Immigration by mistake: Syrian grandmother's Europe plans go awry

Immigration by mistake: Syrian grandmother's Europe plans go awry
Feature: Um Ghassan only meant to visit her son in Denmark for a few months, but found she had been considered an immigrant, now stuck in a foreign culture.
5 min read
07 October, 2015
Many older refugees are struggling to integrate into European society [AFP]
Behind all the scenes of Syrian displacement, migration, and asylum, there are stories of people who have been transformed in recent weeks to mere numbers - in the thousands - even when the light is shone on some human stories, every now and then.

Um Ghassan is a Syrian woman in her seventies. She fled to Beirut, Lebanon, after fighting intensified in Syria. Her son has been living in Denmark for years but he has not been able to invite her to visit since 2012, as almost every visitor to Europe from her part of the world - even a parent - has become seen as a "refugee project".

In mid-2012, her son Ghassan asked her go to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to apply for asylum. After a year and a half, Um Ghassan was asked to prepare herself for travel.

"I was happy at the time, as I was going to see my son after so many years. I had left Syria to Lebanon in the hope that I would be able to visit him. Finally, they told me that I will," Um Ghassan said.

But Um Ghassan did not realise that she would be received in Denmark as an immigrant - and settle there with her son. She believed the trip to be merely a visit - as she had made a decade previously.

All Um Ghassan wanted was to see her son. After a short period of time, her second son visited Denmark from Canada and she met with him as well.

Three months later, she felt that it was time to go back. She said: "I told my son that I wished to buy gifts for my grandchildren in Beirut before going back. He laughed and asked me: Go where? You are not going to Lebanon. You are staying here."

What is Europe to me or I to Europe?

"Over here, I don't understand anything. I go down to the street and I wonder how I will understand what they are saying."

Um Ghassan lit her cigarette and continued, angrily. "I am used to going out, buying my own things, and talking to people. I am not illiterate. I am educated and it is difficult for me at this age to sound ignorant in a society that is not my society.

"What matters to me is that I saw my children, and they are fine. Now I want to go back to my friends and acquaintances. I cannot live like this, even if there were Arabs here."
Over here, I don't understand anything. I go down to the street and I wonder how I will understand what they are saying
- Um Ghassan

Um Ghassan is half Syrian, a quarter Lebanese and a quarter Palestinian.

"In Lebanon, I did not feel like a stranger as I had relatives there. But I went crazy when they told me that my visit meant that I had to stay. I did not understand what they want from me or why I was forbidden from going back to Lebanon," Um Ghassan later continued.

"We understood that going back to Syria was out of the question, as everything we owned there was destroyed," she explained.

Um Ghassan got more agitated when she tried to analyse what was happening. "I have been trying to convince my children for eight months that I cannot remain in this country. What is Europe to me or I to Europe? If Europe wanted to help us..."

Her son interrupted: "Did I not say that my mother follows politics? She has Armenian roots. In her youth she was a Syrian nationalist before becoming a leftist and a supporter of George Habash [the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine]. Mum strongly yearns for her Palestinian roots."
What is the use of cutting me off from my roots at this age?
- Um Ghassan

Um Ghassan is dissatisfied with her situation.

She is struggling and feels she cannot adapt, at her age, to a new culture and a language that is alien to her.

"It is difficult for someone of my age to live under new and unfamiliar conditions. What is the use of cutting me off from my roots at this age? Whoever comes here at my age is as if she's forced into a slow death."

Arab country

Um Ghassan was not against others being received in Europe, but she did not want it for herself.

"I understand if some people get residence permits, but I don't want one here. Even if my house in Lebanon was rented, it would still be better than tough estrangement. I did not feel ill there, but over here I feel disabled. This is not what I want. I want to remain in an Arab country."

One of Um Ghassan's acquaintances described her: "Her memory is made out of steel. When you sit down with her over a coffee, she talks to you about a long history that I did not know of in my 35 years abroad. She knows many things."
I want to remain in an Arab country
- Um Ghassan

Her acquaintance pointed out that Um Ghassan constantly asks if he could help her retrieve her passport from the police in order to return to Lebanon.

Um Ghassan represents what many other elderly people go through after suddenly finding themselves in countries and societies that are radically different from those in which they have grown up.

Some of them did not only find it difficult to integrate, but also complain about the quick pace of life and their children's preoccupation with work, while their grandchildren spend most of their time at school or doing extra-curricular activities.

Um Ghassan expressed her concern about getting older in a foreign country and be "thrown in a home for the elderly".

"This scares me. I prefer to die at home in the neighbourhood I had resided in in Mount Lebanon."

Her son interrupted again: "I care for you a lot, mum. Who told you that I would allow for you to move into an elderly home?"

Away from his mother's ears, Ghassan said that he was worried about her not being able to adapt to life in Denmark.

He was worried that she would "become ill as a result of her isolation and the difficulty to coexist with her surroundings".

"She only speaks Arabic," Ghassan said. "Even at the supermarket, she speaks to the saleswomen in Arabic. This causes her embarrassment."

Ghassan and his brothers are now looking for a solution to return her to Lebanon - but, until they do, their mother will be stuck in a strange land, a long way from home.