When I arrived in Turkey almost four years ago, the Arab Spring was over and new conflicts had emerged, especially in Syria. The tragedy of Syria is chilling, figures sadly speak for themselves: almost 9 mln internally displaced people, over 13 mln people in need, 4,8 mln refugees of which 2,7 mln that went to Turkey by the end of 2016, 1 mln refugees that came to Europe in 2015, 400,000 people killed in Syria, and in 2015 3,800 drowned on their way to a better life.
Abstract numbers are one thing, but when you zoom in on individual stories these can really have an impact. Behind each number stands a human being, who is part of a family, of a larger group of friends, of a wider society. At our Consulate in Istanbul my staff is confronted more and more with the harsh realities of the refugee flow. Having issued over 50,000 visa’s in 2016 we are the largest Dutch consular post in the world; most of these visas were business or tourism related, but in 2016 more than 2,000 were granted for family reunification with the Syrian refugees that are already in the Netherlands.
Often there are Syrian families in the waiting room of the Consulate, wanting to prove that they qualify to join their loved ones in the Netherlands. This family reunification is, by the way, not an easy process. It requires intense background checks, DNA tests and interviews. Every day I walk by, seeing mostly mothers with their children. As one can expect I often notice sadness. These refugees are here for one reason and one reason only, namely that they had to escape one of the cruellest civil wars this world has seen since WW-II. What always strikes me is that it is seldom noisy in our waiting room, even if there are many children. As a father of two lively sons I know how difficult it is to keep one’s children quiet…
I spoke to one of our visa applicants just before her departure to the Netherlands. She, her husband and their two very young children came from Aleppo in Syria a few years ago. They struggled in Istanbul and came to the sad conclusion that there was no future for them here nor was there any realistic hope to soon return to the besieged and half destroyed city of Aleppo.
Just like some Syrian families they decided to go to Europe, to prevent a ‘lost future’ for their children. Others prefer to stay in Turkey till they can return to their home country, but we see more and more that those that stay wish to integrate in Turkey, having given up hope that peace will be restored in Syria in the foresee-able future.
The Kurdish Syrian woman I spoke to came together with her husband to their difficult decision two years ago. Her husband tried his luck on his own as their children were really too young to undertake the dangerous trip via the Aegean Sea. He survived the ordeal of the crossing to the Greek islands and finally landed in Germany. From there he continued to the Netherlands and ended up near Rotterdam. His wife and their two small children (then aged 1 and 2) stayed behind in Istanbul. She had a very hard time, but somehow managed, thanks to Turkish assistance and family, to both keep her head above water and to raise her children. There were daily Skype sessions with her husband, to support their relationship and, most important of all, to motivate each other to fight for a better life for their children. Her husband graduated from a Syrian university and has a medical background; he is now studying hard to obtain his qualification to be allowed to work in the Netherlands.
We spoke for half an hour. I gave her some books in Dutch, to read to her children. One book was, of course, written by Annie M.G. Schmidt, and another one contained 50 stories about the history of the Netherlands. I was very impressed, as she already spoke some Dutch. No need to mention how excited she was. A few more nights and she and her children would be reunited with their husband and father, after a separation of more than 500 days and nights. She thanked me, she thanked the Netherlands, and she thanked the Dutch people for being generous and offering her family the prospect of a future again. “My husband and I will never, never let your country down”, she assured me.
One person, one life, one family, one story, one out of millions. Politics is politics and we will see what the future will bring, in my country, in Europe, in the US, in Turkey, but having been a diplomat for over 30 years, of which more than 10 years in the Middle East, I am grateful that the Netherlands plays its own role in giving hope and a new life to many. It is never enough of course, but as the Chinese say: ‘he who saves one person, saves mankind as well’.