10 min read

Distance (Episode 4): Dad is on the phone

Khaled and his three-year-old daughter Jawahir have only ever met on the phone. She was not yet born when he fled Syria in 2018, aiming to apply for family reunification with his wife and their daughter. But they missed a bureaucratic deadline, and for three years the family has been in limbo.

6 February 2023

Length: 14:46 minutes.

In 2018, Khaled fled Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, promising Suzanne, his then-pregnant wife, that they would reunite in Europe in a matter of months. After a tortuous migration journey, he received asylum in Belgium in 2019. But three years later, Khaled has yet to meet his daughter. 

To apply for family reunification, Suzanne and their daughter undertook a risky and costly journey of their own—from Idlib to Turkey—for an interview with the Belgian embassy there. But the date the embassy set for the interview was after the deadline for applying, and they were rejected.

This is the fourth episode of “Distance,” the second season of Syria Direct’s podcast “Qayd.” This series tells the story 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, with illustrations by Rami Khoury, and a soundtrack by Eli Ishac and Carol Abi Ghanem. It was narrated by Alicia Medina, with dubbing in English by Samer Dada, Ola Muchref and Fadia Akli. This series was produced with financial support from the European Endowment for Democracy (EED).

All episodes of “Distance” will be available on SoundCloud, Spotify and Google Podcasts.



JAWAHIR (IN ARABIC): Daddy. How are you Daddy?


KHALED: Hi, how are you? 

SUZANNE: Tell him ‘I miss you.’

JAWAHIR (IN ARABIC): I miss you.

SUZANNE: She says she wants you. 

JAWAHIR (IN ARABIC): Talk with Daddy. 

SUZANNE: She says she wants to talk to you. She sends you a kiss!


ALICIA MEDINA (HOST): Khaled has only met his daughter Jawahir through a phone screen. He fled Syria in 2018, when his wife Suzanne was pregnant. He hoped to reach Belgium and bring them to Europe through family reunification in a matter of months. Three years later, they still aren’t together.

This is the fourth 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.


MEDINA: When the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011, Khaled was twelve years old. He was used to a comfortable life. For security reasons, Khaled and his family asked to be identified by their first names only.

KHALED: My father had wholesale shops, we had cars and shipped to Daraa, Suwayda, Quneitra, many provinces. We had land and houses in Idlib my father built. I’m telling you, our economic situation was good, we had money. But when the war started, we lost a lot. The cars were confiscated, we were completely broke.

MEDINA: The family lived in Damascus, but they were originally from Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.  As the uprising gave way to civil war, Khaled’s normal life faded away.

Their native Idlib soon became an opposition stronghold, first controlled by rebels, then by hardline Islamist groups. Khaled says his family was harassed by pro-regime forces in Damascus because they were from Idlib.

KHALED: In Damascus, the regime harassed us because we were from Idlib. They killed my uncle in Idlib. Syria is no joke, and they knew [we were from there] so they harassed us a lot in Damascus.

MEDINA: To escape the harassment, in 2014 the family returned to their home village, in southern Idlib. There, in the span of two years, Khaled lost two of his brothers, aged 12 and 18.

KHALED: Both of them died under shelling, one in an airstrike and the other in a missile strike on our village.

MEDINA: His grandfather was also killed by an airstrike, while he was in the village market, buying cherries. 


MEDINA: To escape the constant threat of death from the skies, in 2016, 17-year old Khaled fled to Turkey. He worked and sent money back to his family, and occasionally returned to Idlib to visit them. It was in 2018, during one of these visits, that he met Suzanne. The two married, but soon parted ways.

KHALED: I stayed with her less than a year—10 months. There was a shelling campaign, so her family was displaced to the border with Turkey—and I started my journey towards Europe.  

MEDINA: Khaled left Syria for the last time in the spring of 2019. Suzanne, then five months pregnant, stayed behind with her family.

KHALED: The decision was the best I could make. There was nothing left in Syria, no life, only destruction. Being alive just means you haven’t died yet. Some people say it’s better if you die, easier than this life of hunger, bombing—a life without the bare essentials.

MEDINA: Lured by the success stories he had  heard about refugees reaching Europe and bringing their families to join them, the soon-to-be father took his chance. 

KHALED: What people told me, people in Europe, and what I heard, they made it sound so easy. They told me: ‘Your family will be with you in eight months, you’ll get residency in two months, then you apply for family reunification, and they help you with money so she can reach Turkey.’ I believed them. They really sugar-coated it. None of it turned out to be true for me. 

MEDINA: Suzanne was never fully on board with the plan. 

SUZANNE: I wasn’t convinced. Because he was going to leave me, while I was pregnant. 

MEDINA: But Khaled was determined to go. It took him two months to cross the land border from Idlib to Turkey, and then cross to Greece. Unable to pay for his journey to Belgium, he worked in Greek restaurants and construction sites to save up money. And in September of that year, Suzanne gave birth to their daughter, Jawahir.

KHALED: In Greece, when I started working I was happy, because I could provide for my family in Syria, for my wife and daughter. I became responsible.  I was happy, they were happy. I was still under all this pressure, but you have to surrender to reality.

MEDINA: After working in Greece for a year and a half, Khaled was able to pay for the rest of his journey. He was detained for several days in Serbia, Romania and Hungary, but finally reached Belgium at the end of 2020.


MEDINA: In January 2021, a couple of months after Khaled reached Belgium, he got refugee status. The next step was to reunite with his wife and daughter.

Under Belgian law, refugees must complete their family reunification request in the year after they receive refugee status. After that year, the requirements to apply are much more strict, and often lead to years of separation.

Twelve months seems like enough time, especially since other European countries have a three-month limit. But to complete the application, Suzanne had to reach a Belgian embassy to do an interview, and Belgium has no embassy in Syria. Some countries accept interviews online, but not Belgium. 

So, the family spent eight months gathering the money to smuggle Suzanne and Jawahir into Turkey. 

KHALED: They crossed the border after trying to smuggle them out for eight months.  It wasn’t working. I had to pay $7,500 dollars to get them out through the border crossing. Turkish officials let them cross. It was a huge amount of money for us. My father sold land and his car to raise the money. 

MEDINA: For Suzanne, the months she spent waiting near the border were unbearable.

SUZANNE: I was in a camp, no one brought me food or drink. I struggled a lot. I was with my daughter, and nobody helped me.  

MEDINA: On top of the money needed to cross the border, they had to pay someone to go to Damascus and retrieve documents—a birth certificate for their daughter, a marriage license, and so on. It was too risky for Suzanne to go to regime areas herself.

SUZANNE: I was in a camp, no one brought me food or drink. I struggled a lot. I was with my daughter, and nobody helped me.  

MEDINA: On top of the money needed to cross the border, they had to pay someone to go to Damascus and retrieve documents—a birth certificate for their daughter, a marriage license, and so on. It was too risky for Suzanne to go to regime areas herself.

KHALED: We paid someone to go to the regime areas and get our papers while we were absent, we paid $500, so my wife and daughter didn’t have to go there. But it was all official—the family ledger, the marriage certificate, birth certificate.  

MEDINA: In December 2021, Suzanne arrived in Turkey, within the 1 year limit. The family asked for an appointment at the Belgian embassy in Ankara, which told them to come in February 2022, 2 weeks after the deadline. But Khaled and Suzanne didn’t give it a second thought, because it was the embassy itself that gave them that date.

SUZANNE: When I went to the embassy, I honestly felt  very good. I thought I would join him and get family reunification within six months. When I finished the interview, I thought I would reunite with him.

MEDINA: Four months later, they were rejected.

KHALED: I was shocked.  I read the email saying we were rejected, I was in shock.

SUZANNE: When my husband told me we were rejected, I started crying and told him I want to go back to my family. I was living in the hope of reuniting with him, I was waiting for him for so long.

MEDINA: With the one-year limit expired, Khaled and Suzanne could reapply, but the bar would be higher. Khaled would need to have health insurance, housing and a stable income. 

KHALED: It’s very, very difficult, your salary has to be more than 1,830 euros. It’s very difficult for me because of the places where I work. I’ve been looking for a work contract for five months, and I haven’t found one.

MEDINA: They’ve appealed and their case is under study. But each day that passes takes a toll on the young family. 



KHALED: Did you break the phone? How did you break it? 

SUZANNE: How did you break the phone? 

JAWAHIR (IN ARABIC): I want to talk to Dad. 

SUZANNE: She says she wants to talk to Dad. 

MEDINA: Jawahir is growing up, and has yet to meet her father.

KHALED: I haven’t seen my daughter. I don’t know. This feeling in my heart,  the problem with this feeling is too much, is so bad.  It’s difficult. 

MEDINA: For Jawahir, the phone and her father are one and the same.

KHALED: She recognizes me, she already speaks very well. My  daughter is very clever. I don’t talk to her every day, but she knows me very well—knows I’m her dad.  Sometimes when I call, she’s the one holding the phone, so she opens the call and straight away says: ‘Mom, it’s Dad.’

MEDINA: For Suzanne, raising her daughter alone has been tough.

SUZANNE: Since my husband left, I’ve felt weak. I call him and ask: ‘when can you do family reunification, I want to be with you.’ Whenever he calls, his daughter says: ‘Daddy, I want to be where you are, I miss you, I want you. She asks where Dad is, why he’s far away. I tell her: ‘Dad is traveling, tomorrow we’ll go to him.’

MEDINA: Turkey has become a waiting room for Suzanne, far from her husband in Belgium, and far from her family in Idlib. And conditions for Syrian refugees in Turkey have sharply deteriorated in recent years, with discriminatory attacks and deportation numbers on the rise. 

SUZANNE: I’ve been in Turkey for a year. I don’t have an ID.If my daughter gets sick, no one can take her. I only have God. We don’t go out,  because we don’t have papers and are afraid of deportation. Life is hard, and expensive. 

MEDINA: The situation has also taken a toll on Khaled’s relationship with his family in Idlib. They saw others bringing their families to join them in Europe and sending money to their relatives in Syria, so they expect him to do the same.

KHALED: When all this happened to me, my relationship was cut with everybody—my family, siblings. I don’t talk to anybody anymore, only my wife and daughter. I have to, they’re stuck because of me.

MEDINA: Khaled wishes for more humanity in family reunification criteria.

KHALED: I don’t know. In the end, we are people—we’re not made of stone. They should have a bit of humanity. The judges looking at family reunification cases, they know my whole case. It’s shameful.

People have been destroyed. Destroyed. They should make changes for these people. It’s a shame. These people were destroyed in Syria, and come here for us to finish the job? I didn’t want to come to Europe in the first place, but I reached a point where I couldn’t turn back, not even a little.

MEDINA: After his application was rejected, Khaled got in touch with Caritas Belgium, an NGO working on refugee issues, and their team is helping him through the appeal process. He’s glad for their help, but isn’t optimistic.

KHALED: Thanks to them I have a bit of hope, but overall, no, I have no hope. I suffered a lot, I was beaten down. I can’t imagine even a little bit of happiness. The day before yesterday, I went online and searched for news about Idlib. It was bombed, and two children and a man in his forties died. 

MEDINA: But in November 2022, the day before our interview with Suzanne was recorded, a judge in Belgium canceled the family’s rejection by migration authorities, and reopened their case. Suzanne is optimistic for the first time in a long time.

SUZANNE: Honestly I didn’t have hope to reunite with him, but after this news from yesterday I have some hope.


MEDINA: And with that hope, Khaled is already planning for the day he, Suzanne and Jawaher finally reunite in Belgium.

KHALED: I’ll take her to lots of shops, to Bruges, to Namur. Namur is very nice. 

MEDINA: There’s space for hope.

SUZANNE: It’s a great feeling, the thought of me and my daughter reuniting with my husband.

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