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Families torn apart by civil war stuck in asylum limbo

Ahmad Abbas has applied for asylum, but Ahmad's Syrian passport has expired. His wife remains in Syria, and Ahmad says he can hear the sound of planes often when the speak on the phone. (The Blade/Katie Rausch)

Ahmad Abbas has applied for asylum, but Ahmad’s Syrian passport has expired. His wife remains in Syria, and Ahmad says he can hear the sound of planes often when the speak on the phone.
(The Blade/Katie Rausch)

Ahmad Abbas, 29, came to Toledo because of the war in Syria, but his wife remains there.

Ahmad Abbas, 29, came to Toledo because of the war in Syria, but his wife remains there.

They are families in limbo.

As the Syrian civil war continues to displace millions, many families arrive in Toledo incomplete. Legal intricacies make reunification a long and often frustrating process for family members separated by war. Backlogged systems, families with mixed immigration status, and shuttered embassies are just some of the roadblocks for those looking to bring relatives to Toledo.

Ahmad Abbas, 29, is in Toledo seeking asylum from Syria and desperately trying to bring his wife here to join him.

The federal government defines asylum seekers as those qualified for protected status and at risk of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion.

Like refugees, approved asylum seekers are protected from returning to their home country, though refugees are given that status before they arrive, while asylum seekers apply while in the United States.

RELATED: Timeline for screening differs for refugees, asylum seekers

PHOTOS: Syrian families find themselves in limbo after fleeing war

The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services reported 48 Syrian refugees settled in the state in fiscal year 2015, which ended Sept. 30. Lucas County took the greatest number of those refugees with 32.

Asylees arrive through a variety of means, including tourist and immigrant visas. Asylees are processed through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under the Department of Homeland Security.

Citizenship and immigration reported 108,749 pending asylum cases in September.

Mr. Abbas applied for asylum in November, 2014, and was fingerprinted in January, but has not had an interview scheduled.

Toledo immigration attorney Ammar Alo said the wait is a familiar frustration in asylum cases. Some clients wait up to two and a half years. The citizenship and immigration agency is currently scheduling asylum interviews for applications received in May, 2013.

Dr. Mahmoud Dabbous, between Gigi Sankary, left, and Ahmad Abbas, all from Syria, celebrate at the IHOP on Talmadge Road the news that Dr. Dabbous was cleared to begin the process of certification to practice medicine in the United States. (The Blade/Katie Rausch)

Dr. Mahmoud Dabbous, between Gigi Sankary, left, and Ahmad Abbas, all from Syria, celebrate at the IHOP on Talmadge Road the news that Dr. Dabbous was cleared to begin the process of certification to practice medicine in the United States.
(The Blade/Katie Rausch)

“Normally, you’re supposed to have an interview within 45 days and a decision shortly thereafter,” Mr. Alo said, adding that a 2013 influx of migrants from South and Central America overwhelmed the system.

“There’s no fast way to do this — that’s the problem,” he said.

“You’re dealing with people living in a war zone. You want them to be safe and get them over here but there is no fast way to bring family over.” After a person is granted asylum, it can take another six months to a year to bring a spouse or children.

Mr. Abbas’ wife, a fifth-year computer science student at the University of Damascus, contacts him daily over free international messaging apps like Skype and WhatsApp.

A disconcerting roar of airplanes is omnipresent when they talk, Mr. Abbas said. During one phone call, he heard an explosion in her neighborhood — too close. He would be willing to return to Syria if he can’t bring her here, but knows he probably wouldn’t see her if he goes back. He’s sure the army would scoop him up for conscription, forcing him to enlist as soon as arrived at the airport.

“I tell her, ‘Stay patient. It’s OK. What’s to come will be better than what’s happening now,’ ” he said in Arabic. “And she always says, ‘Thank God that you are well. Because if you were in Syria, I wouldn’t have seen you anymore.’”

Mr. Abbas lives on a quiet South Toledo street with his parents, Adib Abbas and Amal Arii, who arrived on visas and have permanent residence cards, or green cards.

Their Damascus neighborhood is on lockdown, with several checkpoints in just a few miles. They’ve lost family members and have relatives who’ve seen bombings and other violence that has left them with symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, Ms. Arii said. She worries most for her grandsons in Syria, who are of conscription age.

Mr. Abbas’ situation is further complicated by a lack of current documents. He had traveled to the United States in 2013 to visit and arrived most recently in May, 2014, on a tourist visa. He renewed his Syrian passport once in Washington on the 2013 visit.

Then the Syrian embassy in Washington closed in March, 2014, and his passport has since expired. The closest Syrian embassy is in Canada, but he cannot cross the border to renew it without current identification. He cannot renew it in Saudi Arabia, where he had been working, because embassies there have closed as well.

Despite the uncertainty, Mr. Abbas said he and his wife plan for their future. He wants to show her the streets and neighborhoods in Toledo and the sprawling greenery at Wildwood Preserve Metropark.

He’s preparing the house in hopes of her arrival. They want to start a family.

In the meantime, he’s working in a market, though he says it’s impossible to get enough hours. His father, who is 80, has worked in a factory making car fresheners for the past year. They are working to raise the funds to not only bring over the younger Mr. Abbas’ wife, but also his three siblings and their families in Syria.

“We’re honestly not able to keep up,” the younger Mr. Abbas said. “You have to work, and you have worries here and you have worries in Syria. Half your family is here and half your family is there. So it’s very difficult.”

“I love her and she loves me, and that’s all I know,” he said of his wife. “As a married couple, you have to remain patient. You don’t have any other solution.”

Lona Lakatos, of Social Services for the Arab Community, left, speaks with Gigi Sankary about medical documentation for her husband. Dr. Sankary was only able to bring her husband and son to Toledo. Her older daughters are in Turkey. (The Blade/Katie Rausch)

Lona Lakatos, of Social Services for the Arab Community, left, speaks with Gigi Sankary about medical documentation for her husband. Dr. Sankary was only able to bring her husband and son to Toledo. Her older daughters are in Turkey.
(The Blade/Katie Rausch)

‘The Syrian war tore our family apart’

Fahed Martini and Gigi Sankary found that not even American citizenship simplifies family reunification. The family is separated, with the couple and their youngest child in Toledo, while their older daughters remain in Turkey.

Ms. Sankary, who was born in California but lived most of her life in Syria, is an American citizen. She was able to return to the United States with her husband and then 17-year-old son Mohamad al-Fateh. Their daughters Fawz, 26, and Jaud, 23, could not come immediately under their mother’s citizenship because they are adults.

The five of them fled Aleppo, Syria, to Turkey in March, 2013, with a driver who barreled down a dirt road for hours, afraid to stop the car because of the constant whiz of shells overhead.

Ms. Sankary arrived in Toledo nine months ago with their son, while Mr. Martini stayed in Turkey for word on the daughters’ status. He left them when his visa to the United States was about to expire. The war, he said, has torn their family apart. Technology makes communication easier. Ms. Sankary insists that her daughters tell her when they leave the apartment in Turkey and when they return and gets anxious when it takes too long for them to respond.

“Now, as a mother, I don’t have a problem dying. But for something to happen to my son or daughter, no,” she said in Arabic. “We are afraid for our kids. Nothing is more precious than a child.”

Ms. Sankary, a dentist, and Mr. Martini, a general practitioner, have not found work in Toledo, though both recently enrolled in a nurse’s aide program at a local college. With their hearts and attention back in Syria, Ms. Sankary said it is difficult to muster the energy to focus on building a life here. They have explored options to bring their daughters over — visas, another formal request to bring them over on their mother’s citizenship — but officials in Turkey told them that could take years. Their daughters have an interview scheduled with the United Nations in Turkey next week to apply as refugees.

“Imagine, I’m an American, and my daughters are coming here as refugees,” Ms. Sankary said.

Ismail and Nahed are a Syrian couple living in Toledo with their three children but fearing for relatives in Syria. They asked that their last name and faces not be shown. Ismail had originally hoped to return to Syria but feels that dream diminishing as the war drags on. (The Blade/Katie Rausch)

Ismail and Nahed are a Syrian couple living in Toledo with their three children but fearing for relatives in Syria. They asked that their last name and faces not be shown. Ismail had originally hoped to return to Syria but feels that dream diminishing as the war drags on.
(The Blade/Katie Rausch)

‘I’m here because of you’

The separated families are hoping their stories end something like that of Nahed and her family. Nahed, 40, and her three children waited 2½ years to join her husband in Toledo after he applied for asylum.

The Blade is identifying them by first name only because of concerns for the family’s relatives still in Syria.

Nahed left their hometown of Daraa in southwest Syria in March, 2012, with her two sons, now 13 and 11, and daughter, now 7. Her husband, Ismail, left Syria before the rest of the family, fleeing after he was arrested by the government.

Nahed said her husband was imprisoned because his last name is the same as a family heavily involved in revolution efforts against the government.

His family was able to pay for his release, but Nahed knew he would never be safe there.

“When they let him go we begged him, ‘Just leave Syria, we want you alive,’” she said. He got a visa to the United States and came to Toledo to be near his uncles, who live in Dearborn.

“The beginning of the revolution, the war, it started from Daraa, from my city,” Nahed said. “I saw the war, I saw bombs, I saw tanks, I saw everything. I just wanted to leave.”

Ismail left Syria in April, 2012, and arrived in America after a month in Jordan.

In May, 2012, Nahed left Syria with her children, her brother, and his family. They spent a night in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp and continued to Egypt, where living was more affordable than Jordan. There she waited for her husband’s asylum request to be approved and his subsequent petition for his family. She recalls the moment she learned they would be joining him in Toledo.

“The whole night I was waiting for the answer. I could not sleep, but no answer. I said, ‘They will say no,’ ” she said. The next afternoon, an embassy employee arrived at her door with passports and visas. “I just started to shout, ‘It’s [been] two years, it’s so difficult!’” she recalled.

She and her children arrived in Toledo in September, 2014. Ismail has since received a green card and is on the path to citizenship. Nahed has an appointment for a green card on Monday.

Adjusting to a new life takes time. Technology made things easier, but is “never enough,” Ismail said. After three years separated from their father, the children are rebuilding the relationship that was disrupted by what Nahed calls “the gap” when they were separated.

Nahed said she wants to tack on “American” to their identity as Syrians, to one day be officially Syrian-Americans.

“I always say to my kids, ‘I’m here because of you,’” she said, adding that she hopes for safety and a good future for them. “I hope things will be great like this always.”

Staff writer Hasan Dudar contributed to this report.

Contact Lauren Lindstrom at llindstrom@theblade.com, 419-724-6154, or on Twitter @lelindstrom.

This article first appeared in The Blade and toledoblade.com on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015.