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Greece: Refugee Mothers and Daughters Seek Reunion in E.U.

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Makbola Kemal Ahmed, a Syrian Kurd from Afrin, stands outside the tent she lived in at Idomeni Camp with her 18-month-old daughter Turqia. Makbola's husband traveled to Europe when Makbola was pregnant and is now living in Germany. He still hasn't met his young daughter. Makbola and Turquia followed later, traveling with her brother and his wife, but they got stuck in Greece when the Balkan Route closed. Image by Jodi Hilton. Greece, 2016.

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Zeyneb Omer, a 13-year-old Syrian girl from Aleppo, speaks with her mother over Skype, as her father sits nearby. She hasn’t seen her mother for more than eight months, and she’s stranded in Greece with her father and younger sister. Her father Ziyad was a shoemaker in Syria. He explained, “We heard that when women go to Europe, they are taken better care of,” so the family decided to send Zeyneb’s mother and younger brother ahead last year. They reached the Netherlands, but the reunification procedure can’t even start until Zeyneb’s mother is granted asylum status, which could take another four months. Image by Jodi Hilton. Greece, 2016.

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Zeyneb stands in front of the tent she lived in at Idomeni Camp, after weeks of cold rain. Her tent had flooded with water the previous night. The family had sent her mother and younger brother ahead to Western Europe, hoping that they would be reunified soon. Zeyneb’s mother and brother reached the Netherlands, but are still waiting for asylum there. A few days after Zeyneb, her sister, and father arrived in Greece, they found themselves stranded after the Balkan Route closed. Image by Jodi Hilton. Greece, 2016.

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Nofa Jamial, 40, a Yazidi woman from Shengal, Iraq and mother of five, waits for a bus to take her family to Petra Camp, which was opened exclusively for Yazidis. In 2014, ISIS overtook Yazidi villages, slaughtering men and abducting women and children. ISIS has captured many women and kept them as sexual slaves.Nofa’s eldest son was captured in the ISIS raid, and her husband was able to escape, traveling ahead of the family to Germany. Nofa and her other children stayed back and lived in a tent at an IDP camp in Iraqi Kurdistan for more than a year. With long wait times for E.U. family reunification programs, a second wave of immigrants are deciding to travel with smugglers instead of waiting for legal procedures. Image by Jodi Hilton. Greece, 2016.

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Shereen (left), an 85 year-old Yazidi grandmother, escaped the ISIS onslaught of Yazidi villages in Shengal, Iraq. Here, she waits in a tent at Idomeni camp, before the camp was closed in May. On her right is a young Syrian refugee living in the same tent. One of Shereen’s two grown sons is in Germany, and the other is in Sweden. Her nephew said he and his family helped bring her to Europe. “We carried her on our back during parts of the journey,” he said. Yazidis are leaving Iraq en masse. “We can’t live with the Muslims, it’s not safe for Yazidi people,” he explained. Image by Jodi Hilton. Greece, 2016.

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Moayad Saad, a civil servant from Baghdad, Iraq, with his seven-month-old daughter Zehraa. “We are always together,” he said. Months earlier, when his family was trying to cross from Turkey to Greece, chaos broke out as people scrambled to board a rubber boat. He grabbed his baby daughter to protect her, but in the mayhem, the two of them never made it into the boat. It took him a month to get on another boat, since Turkish police kept stopping refugee boats from leaving.
Meanwhile, Moayad’s wife and four older children made it to Sweden. He and his infant daughter arrived in Idomeni after the border crossing into Macedonia closed. Their family reunification process can’t begin until his wife receives refugee status, which is not guaranteed for Iraqis. Image by Jodi Hilton. Greece, 2016.

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Zeyneb, her father, and younger sister lived in a tiny tent on a muddy field in Idomeni for more than a month. Then, a church group sponsored them and provided them with this room to live in, legal support, clothing and food. Image by Jodi Hilton. Greece, 2016.

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Makbola and her daughter Turqia play inside the tent where they stayed until a few weeks ago, when Idomeni camp was cleared out. Smugglers got them to Serbia, and they are hoping to reach Germany in the coming days. Image by Jodi Hilton. Greece, 2016.

When I first met 13-year-old Zeyneb Omer, she was shivering next to a smoldering fire, dressed in a thin blue and yellow raincoat. It was a cold, rainy day in March 2016 in Idomeni, where 14,000 immigrants had created a makeshift camp in Greece next to the Macedonian border. In May, Greek police closed this camp, relocating refugees via bus to locations elsewhere in Greece.

She and her 7-year-old sister, Diana, and their father, Ziyad, hoped to reach her mother and brother in the Netherlands. Zeyneb and her family are part of a large second wave of immigrants and refugees who are trying to reunite with family members already in Europe.

Zeyneb’s family fled Aleppo, Syria, in 2014. They didn’t have funds for everyone to travel together, so the family decided Zeyneb’s mother would go first. So last fall, her mother, Zahera, and 5-year-old brother traveled to Europe. “We heard that when women go to Europe, they are better cared for,” said Ziyad through an interpreter. Her mother and brother arrived in the Netherlands in October 2015.

Nearly a third of approximately 54,000 asylum seekers stuck in Greece are trying to reunite with a family member already in Europe, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. That’s 44% of Syrians and 19% of Afghans who are trying to reach family.

Desperate after months of waiting, Ziyad borrowed money to pay a smuggler and brought his two daughters to Greece, where they planned to retrace his wife’s trail to the Netherlands. “I’m not asking for much, I just want a good future for my children, a brilliant future, for them to get educated,” he said.

All that changed this spring when Europe closed the Balkan route, a corridor for refugees traveling from Greece to Germany.

Family reunification is a thorny issue for E.U. politicians. According to some estimates, almost all of the 1.25 million immigrants who requested asylum in Europe last year could bring between four to eight family members. That means up to 4.8 million additional immigrants could make their way to Europe over the next years, according to Migration Watch U.K.

Since 2015, the Netherlands has received more than 47,000 asylum requests. Of those, 13,845 people reunited with a family member who had already obtained a permit to stay in the Netherlands. But new E.U. policies have attempted to slow down reunions.

In the Netherlands, where Zeyneb’s mother anxiously awaits her family, reunification policies have become stricter recently, according to the Dutch Council for Refugees. Since laws changed last November, the Dutch have up to nine months to decide if refugees meet the qualifications for family reunification, as opposed to only three to six months before. Stricter rules were also enacted that required proof of family ties.

The next time I visited Zeyneb, she and her family had moved to a hotel room with help from a local church group in Katerini, Greece. A lawyer helped to arrange the family’s interview at the Greek asylum office, where they registered their request for family reunification. Every day, volunteers bring food and take Zeyneb and her sister for walks around the city. Still, it’s hard for her. She has a lot of responsibility, taking care of her sister. “She’s very young so it’s very difficult for me to take care of her,” Zeyneb said. “My father is helping me.”

More than eight months have passed since Zeyneb and her sister Diana have seen their mother and brother. Their younger brother Mohammad is in school now, learning Dutch, their father said. But their mother is desperate to see her daughters, especially during this holy month of Ramadan, and wants to return to Greece to be with her family.

The family will have to wait at least four more months for Zeyneb’s mother to receive asylum status before she can petition to bring her family to the Netherlands. Then, it can take another nine months for Dutch authorities to approve family reunification.

Zeyneb said she misses her mother so much: “I keep praying that some miracle will happen. I just want to see mom, nothing else.”