Before the war in Syria, the Friday routine was sacred for the Zydia family — not only because it’s a holy day in Islam, but because it was the day of their ritual weekly family lunch.
Samer Zydia, an architect, would drive with his wife and their small children from Damascus to his parents’ house in the southwestern city of Daraa, about 60 miles away, near the Jordanian border.
Daraa saw the first anti-government uprisings in 2011 but before the war, it was a sleepy provincial capital of one of Syria’s most fertile agricultural regions.
Samer’s siblings — with the exception of one sister living abroad in the United Arab Emirates — were all living in Daraa with some in the same building as their parents, built by their grandfather. His youngest sister, Hiba Zydia, was still living at home.
Together, with their spouses and children, the family would spend a leisurely afternoon cooking dishes like kibbeh and shish barak, drinking coffee and tea on the balcony and talking together after lunch into the evening hours.
“It was a lot of fun because in the kitchen we would talk and laugh and share our news and everyone would help out,” Hiba Zydia said.
It has been seven years since they were all in the same room.
The six adult siblings now live in six different countries: Lebanon, Syria, Germany, Denmark, Canada and the United Arab Emirates.
Their father died in Jordan, where he and their mother, along with two siblings, had fled soon after the war began. Their mother has since returned from Jordan to Syria — but not to the family home, which was damaged in the conflict.
The forced separation has ripped the social fabric of traditional Syrian culture that has revolved around tight-knit networks of extended family for centuries.
The war in Syria has resulted in more than 5 million refugees displaced outside the country and, in many cases, in families scattered around the globe. The largest numbers have remained in neighboring countries — the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees agency lists more than 3 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, nearly 1 million in Lebanon and more than 600,000 in Jordan. Smaller numbers have made their way to Europe and to other locations around the world.
‘We left those days behind’
Samer fled to Lebanon with his wife and three children in December 2012. He had lost his job with a British architecture firm after the company closed its Syria branch due to UK sanctions on Syria. The final straw that pushed them to leave, he said, was a bomb blast near the children’s school.
Lebanon’s borders were still open to Syrians, and he found a Lebanese company willing to hire him. Meanwhile, some of his other siblings had fled from Daraa to nearby Jordan.
Samer’s family expected his stay in Lebanon to be a matter of months — his wife refused to unpack for the first month, he recalled, thinking they would either return to Syria or resettle in another country.
“And we are here since 2012,” Samer concluded with a rueful smile.
Abby Sewell/The World
With legal residency, a job at an architecture firm and his children attending private school, Samer considers himself lucky compared to most Syrians in Lebanon.
Legal residency depends on having either UNHCR registration or a Lebanese sponsor — but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stopped registering Syrian refugees in Lebanon in 2015, at the request of the Lebanese government, and sponsors are scarce and may demand payments of as much as $1,000 in exchange for assistance; apart from that, many Syrians can’t afford the $200 annual residency renewal fee. Three-quarters of Syrian refugees don’t have legal residency status.
Samer works officially as an “office boy” because Syrians are banned from working in white-collar professions.
The distance from the rest of his family grates on him. Photographs of scattered family members hang on the otherwise bare walls of his Beirut living room. He stays in touch with his mother and siblings with daily WhatsApp messages and monthly phone calls. He has applied, so far without success, to join his sister, Hiba, in Canada.
“My youngest sister [Hiba] is married, and they have two kids and I don’t know anything about them — just in pictures. ... My younger brother, his daughter was born and died of cancer after two years in Denmark, and I didn’t see her.”
“My youngest sister [Hiba] is married, and they have two kids and I don’t know anything about them — just in pictures,” Samer said. “My younger brother, his daughter was born and died of cancer after two years in Denmark, and I didn’t see her.”
Most painfully, Samer could not enter Jordan to visit his father in the hospital before he died of complications from diabetes in 2015. Nor could his other siblings: Only Hiba, who was still living in Jordan at the time, was able to see their father after he entered the intensive care unit.
“It’s just two hours [by plane] and you can visit him … and you have the money, you have residency here, you have a job, you have a contract and you can submit that you can go just for a visit for six or seven days and return back to Lebanon. And [Jordanian authorities] refused,” Samer said.
Technically, Syrians do not require a visa, but the de facto policy is to deny all Syrians entry at the airport.
Their brother, Hamed, who initially fled to Jordan, had by that time taken the dangerous sea route to Europe with the assistance of smugglers. He eventually arrived in Denmark, where he got asylum and his wife and children joined him later. Now he has a phone shop in Copenhagen but dreams of returning to Syria.
“The situation in Denmark is good, with respect to work … but without my parents and siblings — that is the problem."
“The situation in Denmark is good, with respect to work … but without my parents and siblings — that is the problem,” Hamed said, speaking over WhatsApp.
Hiba, now married with two children, was admitted to Canada as a refugee eight months ago after living for six years in Jordan. She had married shortly before leaving Syria and fled to Jordan with her husband. For the first two years, her parents and brother Hamed were also there and living close by, along with Hamed’s wife and children.
“Then, suddenly, they were all gone,” Hiba said. Hiba and her husband hoped that they would leave soon after, but it took another three years before they were approved by the Canadian government for resettlement.
Now she and her husband and children have settled in Brampton, Ontario, a city with a sizeable Arab community that helps them feel more at home.
Courtesy of Hiba Zydia
In Syria, Hiba had studied English literature at university for a year before the war interrupted her studies in 2012. Now she is working on her English and hopes to go back to college once her children — aged three and four — are both in school.
Compared to Jordan, where Syrians generally do not have the option of permanent residency, a path to citizenship or legal work, Hiba said, “Canada is better, of course — we have permanent residency, we can study, we can work, we can live a natural life, as you might say.”
But she frets that her children will not have a relationship with her mother or with her brothers and sisters, with whom she stays in touch on WhatsApp and Facebook. The children have never met any of their maternal aunts and uncles.
“I show them pictures, but they’re children,” she said. “They forget because they never saw them in real life.”
Still, she tries not to dwell too much on memories of the past.
“Of course, it’s very hard but it’s not in our hands. ... We’ve gotten to a point where I don’t think a lot about it, because if I think about the matter … it’s a bit hard to take it. We don’t think about it anymore — enough, we left those days behind.”
“Of course, it’s very hard but it’s not in our hands,” she said. “We’ve gotten to a point where I don’t think a lot about it, because if I think about the matter … it’s a bit hard to take it. We don’t think about it anymore — enough, we left those days behind.”
The Syrian regime retook control of Daraa from rebel groups last year. It was the site of some of the most protracted fighting during the war. Much of the city is destroyed.
For now, she said, she is focused on stabilizing her situation in Canada, in hopes that eventually she will be able to reunite with her mother and siblings, at least for a visit.
Buried family values, principles and traditions
Family separation among Syrian refugees has created deep-seated anxiety about the loss of close-knit family structures integral to Syrian culture, according to a report released last year by UNHCR and Columbia University’s Columbia Global Centers.
One Syrian quoted in the report told researchers, “Our values, principles and traditions — the Syrian ones, the ones we are proud of — [are] almost being buried for the reason that everyone is in different countries. For example, my children have forgotten their grandparents. … They have no such thing as uncles or aunts at all.”
Many refugees interviewed stressed “how important extended family members are. … There were a lot of reflections about how [family separation] changes family dynamics and the cultural dynamics,” said Zahirah McNatt, a doctoral candidate at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health who co-authored the study.
Family separation also impacts the ways extended families function as financial support networks. The report noted that “[t]he majority of [survey] participants did not pay rent in Syria and lived with or near their extended family … allowing for financial support when the need arose. In Jordan, all participants in urban settings had rental fees [and] were frequently separated from family members who could provide financial assistance.”
Neil Boothby, a professor and director of the Fostering Resilience program at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Education Initiative and who co-authored the report, said that amid increasing anti-refugee sentiment countries have made family reunification restrictive and difficult.
“The oddity here is, if you actually wanted a group of people to be successful, to successfully integrate into your country, you would recognize the absolute fundamental importance that family and that community play in successful integration… I can only conclude that a lot of countries don’t want people to do well — they don’t want them [to stay]."
“The oddity here is, if you actually wanted a group of people to be successful, to successfully integrate into your country, you would recognize the absolute fundamental importance that family and that community play in successful integration. … I can only conclude that a lot of countries don’t want people to do well — they don’t want them [to stay],” Boothby said.
In the long run, Boothby predicts Syrian family structures will likely change to adapt to these new circumstances. “Syrians will [evolve]— perhaps very successfully — but it will never be the same.”
‘We can’t find a country to reunite in’
For the Zydia family, the prospect of a family reunion, even brief, seems next to impossible.
Returning to Syria is off limits for Samer and his brother in Denmark for now — even for a visit — because they would face mandatory military conscription. So would their sisters’ husbands, who are all from Syria.
Meanwhile, countries around the world have restricted entrance for Syrians refugees. Some, like the United States, have outright banned Syrians; others, like Turkey, which previously granted Syrians visa-free entry, have put restrictive visa requirements in place.
“Even if we have the financial ability to reunite, we can’t find a country to reunite in."
“Even if we have the financial ability to reunite, we can’t find a country to reunite in,” said Samer.
Seham, the eldest sister and first of the siblings to flee, now lives in Germany. After her husband was briefly arrested in 2012 on charges of supporting the rebels, the couple and their five children fled first to Egypt, then Turkey, before landing in Europe.
Noor, the middle sister who had been living with her husband in the UAE since 2009, used to return to visit Syria in the summers. In the summer of 2012, frightened by the escalating conflict, she stopped visiting.
Only one brother has remained behind in Syria. For his safety, the family asked that he not be named.
Abby Sewell/The World
Nevertheless, Samer is trying to arrange a reunion in Lebanon, which — although a long shot — is the only possible site.
Officially, Syrians are able to visit the country without a visa if they can show proof of a hotel reservation and $2,000 in cash. Some Syrians with the financial means have managed to reunite with family members in Lebanon.
In 2017, Samer’s brother, Hamed, was able to come with his family from Denmark and visit Lebanon. Noor was also able to visit from the UAE.
But Syrians may be refused entry at the border or airport for any number of reasons, and political tension over the refugees’ presence has grown over the past two years. Samer is trying to use whatever wasta (Arabic for "personal connections") he can to get his relatives’ visit pre-approved.
Given the political atmosphere, which has become increasingly anti-Syrian, he said, “I’m not optimistic that I can do it.”