When Family Reunification Policies Actually Keep Families Apart

As World Refugee Day approaches, politicians and activists are focused on effective burden-sharing in European countries and the increasingly nationalist policies that bar refugees from safety. While we need to push back against the racist policies that abandon refugees, there are also simple changes to preexisting policies that would smooth the integration of refugees and help host countries shoulder the burden of additional refugees. Refugees like me recognize the gaps in existing refugee policy, such as the strict definition of a nuclear family that limits family reunification.

I could be called one of the lucky few. I came to the United States for an academic program in 2013. I was, and still am, a Syrian activist who spoke out about the brutality of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. In the United States, I could study and express my dreams for a democratic Syria without the fear of imprisonment or worse. As the war in Syria intensified my father was kidnapped by the Assad regime. My family fled Syria and I had to stay in the U.S. and apply for political asylum. It may have saved my life, but it also meant accepting legal separation from my remaining family.

My father, Ali Mustafa, shared my activism and it was likely his outspoken demands that led to his detention. With no details about his fate, my family was forced to leave everything behind and flee to Turkey. I had always planned to return to Syria. But now, I had no home there. My home is my family.

I was granted political asylum back in 2014. I had hoped that I would be able to bring my mother and sisters over to the U.S. and live as one family under one roof. However, I had no rights to do so. There was no legal way to include my mother and sisters in my asylum case. Therefore, my mother and sisters had to find other ways to be resettled in the US. My family applied to UNHCR to be resettled in the US so we could be together again. After a 3 year process, my family was denied asylum by the US government despite the fact that they built their case on the same claims that they granted me my asylum. Despite my U.S. green card, I could not do anything for them because my mother and sisters are not what the U.S. Government considers a “nuclear family.” The US only allows refugees to petition to have their spouses or dependents under the age of 21 join them.

The expectation is that the nuclear family is two parents and their young children, but it is essential to contextualize the meaning of family with refugees’ cultures and the bitter violence they are escaping. The Syrian War has decimated my country’s population and displaced Syrians from their homes. The separation of families by way of death and fleeing violence means family units must adapt. In the case of death, we need to acknowledge that other members of the extended family assume parental roles. Rather than reinforce the breakup of families, refugee policy should reunite families.

Expanding the definition of nuclear families will help refugees, but it will also serve host countries. As a young professional in New York, I am alone. I have amazing social support from strangers who have become families and friends to me but still I feel lonely without my mother and sisters. They are my family.

All the challenges I faced, and continue to face, would be less daunting if I had my mother next to me; if the US government allowed me to gather who’s left from the family in one place after the Assad regime displaced us.  Almost half of Syrian refugees resettled in the United States from 2011 to 2016 were under the age of 12, another 12 percent were between the ages of 14 and 20. If those refugees could petition for a parent, or a guardian in the form of an aunt, uncle, or older relative, they would have the financial and emotional support of an adult behind them. An intact family unit will speed the integration of refugees into American life.

A look at the Canadian policy on the nuclear family demonstrates a clear alternative. As a native Canadian or refugee, it is possible to sponsor a spouse, partner, dependent children, parents, grandparents, or other relatives deemed an essential part of the household. A minor change in policy means a new life for refugees. We have already lost our country and been separated from our families. The US government has the opportunity to reunite families, but first, it must understand the shape of a family that has been forcibly scattered.

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