted one million Syrian refugees. That year, Lebanese authorities started to crack down on Syrian refugees, restricting where they could work. Mayada was banned from working as a pharmacist. Things got hard. They moved to a cheaper house, Mayada got a second job, but it wasn’t enough.
MAYADA: I reached the point where I couldn’t buy meat. We came from a family that was well off, comfortable. We could consider ourselves, like, high class. But we reached the point where I couldn’t afford meat for my children.
ADEEB: My mom knew straight away that we didn’t have a future in this country, no matter how hard we tried to coexist and integrate.
MEDINA: To give her sons a future, Mayada felt she had to take a risk, to go to Europe.
MEDINA: Her mind set, Mayada sat with Adeeb and Rabieh. Together, they planned the steps to go to Europe.
MAYADA: I sat with them. I told them: ‘I’m going to travel, and it’ll be a while before I can bring you. Are you ready for a tough job?’ They said: ‘We’re ready.’ So I asked them: ‘What country do you want?’ Everyone was telling me to go to Germany, but they said: ‘We don’t want Germany, we want to go to Sweden.’
MEDINA: For a week, Adeeb and Rabieh Googled countries, looking for one that seemed like it could be their home.
ADEEB: We researched information about migrating, and found that Sweden was the best country when it came to work, its humanity, human rights. We saw that family reunification was possible, that if someone gets there, they can bring the rest of the family.
Some people tell me: ‘Your mom left you.’ They don’t get it. My mom didn’t just leave me. She left me with her mother, brother and sister. The idea was: ‘It’ll take a year, and you’ll be with me.’
MEDINA: This was the plan: Mayada would leave Adeeb and Rabieh with their uncle and grandma, and in a matter of months they would all be together in Sweden. When Mayada left, Adeeb was 16.
ADEEB: The last day with her was a day full of tears. All of us were crying—my mom, grandma, brother and I. But I tried to show her that I’m strong. If I wanted to cry, I wouldn’t cry in front of her, so she wouldn’t feel guilty. I didn’t want her to decide not to leave.
MEDINA: On October 1st 2015, Mayada stepped into the Beirut airport. There, she found out her residency expired a couple months ago. She was banned from returning to Lebanon.
MAYADA: When I stepped on the plane, I had a paper saying ‘forbidden to return to Lebanon.’ Even if I changed my mind and wanted to go back, I was forbidden to enter into Lebanese territory. It’s like that saying by Tarek bin Ziad: The enemy is in front of you, and the sea behind you—burn the ships. It was impossible. I couldn’t turn back.
MEDINA: Mayada flew to Turkey, where she got in a smugglers’ boat and reached Greece. From there, she flew to Paris, then Copenhagen. Finally, she took a train to Sweden. The whole trip cost $5,000.
MEDINA: All European Union countries share a broad policy that asylum seekers can bring their family members over to reunite with them. It’s called the European Union Family Reunification Directive of 2013. But each individual country sets different regulations about how and when that can happen.
In Sweden, adults can apply for underage children to join them. On paper, Mayada could bring her kids to Sweden since they were under 18. The summer Mayada arrived in Sweden, in 2015, the country received the highest number of asylum seekers per capita in Europe: 163,000 people, a third of them Syrians.
Mayada felt welcomed. In Sweden, she was hosted in nice wooden cabins next to a lake north of Stockholm. She got cash assistance, was helped by local volunteers and started learning Swedish. Soon, she was interning at a pharmacy
A year later, in 2016, she got a temporary residency permit and an interview with migration authorities. Adeeb was 17, the clock was ticking.
MAYADA: I left my son when he was 16 years old. I got residency after a year. He was 17 when I applied for family reunification for my two sons. But then, during the waiting period and investigation, Adeeb turned 18.
MEDINA: Many friends had suggested she fake Adeeb’s birth certificate, but Mayada had faith in Swedish authorities.
MAYADA: Imagine, when I came here to Sweden everybody told me: ‘Mayada, fake the date of Adeeb’s birth certificate, make him one or two years younger so you can bring him.’ I didn’t accept that, because I am against lies. I told them: ‘No, he’s now 17, of course he will come, it is a humane country.’
MEDINA: But Swedish authorities rejected Mayada’s reunification application for Rabieh and Adeeb, because she had a temporary residency permit, not a permanent one.
To get permanent residency, she needed a permanent work contract. But to get that, she needed a Swedish language certificate, which she still didn’t have. Her work contract at the pharmacy was temporary, and sponsored by the state: 80 percent of her salary was paid by Swedish authorities, and 20 percent by the pharmacy. By law, to apply for family reunification, one needs a permanent residency permit, or a temporary one that could be extended for a longer period.
Mayada appealed her rejection three times. In 2019, Rabieh—then 14—was finally accepted and traveled to Sweden. Adeeb was rejected.
MAYADA: Imagine, it was one in the morning. I opened the mailbox and found a letter from the migration services. I found my son Adeeb’s rejection.I called my friend in Spain, crying. I was devastated. She thought something had happened to my children. She said: ‘Mayada, what is it?’ I told her: ‘My son isn’t coming.’ We spent 2 hours on the phone. I couldn’t sleep that night, and the next day I lost my voice, so I couldn’t go to work. I came down with a fever, and spent a week in bed.
MEDINA: Mayada hasn’t seen her son since 2015.
MAYADA: My sons are part of me. I came to a European country because of what we hear about laws protecting children, protecting women. I came hoping to live here with my children. No mother in the world wants to be far from their children. But to this moment, I’m fighting for my son Adeeb to come here. I don’t want a life without my children.
ADEEB: I haven’t seen her since she left in 2015.
MEDINA: It has been hard for Adeeb to deal with his mother’s absence.
ADEEB: At first, I tried to learn how not to miss her. Because it’s like they say, missing someone, longing for them, kills. It’s torturous. As much as I could, I tried to get rid of my feelings. I tried to avoid missing her. I wouldn’t speak with her, so I wouldn’t remember she’s gone. A week would go by without us talking. I kept myself busy with work, studies, to avoid remembering that my mom is far away from me, to forget that we were rejected and couldn’t leave.
After I got over this feeling, I’ve gone in the opposite direction. Now I talk to her much more than before. We call or video chat twice a day, or if I’m busy I send her voice messages or texts.
MEDINA: Since Adeeb came to terms with Mayada’s absence, the two try to keep up with each other’s lives via WhatsApp.
MAYADA: I tell him anything that’s going on with me, so that he feels he’s still a member of the family, that distance doesn’t mean you’re far from us. I tell him every detail of the house, and if I want to move I send him pictures of the new place. If I buy furniture, I tell him: ‘Look, I bought this’ or ‘today I went to such-and-such place,’ or ‘so-and-so came to the house’ or ‘we did this today.’
MEDINA: But some days, loneliness swallowed Adeeb. Like at his graduations.
(RECORDING FROM ADEEB’S GRADUATION
ANNOUNCER: Adeeb Muhammad Yassin Hoja with distinction
MUSIC AND CHEERS)
ADEEB: When I graduated from baccalaureate, and then from university, you’d see how everyone has their family with them. I was the only one sitting alone. Everyone has their dad, mom, brothers. You feel like, ‘I’m the exception.’ Times like this, you feel like you’d sell the whole world to be with your mom, with your family.
MEDINA: From far away, Mayada tried to remind him he wasn’t truly alone.
MAYADA: On his birthdays, I would contact someone to give him money and I’d buy him cake. I’d organize a surprise party.
ADEEB: She’d buy me cake and food, and do a surprise party. We’d have a video call, and it felt like she was with me. I felt that she was there. She always made me feel that way
MEDINA: But at his friends’ birthdays, Adeeb felt very alone.
ADEEB: When their family organized a party, it’s times like that I remember that it’s been seven years or more, and I don’t live in a family atmosphere. I don’t have someone when I wake up, to have breakfast with, to ask me how my day was, what I did.
MEDINA: Mayada is proud of both her sons, and how they dealt with life and her absence. And while she could not be there, when any problems came up, she tried to help.
MAYADA: I’d call my friends there or contact the source of the problem directly. I’d say: ‘What are you doing? Don’t think the kid is on his own. If you do something wrong, you’ll pay a high price’ and so on.
MEDINA: Years of separation took a toll on Mayada, but she didn’t feel she had the luxury of breaking down.
MAYADA: When you are in this position, if you keep crying and you keep burdening the kid emotionally, you will weaken him. You have to stand up on your feet, because they depend on you. You are the wall, the land they stand on. If you’re weak, on birthdays for example, they will become weaker. They’ll break.
MEDINA: The first time Sweden rejected both brothers, Adeeb, 16 at the time, didn’t know how to handle Rabieh’s despair.
ADEEB: When my brother was rejected, he cried a lot. I was 15 or 16, I wasn’t at the age where I was able to give him affection, I felt my hands were tied. I couldn’t give him the support, the emotional support, that a mom would give. His sadness made my sadness deeper.
MEDINA: In 2019, Rabieh was accepted and left for Sweden. Adeeb was happy for him.
ADEEB: When my brother got the approval, I was relieved. I didn’t feel like—why him and not me. My brother was 10 or 11 when my mother left, so he was the one who needed my mom the most–the care of a mom, the things a mom teaches you. When my mom left, I was 15 or 16, I was an age where I already had a connection between me and my mom.
MEDINA: In 2022, Rabieh became a Swedish citizen. Today, he’s considering his university options. Adeeb works as a software engineer at a tech company in Beirut. He is still looking for a way out of Lebanon, through a work or student visa.
ADEEB: I’ve faced a lot of rejection in my life. Not only with what happened with family reunification. I’ve been rejected by more than 10 scholarships. Rejection after rejection after rejection. You reach a point where it doesn’t really affect you anymore.
MEDINA: He applied for UN resettlement after Rabieh left, but was rejected. He doesn’t know why.
ADEEB: I feel there’s a mistake in the selection criteria for resettlement. I know more than 10 people who live with their family, and they got a call telling them they were accepted for resettlement, and they hadn’t even applied. I know more than ten people who got a call saying: ‘Hello, do you want to go to Canada?’ And they were like: ‘No, thanks.’
MEDINA: Adeeb still dreams of Europe, not as a refugee, but as a student or worker.
MAYADA: He told me: ‘Mama I want to apply for university, or start a company with my friends. I don’t want to be treated like a refugee.’ He feels rejected. You feel like a whole country has rejected you over and over again, so he has taken a stance.
ADEEB: I have hope that I will reach Europe, but I don’t know when. Most likely, once I build up enough experience here in Lebanon, as a software engineer. I see a lot of people like me. Once they have three years of experience, they can get a work contract and relocate. So it might take time. If I can get the money, I could travel and study in the UK or Germany.
MEDINA: Adeeb has a message to Swedish authorities.
ADEEB: I don’t think they can imagine our situation outside Sweden, maybe because they have never been in this situation. They can’t put themselves in the shoes of a child far from his mom, in Lebanon or Syria. Can’t imagine what it’s like, what he eats, where he lives, how he sleeps, if he cries every day, if he’s sad every day.
MEDINA: For both Mayada and Adeeb, Syria is not home anymore. (MUSIC) Mayada has found a sense of home, although incomplete without her son, in Sweden.
MAYADA: Go back to Damascus? No, never. I love Sweden, I love Swedish people.
MEDINA: But she sometimes regrets her choice to go to Sweden. She wonders if she chose another country, would she be with her sons?
MAYADA: I wished I went to Canada. Honestly I regretted it. I wished I hadn’t listened to them and left for Canada. First, it’s an English-speaking country, there’s no other language. And second, family reunification there was easier.
MEDINA: Adeeb is still looking for a place to call home.
ADEEB: For me, for now, there’s no such thing as a home. Anywhere I submit an application that has “stateless” as one of the options, that’s what I click. I have no home.
MEDINA: After years of rejection and loneliness, Adeeb is still waiting for another word to lead him home: approved.