On June 15, 2013, I received a desperate email from an old friend in Syria. He needed to get his family out, he was scared for his life, could we help him?
As an Aussie family living in Switzerland and being a stay-at-home mum of three, I'd never dealt with a situation like this before. The next two years would plunge me into the world of refugees and their struggle, witnessing the best and the worst of human nature. And fighting against the injustice of what I saw happening to my friend and people like him.
In 1996, my husband and I were backpacking in the Middle East when we met Rabia. He was a uni student and had big plans for his future. We stayed in touch and went on to form a strong and enduring friendship. Over the years, we visited him in Syria numerous times, saw him graduate university and start his own business. He's a natural entrepreneur, driven and hard working. He met and married a local girl and they had two little boys. He was building a great life.
Then the war started.
We worried about Rabia with the bad news coming out of Syria. On that day in June 2013, he wrote to say he had been targeted by pro-government militias. He'd been kidnapped, beaten and tortured for his criticism of the regime. Soldiers had come in and destroyed the business he'd built from scratch and he no longer had an income. Rabia's car had been shot at while he was driving with his kids. He needed to get his family out.
Immediately I started emailing anyone I could think of who might be able to help. I contacted Australian Immigration agents, approved by the government to assist in applying for visas. One immigration agent confirmed he'd worked with refugees before and quoted us a fee of up to $37,000. Our family couldn't afford it, and neither could Rabia. How could the Australian government endorse such huge fees being charged to desperate refugees?
My efforts to find asylum for Rabia extended beyond Australia. We tried to bring the family to Switzerland. We had meetings with state (canton) officials but while the locals were willing to help, the federal level officials had stopped giving Syrians visas to Switzerland. Only family reunification visas were being issued to Syrians. The only way to get them into the country would be illegally.
The US Embassy confirmed the only policy for Syrian refugees at the time was to allow those already in the US to stay. But there was no help for those in the war zone.
Rabia himself had tried for visas to the UAE, Italy and France. All were denied.
We had to get the family out of immediate danger and the least dangerous route out of Syria was to Lebanon. They had no contacts in Lebanon, little money and nowhere to stay. I searched online for an apartment and found a place willing to accept a Syrian family. We paid the owner the required six months rent but later found out he had put the family in a small, windowless space, and not the two bedroom apartment we'd been promised.
While a temporary respite, Lebanon is still not safe for Rabia. He's had late night visits from plain-clothed men demanding to see his papers and search his apartment, terrifying the whole family and resulting in frantic pleas to us to help them get out more quickly. I witnessed first hand how desperate refugees can become, and why many resort to high risk methods of escape. We counseled Rabia to wait. We were working hard on a solution. We'd get them out.
The best option I could find was to personally sponsor Rabia for a humanitarian visa to Australia and I began the application process in early 2014. Rabia fit all the criteria, he was registered with the UNHCR and could not return to Syria for fear of his life. We submitted the application in March 2014 and, a year and a half later, we're still waiting for a decision.
In May 2015, frustrated with the long wait Rabia was having to endure, I wrote to a number of government MPs. Most wrote back to say there was nothing they could do. With the Australian visa in limbo and Rabia's situation becoming increasingly desperate, I started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for a business visa to New Zealand. The campaign is gaining support, but we still have a long way to go.
With the government announcement this week of an extra 12,000 places for Syrian refugees, we are hoping and praying Rabia and his family will be included amongst them. We are praying for an end to their nightmare.