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Distance (Episode 5): Under one roof

In 2015, Haitham al-Kurdi made the dangerous journey from Syria to Denmark alone, planning to bring his wife and children later. Over the following eight years, his hopes were repeatedly dashed as Danish asylum policies tightened.

8 March 2023

When Haitham al-Kurdi fled Syria for Denmark in 2015, he promised his wife Maha that he would apply for family reunification and bring her and their children as soon as he could. But soon after he arrived, Danish immigration authorities began to tighten asylum policies.

The family has now been separated for eight years: Haitham and one son are in Denmark, while Maha and four other children are in Turkey.  

This is the fifth and final 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 Dana Sibaï, Rouba Onaissi and Ali Wanli.  This series was produced with financial support from the European Endowment for Democracy (EED).

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



HAITHAM AL-KURDI: When you are together with your children all the memories are nice. You see your son, kiss him, carry him, play with him, go buy things. You raise him. Aren’t these sweet memories? It hurts to remember. Everything is good, as long as you are with your family, together. 


ALICIA MEDINA (HOST): Haitham al-Kurdi gets emotional remembering family gatherings. 

He and his wife Maha have been married for 30 years. But for the last eight, they—and their children—have been separated from one another. 

Haitham lives in Denmark with his eldest son, Muhammad. Maha and their other four children are in Turkey. 

Since 2015, the family has been battling Danish asylum policies for a single purpose: to be together again, a family under one roof. 


MEDINA: This is the fifth and final 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: Haitham’s normal life as a bus driver in the Damascus suburbs quickly evaporated after the uprising broke out in 2011. 

As Bashar al-Assad cracked down on his opponents and armed resistance grew, the family’s neighborhood of Arbin grew more and more dangerous. After the opposition took control in 2012, clashes and regime bombings increased.

HAITHAM: Every day they’d come in—beating and killing. Every day 10 or 12 people died. Where can you stay? Life wasn’t safe anymore. You never knew when they’d take you at the checkpoints. 

MEDINA: Nour, the youngest of Haitham and Maha’s five children, was around three years old when the violence was at its worst.  

MAHA: It was the height of the war. All the time, we’d  have to leave the house and run, finding people dead in the street in front of us. Nour was the one who suffered the most. She was young, and very scared of the sounds of war.  

MEDINA: Haitham’s brother and nephew were killed by a pro-regime sniper in 2013. It felt like every day brought the news of yet another friend or relative killed.

To save their own lives, Haitham and his family decided to flee the country. 


MEDINA: In 2015, Haitham left on his own because they couldn’t afford to smuggle the whole family out, and he didn’t want to risk their lives.

HAITHAM: I should have brought my kids with me, but I didn’t have money and I was scared for them. Me dying was better than all of us dying. 

MEDINA: He fled to Turkey and crossed the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe in a small smuggler’s boat. That year, one million people from Syria and elsewhere made similar journeys.

And 803 people drowned trying to cross the Eastern Mediterranean to Greece that year, on the same route Haitham took.

Maha was against Haitham going alone, but she couldn’t persuade him otherwise.

MAHA: We were so scared for him. He said: ‘No I want to bring you there, I’ll bring you and do family reunification.’

MEDINA: She had reason to worry. Muhammad, their oldest son, nearly died crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy in 2013.

After Haitham fled, life got even more complicated for the rest of the family back in Syria. Syrian security services started harassing Maha, questioning why her husband left. 

So, two months later, she decided to leave, too, crossing the border from Syria to Turkey on foot with her children. Some of their fellow travelers died during the journey. 

Nour—who was 9 at the time, and is now 15—has vivid memories of the difficult journey. 

NOUR: I remember walking. Because I was really little, the dust on the ground was getting in my face, so they had to carry me. I saw dead people in bags. I was so scared, because I have a sensitive heart. It was really cold. I was wearing like four jackets. I didn’t eat for two days, without water. 

MEDINA: Maha and her children made it to Turkey, and settled there while they waited to join Haitham in Denmark.

Haitham arrived in Denmark in October 2015, at the height of refugee arrivals. In response, Danish authorities were tightening asylum rules.

HAITHAM: I spent nine months in a camp. They gave me a one year residency and told me: ‘You can’t apply for reunification for three years.’ One of my daughters was 17. In three years, she would be 20, and I couldn’t do reunification for her.   

MEDINA: In July 2016, Haitham received 7.3 protection status, a one-year residency permit that he could renew.  

The status, which is mostly given to Syrians in Denmark, applies to those who do not have an individual asylum claim, but fled because of the general situation in their country. If the authorities later decide they can return safely, they lose protection.

Only spouses and children under 18 are eligible for family reunification. Still, Haitham was hopeful he could bring his wife and two other children. 

During the three-year wait, Haitham continued his life in Copenhagen, together with his eldest son Muhammad, who was already in Europe. Muhammad married a Danish woman, and later had two daughters of his own. 

Meanwhile, Maha was with their two youngest children, Ahmad and Nour, in Afiun, Turkey. Their other two daughters, Dima and Rima, both married in Turkey and now live in Istanbul with their own children.

In 2019, the wait was up, so Haitham applied to bring Maha and their eligible children to Denmark.

HAITHAM: I requested family reunification for my kids, for Ahmad and Nour, and my wife. But they withdrew my residency and stopped my family reunification requests. You can’t do family reunification without residency.

MEDINA: In 2019, Denmark became the first and only country in Europe to decide that Damascus and its countryside were safe for Syrian refugees to return to. The country stripped residency permits from hundreds of Syrians with the same status as Haitham. 

Without residency, Haitham had two options: live in a departure center indefinitely or flee Denmark. 

In January 2021, he fled to Germany, but was caught five months later and sent back.

Back in Denmark, he  spent nine months in a departure center 350 km away from Copenhagen, in an isolated location with no access to public transportation. 

HAITHAM: It’s a prison, all fenced. You have to sleep there every day, and every 15 days you can apply to spend 2 nights outside the camp. If you’re not at the center, they take you to prison. It’s living like a dog. It would be better to live like a dog—dogs live better. 

MEDINA: Haitham fought to stay in Denmark. After six hearings at the Refugee Appeals Board and a case file of 680 pages, he finally got his residency back in June 2022. The first thing he did was to apply for family reunification again. 

By then, it was too late for his youngest son, Ahmad. 

HAITHAM: In June 2022, I requested family reunification. Ahmad was over 18—he was 20—so they didn’t let me request it for him. But I originally applied when he was 16 or 17. 

MEDINA: Then, Haitham applied again for Nour, who is now 15, and Maha. 

HAITHAM: After a while, they told me they want their Syrian passports in three months. I told them: ‘They don’t have them, they fled to Turkey, they’ve been in Afiun for six years.’ They said to send them a copy of the Turkish residency permit and they’d give me a response. To my surprise, they sent a rejection.

MEDINA: Haitham isn’t sure why his latest request was rejected. Nour doesn’t understand either.

NOUR: I was very sad because there was no reason to reject me. I’m under 18, and I really want to study there. It’s very difficult here, there’s a lot of bullying because I’m Syrian. I even learned a language. I tried to learn Danish but it didn’t work out, so I learned English.

MEDINA: The last time Haitham saw his family was five years ago, right before he lost residency in Denmark in 2019. He visited them in Turkey for 12 days.

NOUR: We went to a region in Turkey called Antalya. We were very happy. We spent 2 days there, and had a lot of fun. But we had to come back quickly, because he had to go back. His visa was ending.


MEDINA: Strict Danish asylum rules and visa restrictions have kept this family living apart for the last 8 years. The forced distance has taken a psychological toll.

HAITHAM: If not for WhatsApp, I would have killed myself. I see them, and they see me, but…. you know, can someone be apart from his wife for four, five years? And his young daughter and son? Can someone live that way? Can you be married over the phone?

MEDINA: His oldest daughters now have children of their own in Turkey, but he has never met his youngest grandchildren.

HAITHAM: Of course it’s hard. I’ve never seen my daughter’s daughter. It’s been four, five years since I saw anyone. It’s just me, sitting here. I see my son here and his two daughters, but those in Turkey—this will be the fifth year without seeing them. 

MEDINA: And Maha hasn’t met her youngest grandchild in Denmark. She met one of Muhammad’s daughters when he visited Turkey with his wife.

MAHA: I only saw the first girl, she was maybe five months old. Since then I haven’t seen them. She’s three years old now. The other girl, I have only seen her in photos.

MEDINA: Haitham is 62, and in poor health. He has high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, and is recovering from a back fracture. In December, he had surgery to replace the lens in one of his eyes. 

HAITHAM: I live by myself, sick and alone. Every day I take maybe 20 pills. There’s nobody to bring me them or cook for me. 

MEDINA: Maha has felt powerless, seeing her husband undergo medical procedures from afar, unable to take care of him.

MAHA: Once he called me, saying he was in the hospital, he’d gotten dizzy and collapsed. They were admitting him to intensive care. When he got out, he called me. When I saw him in the hospital, I couldn’t speak at all. I just started crying.

MEDINA: Loneliness, but also the responsibility of raising their children, weighs on Maha.

MAHA: You have to buy groceries, do everything. I have to look after the kids, watch out for them. True, my son is a young man, but it’s still hard.  I can’t sleep at night until he’s back and I know he’s okay. I can’t sleep if he’s out. I’ve taken on the role of both parents. You can’t do it. It’s really hard.  

MEDINA: Nour was eight when Haitham left. At 15, she still hasn’t gotten used to having a father only through phone calls or messages.

NOUR: When I became aware of the world,  my dad was far away, he had left. I don’t know him very well. When I started to understand things, my father was in Denmark. I didn’t live with him long, I’ve only ever lived with my mom. 

My friends tell me, ‘Yesterday we went out here or there with my dad.’ I don’t have that. I only have my mom. 

MEDINA: Maha and Nour are increasingly worried about their safety in Turkey. 

In recent years, Turkish authorities have arbitrarily deported hundreds of Syrian refugees. And ahead of the June 2023 elections, anti-Syrian rhetoric is at its height in a country that hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees. 

NOUR: If the security people say ‘we don’t want you here,’ they’ll send us back. Now there are Turkish elections and they’re saying if the president changes we’ll take off and go back to Syria. 

MEDINA: After eight years of separation from his family, Haitham has a message for Danish migration authorities.


HAITHAM: Put yourself in my place, even for five minutes, then think about what you’re doing to us. Live these eight years without a wife, with her in Turkey and you’re here. Get out of an operation and be alone, eating and drinking alone. You want me to work? Come take our place, just for five minutes. Could you take it?

MEDINA: Maha and Nour still can’t make sense of all the rejections they faced. 

NOUR: Shame on them. There was no reason to reject us.

MAHA: I hope they bring us, we have been very patient.

NOUR: They rejected my brother because he’s over 18. So why me? I’d go study, I’d benefit the country. I haven’t done anything wrong. I just don’t understand why. 

MEDINA: But they have imagined a happy future, one where they are able to reunite with Haitham in Denmark. 

MAHA: The important thing is for us to be together, to feel safe.  

NOUR: I’ve imagined a nice life with my dad, just living with my family. Maybe I’d get bullied because I am not Danish, but that’s fine. The important thing is a life with my mom and dad, at least. A life in a good country with my mom and dad, that’s it.

MEDINA: Haitham is less hopeful. Still, he hopes, and prays, for something simple: The chance to live with those he loves, under one roof. 

HAITHAM: I am afraid I’ll die without seeing them. I pray to God to live just a year or two with my wife and kids, under one roof, without any problems.


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