Leila couldn’t see the Turkish army snipers through the darkness late Sunday night, but when she heard warning shots, she knew it was time to run. She grabbed her two sons, four and six years old, and fled back into Syria, fearing the “live bullets” to come.
It was Leila’s third attempt in just two months to enter Turkey with her family from Syria’s western Idlib province in the hopes of rejoining her husband in Germany. If she can get to Turkey, she can then reach the nearest German embassy or consulate, and begin the process for obtaining a family reunification visa.
“I still have hope that I’ll succeed,” the 33-year-old tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani from the rural Idlib border village of Khirbet al-Jouz, where she has been staying with her husband’s friend ever since leaving her home city of Latakia in January. “The dream of seeing my husband again after all this time motivates me to keep trying.”
Faced with mandatory army conscription in regime-held Latakia, Leila’s husband was one of thousands of Syrians who travelled the risky Mediterranean Sea route from Turkey to Greece and, eventually, Germany in 2015. Now safe in the medieval Bavarian city of Regensburg, he is seeking family reunification visas—granted to spouses and children of asylum seekers in Germany—for his wife and two toddler-aged sons.
But the road to obtaining one, says Leila, is a nightmare.
Syrians wait at Khirbet al-Jouz to cross into Turkey, Sept. 2016. Photo courtesy of All4Syria.
Germany shut down its embassy in Damascus in 2012. The nearest German consulate for Leila is in Adana, Turkey. If she and her family can get there, they will have their visa interview. But first, they must travel over the Syrian-Turkish border, which is tightly guarded by Turkish army snipers.
Sniper attacks are a regular occurrence for Syrian asylum seekers vying to enter Turkey, a 2016 Human Rights Watch report found. Turkish border guards killed at least five people—including a child—and severely injured over a dozen more over the course of just one month in 2016, the report concluded.
Stressed out, broke and feeling the burden of wearing out her welcome, Leila says she is tired, both physically and emotionally.
“Every day here feels slower than the last, and it feels now as if I’ve been stuck here a thousand years.”
Q: You left your home city of Latakia two months ago, on January 10. Since then, how many times have you attempted to enter Turkey? Can you describe the process you go through to cross the border?
I’ve attempted crossing three times, and failed all three. The last time I tried was this past Sunday.
Every time I attempt the crossing, I pay a smuggler $700 to $1,200 per person. We are three people in total [Leila and her two sons]. We walk for hours, sneaking down a path that is used by human traffickers. This part of the journey is very difficult for my children.
These past two weeks, Turkish army snipers have killed at least one person trying to enter Turkey along the smuggling route. Whenever they sense any movement, the Turkish border guards shout out a warning that they will shoot, and if they notice that people have started to run, they start firing live bullets at them.
This makes people very desperate, fearing that their lives will end, along with their hopes and dreams.
It’s an unimaginably difficult position to be in. Even the money that we pay the smugglers is a struggle to scrape together. Some people pay everything that they have and go into debt procuring the money, pushing themselves into poverty and hunger.
I still have hope that I’ll succeed. Although I’m terrified that any possible mishap or accident could hurt my children, the dream of seeing my husband again after all this time motivates me to keep trying.
Q: The Turkish government closed the border crossing at Khirbet al-Jouz last September, following clashes between various factions over control of the Syrian side of the crossing. What prevents you from entering Turkey through the other nearby border crossing, Bab al-Hawa? Do you have the option to enter Lebanon instead of Turkey?
I can’t cross into Turkey from Bab al-Hawa because even though the authorities there do process paperwork for family reunification requests, those requests are only for people seeking to reunify with family members currently living in Turkey. My husband lives in Germany, so I’m not eligible to go through Bab al-Hawa.
[Ed.: Bab al-Hawa, a border crossing between Syria and Turkey, is located 55km northeast of Khirbet al-Jouz, and is controlled on the Syrian side by rebel factions, including Ahrar a-Sham and Failaq a-Sham.]
You can apply for a family reunification request at any German embassy in the world, but the only foreign countries immediately available to most Syrians to do this are Turkey and Lebanon.
My husband started communicating with the German embassies both in Lebanon and Turkey in June 2016, but in Turkey, the process moves more quickly because there are dedicated consulates and offices in almost every city.
[Ed.: In addition to the German embassy in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, there are German consulates in several major cities across Turkey, including Istanbul, Adana, Izmir and Antalya.]
As for Lebanon, there is only one embassy and the waiting list for an appointment can last over a year. My husband has friends who requested appointments in April 2016 and are still waiting to hear back about scheduling.
My children and I experienced the same issue. We approached the German embassy in Beirut back in June and still haven’t heard back from them.
In addition, Lebanon only allows 24 to 48 hours for people in my case to enter the country, undergo their visa interviews, and then return to Syria. And if it’s a successful interview, you then have to wait another six months to obtain the German visa, while Turkey gives out the visa only one month after the date of the interview.
Q: Describe what happened when the date of your scheduled interview passed on February 28, 2017. Do you need to return in order to set another appointment date?
Unfortunately, the date of my scheduled interview came and went, but thank God, I don’t need to start the case all over again. My husband communicated with the German embassy in Turkey and explained to them the situation—that I was stuck on the border, unable to enter, and we needed to delay the interview.
[The German embassy staff] told him that they are keeping their record of my interview appointment. That means that whenever I’m able to enter Turkey, they will renew my case with all of the previous paperwork and set up a new appointment.
Q: What is your living situation like right now? Are you able to return home to Latakia, if you wanted?
I’m exhausted—both physically and emotionally.
I’m staying with a family friend who is being more than generous. But how much longer can I stay in his house as a guest? This is wearing me out, and all I can think about is the extra costs I’m incurring for him while exhausting all his resources.
Even my sons are emotionally exhausted, and their freedom is very restricted. They live as if they are in prison in this small, simple village. There are no markets or playgrounds here, and it is dangerous to move around outside because of the threat of bombs or armed clashes.
For them, life in this village is very different from life in the city, and they’re always asking me: ‘When are we going to see Daddy? Why are we stuck here? Can we go back home?’
I feel the same way they do. I can’t cross into Turkey, or even return home to my city because I’m afraid of being arrested if I do. Every day here feels slower than the last, and it feels now as if I’ve been stuck here for a thousand years.