11/09/2015 10:56 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Syrian Refugee Family Waits 18 Months For Australian Visa


Syrian refugees Rabia (left), his sons and his wife have been waiting 18 months for an Australian visa (Supplied)

Syrian refugee Rabia has been kidnapped, beaten and tortured by his own government. His life and his family have been threatened by Islamic State fighters, he has been forced to run and hide from Al-Qaeda, and his successful business in Syria was ransacked by armed gunmen.

Speaking to The Huffington Post Australia from a rundown apartment in Lebanon, Rabia seems at his lowest point. But it is not terrorists, thugs or crazed militia men who have brought him to his knees this time -- it is uncertainty.

Rabia has endured more horrors than any of us could imagine; he sounds almost ready to give up. We aren’t publishing his full name or his exact location, and we've blurred the faces of his family at his request; he says members of the Assad government are still looking for him and he fears for his family still in Syria.

With the help of an Australian friend, Mellisa Giancarlo, Rabia and his family -- his wife, and two sons aged six and seven -- fled to Lebanon and applied for an Australian humanitarian visa in March 2014. Four days later, he received a letter confirming his application was received. He has received no further correspondence from the Australian government in the last 18 months.

“On one side was the regime, the other was the Islamic State rebels. They wanted to kidnap and kill me. I had to flee Syria,” Rabia told HuffPost Australia.

“We sent all our papers to the Australian authorities. They have everything. I don’t know what to say about it. I have no choice, I just want someone to help me. It’s a very long time, 18 months waiting -- but waiting for what? What’s going on? Is it my mistake?”

Rabia and his son (Supplied)

Rabia is a tough, proud man. He holds a university degree in economics, and ran a successful dental supply company and mixed business in Latakia, on Syria’s north-west coast, before fleeing to Lebanon. He is also a member of the Alawite religious minority, historically persecuted by Sunni Muslims through Syria and the Middle East, but says he and his family do not practise the religion. His wife does not wear a hijab. His children were recently baptised as Catholics.

Nonetheless, Rabia shares his religion with Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. That would probably have been enough for his family to attract the attention of Sunni rebels fighting the Assad government, but Rabia said he also resisted government forces during the 2011 uprising -- meaning he became a target of the rebels for his religion, and a target of the government for his politics.

“The area I was living, all of them support the government so they looked at me as a traitor. The government arrested me because I was with the people in the streets. They held us for three days. They hurt us, they beat us,” he said. We battle a patchy Skype connection. Cars screech through the streets outside his window.

“When I came back to my business, some gunmen attacked my store. They smashed everything. They told me ‘if you don’t support the government, you will die some day’.”

A ruined Syrian city, in the aftermath of an attack by government helicopters (Getty Images)

Mellisa and her husband, John, met Rabia when they travelled through the Middle East on their honeymoon in 1996. The Giancarlos visited Syria many times over the years, staying with Rabia and meeting his extended family and friends throughout the country. As the Syrian civil war worsened, Mellisa’s online correspondence with Rabia became more and more worrying.

“For a while, he was a bit worried. But in 2013 that changed. He sent a desperate message saying he needed to get out. I’d never dealt with anything like this, never had to deal with someone who needed this type of help,” Mellisa said from her home in Switzerland.

“Nobody wanted to help, I was making calls, asking for help from anyone I knew in Australia. Everybody just said that I couldn’t do anything.”

Rabia’s family fled the city of Latakia in May 2013, escaping to the countryside on the outskirts of town where they had a small farm. He said Al-Qaeda forces had overrun the area, and Islamic State rebels moved in soon after the family took refuge in the farmhouse.

“We saw people running, crying. I have these horrible memories. We had to flee with them and go back to Latakia city,” he said.

“I lost my house in the city, and then I got a phone call from someone -- I don’t know who -- and they said I will die and my children will die.”

Rabia's sons, aged six and seven (Supplied)

Rabia's wife and sons (Supplied)

John and Mellisa Giancarlo, with their daughters (Supplied)

The Giancarlos tried in vain to get Rabia a Swiss visa, but managed to spirit the family over the border into Lebanon. It was safer than Syria, but not by much. There are at least 1.3 million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and countless more unregistered, making up more than a quarter of Lebanon’s population of four million. Most refugees are banned from working in Lebanon. Rabia’s family are no longer dodging barrel bombs, but it is no easier putting food on the table or a roof over their heads. The Giancarlos send $900 a month to cover rent for Rabia’s little apartment.

On March 27, 2014, Mellisa and John helped Rabia complete the “mountain” of paperwork for an Australian humanitarian visa. They did it themselves, after an immigration lawyer quoted them up to $37,000 in legal fees, and claimed they would have to pay “an immigration department fee in [excess] of $22,000.”

Mellisa said she did not have to pay any such fee when she completed the paperwork herself.

On March 31, 2014, Rabia received confirmation his application had been received. That was the first, and last, correspondence he has received from the Australian government.

“We got a letter back from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, saying the application was valid. They said it would take more than 12 months to process,” Mellisa said.

“We waited and waited, we kept telling Rabia to hold on and that something would happen. Australia keeps saying for refugees to go through the proper channels, to go the right way. It got to the 12 months, then to May 2015, and now it’s 18 months. It is ridiculous.”

The letter confirming Rabia's family's application as valid, sent on 31/3/2014 (Supplied)

Rabia, in limbo for 18 months waiting for an answer, is despondent. His boys don’t know why they are forced to stay cooped inside their small apartment all day long. They don’t know why their father is sad all the time. They want to go to school.

“The situation is similar to Syria. There is no law here. They don’t want Syrians anymore. I cannot find a job to support my family. The authorities in Lebanon don’t allow us to work. If they see you working any job anywhere, they will make you go back to Syria,” Rabia said.

“Anyone supporting the Syrian government can find me here. They don’t want anyone standing opposition to their policies, especially from the same religion. I’m a traitor, I must die. I spend my time here in fear.”

He said the United Nations High Commission for Refugees “don’t give us any support”.

Rabia watches the news and reads the papers. He knows about his millions of compatriots who are at this very moment flooding across borders into Europe, trying to find safe haven. He cannot, and will not, do that… at least, not yet.

“I have two small boys, a wife. I don’t want to do that. But now I start thinking to do something like that. If the Australian government don’t give us any results, I might try it,” he said.

“Some of my family are still in Syria. Some of them left to Europe or other places. The situation is becoming worse and worse. A week ago, some rockets killed people in my town.”

Syrian refugees trek across train tracks, looking for safety (Getty Images/Christopher Furlong)

The Giancarlos have grown desperate, as they watch their friends spiral into depression. Mellisa has contacted many politicians to ask about Rabia’s case. Earlier this year, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office advised Rabia to “consider available alternatives to resettlement”, saying “any resettlement process is likely to take longer than we would wish” due to an “unprecedented demand for places”.

In letters viewed by HuffPost Australia, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Richard Marles, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Tanya Plibersek and Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multiculturalism Michelle Rowland all replied to say they could not intervene. Mellisa received a reply from Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Friday, who said he would raise the matter with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

"I imagine by now this matter has been referred to the Minister, but just in case it has not I will copy it to him now and request his advice and that of his department," Turnbull said. He did indeed copy the email to Dutton's personal ministerial email account.

Mellisa said she was dismayed at the time taken to process a humanitarian visa.

“Australians have preconceptions of people from Syria, but this family are like you or me. They’re normal people. Rabia just wants to work, provide for his family and see his boys grow up,” she said.

“Just tick a box on their application. Why can’t we send a plane to Beirut or Syria, and just put these people on a plane? Their paperwork is sitting there.”

Rabia teaching his boys English (Supplied)

Sick of the waiting, the Giancarlos set up an online crowdfunding page, hoping to raise enough money to get Rabia’s family to New Zealand on a long-term business visa. They hope to raise $200,000 to relocate the family, and buy a business in New Zealand.

“Our government says don’t come on a boat, don’t come illegally. But then they don’t even process the people trying to do it the right way. You can’t have it both ways. This is cruel and hard-hearted, there’s something really wrong with it,” Mellisa said.

Earlier this week, the Abbott government announced Australia will accept 12,000 extra Syrian refugees.

A spokesperson for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection told HuffPost Australia the department could not comment on individual cases, but confirmed refugees "will be drawn from countries bordering the conflict in Syria such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey".

"Candidates for resettlement in Australia will be required to meet all criteria for a Refugee and Humanitarian visa, including health, character and security checks," the spokesperson said.

Refugees are hoped to be resettled "as quickly as possible" and would arrive in Australia "in the coming months", the Department added.

Mellisa said she has been inspired this week with the Light The Dark rallies around Australia showing support for refugees and the government's announcement of extra refugee places, but said action needed to be taken quickly.

“I think people will be shocked when they realise how long it takes to get these visas approved. They don’t realise it’s this hard,” she said.

“It’s so wonderful to see people out supporting refugees, but it’s still just talk. People need to do something about it now. Just do it. Approve the applications.”

For his part, Rabia just wants to be safe. He wants his family to be safe. He wants to stop running. He wants to start again.

“We have no problems with any religion anywhere. All we need is a safe place, a democratic country where we can live and work and support our family,” he said.