We all have a strong instinct to protect our loved ones when danger strikes – and that extends to our furry little friends.
Last week I went to Frankfurt to meet Nabila and Manfred, and their cat Toby. They all made the journey from Syria to Germany together in late 2012.
Manfred is German, and married Nabila in Syria where they lived and worked happily for many years. Nabila is Palestinian and she and her family lived their whole lives in Syria – as refugees.
When the uprising started in 2011 they tried to wait it out. Nabila was working for a German company in Syria, and by 2012 all their staff had been evacuated except for her. She stayed behind to keep the office running and manage the accounts.
It was a bit of a frog in the pot type situation – they kept waiting, hoping the situation would get better. But eventually they realised the water was boiling.
They had a run-in with soldiers at a checkpoint, were threatened, and someone fired a bullet at their car. It was time to go.
Even though Manfred is German it was still not easy for Nabila to leave Syria. She had a document stating she was Palestinian but no passport. They also had a complication: Toby.
Toby is a big white Turkish Angora cat. He is totally deaf, and he’s an integral part of the family.
“If I leave the cat that means he is dead”, Nabila said, “we could not do that”.
It’s a sentiment many pet owners can understand.
Humanity shines through the doom and gloom.
There’s a sweet moment in Ai Weiwei’s epic film Human Flow where a Syrian woman shows him a photo on her phone of her little white cat dolled up in red clothes. The tenderness of her love for the cat she left behind contrasts sharply with their surroundings in a crowded, cold and rainy refugee camp in Greece.
Luckily Manfred and Nabila were able to get out of Syria with Toby by plane. They found a vet who was able to issue Toby with an “international certificate” (which Nabila calls a “cat passport”) proving he has all the right vaccinations and chip number.
Through smarts and connections, they were able to get approval to fly out through Lebanon to Germany, where Nabila was given permanent residency (given she was married to a German).
While they could bring Toby, sadly Nabila had to leave the rest of her family behind. She still has two brothers and a sister left in Syria, another brother who managed to make it to Germany, and her sister Siham was privately sponsored to go to Canada.
“If I didn’t have residency status through Manfred we wouldn’t have made it”, Nabila said.
“So my family are still suffering but I can’t help them. It makes me crazy. I can’t do anything to help them!”
Good refugee policy should bring loved ones back together.
The global refugee system is primarily geared around protecting individuals from persecution. Many countries allow refugees to bring their family members with them, but normally this extends only to immediate family “dependents”. Family reunion programs for refugees also similarly focus on reuniting dependents and unaccompanied children.
But we know the complex and emotional bonds of friends and family extend far beyond the “nuclear family”.
I’ve spent the past two months interviewing dozens of people forced to flee about how refugee policies have impacted their lives. Every person I spoke to about their refugee story lamented the loved ones they had to leave behind. Almost all of the people I spoke to were in the process of trying to locate missing loved ones, reunite with them or bring them to a safe place – and all faced roadblocks.
Wars tear families, communities and other loved ones apart. Good refugee policy should enable these shattered bonds to reform.
The mechanics of how this can be achieved will vary in different contexts. But I think the goal of reforming bonds needs to be much more central to global refugee protection efforts.
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