Refugees in Scotland: ‘We just want to be together again and live as a happy family’

Every time Amira al Shamari speaks to her sister on the phone from her home in Glasgow, she cries.

“I am so worried about her,” she says. “She is my little sister, I raised her and I cared for her. If she was here, I could help her with the children. But every time the phone rings, my heart goes and when I go to bed, I am thinking about her.”

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Ms al Shamari’s sister Habiba, with her five children, are living as refugees in Iraq. Habiba suffers from a severe form of Multiple Sclerosis and is unable to obtain medical treatment in her current situation.

Suzan al-Daher, from Syria, has been separated from her two adult daughters and grandchildren.

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Meanwhile, Habiba’s husband, arrested by the Kuwaiti state, has been missing for years.

Separated from her sister for nearly six years, Ms al Shamari has no idea when she will see her again.

“It is very, very difficult for her in Iraq, she says. “It’s not her country and she's living in very difficult conditions with her five children, she has no papers, so it is hard for her to get medical help. She has a very serious illness and is losing her eyesight. It is very difficult for her to care for her children at the moment.

“We know nothing about her husband, he was taken and we don’t know anything about him. We don’t know what to tell the children, if he is still alive or if he is dead.”

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Lawyer Usman Aslam is working to reunite families.

Under the family reunification programme operated by the UK Government Home Office, Habiba is not considered to be a close enough family member to have the right to move to Scotland, with only dependent children and spouses automatically eligible for the scheme.

“It would make such a difference if I could have her here with me in Scotland,” she says. “I started the application, but as I was told I'm not eligible, that they’re not going to consider because it's outside of the rules, immigration rules.”

Part of the Bidoon tribe in Kuwait, none of the family had any rights or paperwork in their home country. Bidoons, short for “bidoon jinsiya”, meaning “without nationality” in Arabic, are a stateless Arab minority in Kuwait who were not included as citizens at the time of the country's independence in the 1960s.

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In some ways, the family were among the lucky ones. Ms al Shamari’s husband managed to get a casual job working for a Kuwaiti man on his farm, where the family could live, however, under Kuwaiti laws, Bidoons are not legally allowed to attend school or work - or even access health care.

Then protests broke out among the tribe, who after 50 years of oppression, wanted to campaign for their human rights.

Ms al Shamari, her husband and then-10-year-old daughter were put in prison.

She says: “When the demonstrations started, our families were involved - my husband and my son. They were involved in the uprising, because we were asking for our rights. But I never got involved in the demonstration or uprising and they just decided to take me to prison.”

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Her daughter was separated from her mother and placed in a different cell in the same jail block. The family remained in prison for 20 months.

“It was terrifying,” she recalls. “Even now, my daughter is scared of the police here in Scotland, even though here they are harmless. It was horrific. After I was released, I thought we can not stay here, we have to leave to somewhere safe.”

When they were released, Ms al Shamari discovered her three older children had already escaped and travelled to Scotland.

Using the same people smuggler, the family travelled to the UK, where were dropped off in a car in Glasgow.

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Due to their status as Bidoons, the family were given leave to remain and have since made their home in Scotland. Two of her children are studying - for the first time - while one is working as a barber.

She says: “When we arrived here, we felt very settled and we felt safe. We felt like people were treating us as human, we've never been treated this way before. It is so good to be here, we are so happy.”

But they are reluctant to encourage Habiba and her children to undertake a similarly arduous journey with smugglers. Under UK rules, refugees can try to claim asylum if they are already in the country – or are resettled officially through schemes which place people living in camps in places like Lebanon and Jordan.

“I don’t want her to go through what we did, with her medical problems and the young children,” Ms al Shamari says. “We want to do it the safe way.”

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Fifteen miles away, Syrian Suzan al Daher and her husband Ayman Charaf al Dine, who live in Cumbernauld with their children, Shahd and Qamir, are also trying to find a way to be reunited with their two daughters Diana and Lubna.

The family, who had been living in a camp in Lebanon after fleeing Syria in 2012, were selected through the Home Office Syrian resettlement scheme to move to the UK. Their son, Mohammed, was killed in the war.

However, as their eldest daughters were adults - and are married with children - they were not classed as part of the same household, even though they lived together in Lebanon.

Now Ms al Daher, originally from Homs, has not seen her children and five grandchildren in five years.

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“Things were very difficult in Lebanon,” she says. “We all lived in a tiny room under the ground. It is really cold in winter - it's freezing. And we didn't have a heating system. It was very difficult, we struggled. We had a shortage of everything.”

“[While we were in the camp], we had to apply for the United Nations for resettlement, and then [when it came] it was only for us - my husband and my two little daughters and myself. We had to leave our other daughters behind.”

While she is happy her two younger daughters - now aged 13 and 20 - can live in Scotland, she is worried for the rest of her family.

“The children have not been in education and can't find anywhere to go for treatment if they are feeling unwell,” she says. “The situation in Lebanon is very bad just now.”

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She adds: “We just want to be together again, to live as a happy family. If it wasn't for the war, we would never have been separated this way. And I really miss my grandchildren.”

Lawyer Usman Aslam of Rea Law Solicitors in Glasgow is working to find a way that both women can be reunited with their families, however, he is not hopeful their applications, through the Home Office appeal scheme, will be successful.

“The difficulty with family reunion is the rules themselves are too restrictive and they’re not tailored for refugees,” he says.

“When we’ve had refugees resettled here under the resettlement programme, families have been split from the camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and so on.

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“What the rules say is if you have a spouse or a child under-18 you can make a straightforward application which will be granted and they will be reunited. But anyone outside that is basically an automatic refusal. They then need to appeal that, showing “compelling evidence” for a family member to come, which can take a year and a half, which is a long time to be without your family and of course, it’s down to what the judge decides on the day [whether they are accepted].”

He adds: “In some families, you’ve got siblings, people who were brought up by their grandmother, obviously culturally this is particularly hard for Syrians, as when they get married they often still stay with mum and dad, so just because they’re over 18 doesn’t mean they weren’t living as a family.”

A private members bill to change the situation passed a first reading in the House of Commons over a year ago, but has not been progressed further.

Mr Aslam says many refugees living in camps in Lebanon are facing aggression from locals, making it a difficult place to survive.

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He says: “In some cases, Lebanon is removing Syrians back to Syria, so removing them into essentially a war zone. So families’ time in the camps is limited, but then they’re faced with either leaving half the family there or not coming to a safe place. It’s a difficult choice to make, it’s a real heartbreak.”

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