NICOSIA — Jaffar Ismail says his daughter Amal sometimes asks why he and his wife abandoned her in the chaos of their bombed-out neighborhood in the southern Syrian town of Nawa.
Fleeing the town after a bomb dropped by a warplane flattened a house a few doors down from the family’s home, Ismail and his wife Maha lived every parent’s horror: mistakenly leaving a child behind amid the panic of a warzone.
It took more than two years, but 8-year-old Amal rejoined her family last month thanks to the efforts of the International Organization for Migration, a group dedicated to assisting in migration-related issues.
“My wife and I (each) thought that Amal was with the other,” the 39-year-old carpenter told The Associated Press in an interview. “Many children were lost that day.”
When the bombs started falling, Ismail grabbed his oldest daughter Alaa, who has trouble walking because of a congenital back problem, and ran out in the street for fear that their home would be hit.
When he met up with his wife, and despite the realization that Amal wasn’t with either of them, Ismail said they decided to leave Nawa, assuming that the child was safe with his parents or his many siblings, who had taken refuge in another village.
Unable to contact relatives, Ismail then took his family across the border into Lebanon. A couple of months later, they traveled to Turkey where they made contact with a man who arranged to take them by speedboat to Cyprus’ northern coast.
Ismail said the nighttime boat trip, along with more than a dozen people including children, took a couple of hours and cost him 4,500 euros ($5,000). He said the three spent the day in an olive orchard in the ethnically split island’s breakaway Turkish Cypriot north, before someone showed up to guide them into the internationally recognized south.
The shock came when Ismail managed to make contact with one of his brothers back in Syria using a smart-phone application that permits free-of-charge calls. His brother said the family thought Amal was with them.
“My wife started crying, she just wanted to go back,” he said.
Thankfully, a few more calls to his father and cousins tracked Amal down: the wife of a relative found her in the street and took her in.
Ismail was eventually put in touch with the IOM, which started to put the process in motion. Ismail’s brother took Amal to the Syrian-Jordanian border where IOM officials picked her up and supplied her with a Cypriot visa. She was then put on a plane to Cyprus with a female, Arabic-speaking escort and reunited with her family, which in the meantime had grown by one — another baby sister, Aryam, now a precocious 18-month-old.
Ismail said Amal is only now getting over her fear of loud noises. “If a motorcycle passes by our home, she comes into the room crying,” he says. Then there’s the single strand of white hair that he found among Amal’s black, shoulder-length hair that he says is probably owed to the anxiety of separation.
Like the overwhelming majority of Syrians who fled their homeland and arrived in Cyprus, Ismail was granted subsidiary protection. Although fully entitled to all the rights afforded to an asylum-seeker, those under subsidiary protection cannot bring family members to join them.
IOM Cyprus chief officer Natasa Xenophontos Koudouna said Ismail was granted an exception by the Cypriot interior minister after his case was reviewed, allowing for Amal to be reunited with her family.
According to migration department figures, of the 1,384 people who were granted subsidiary protection last year, 1,350 were Syrians; so far this year, 176 of 188 people granted subsidiary protection are Syrians.
As Interior Minister Socrates Hasikos put it, Cyprus has been “fortunate” not to experience the mass influx of migrants over the course of the Syrian conflict, despite its close proximity to the country itself — less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) at its easternmost tip from the Syrian coastline.
Cyprus’ distance from the European mainland and troubled economy that needed a bailout from European Union partners to get back on its feet haven’t made the island an attractive destination.
But as the EU has struck a deal with Turkey to massively curtail flows of migrants into the continent through Greece, it’s believed that migrants will seek out new routes and Cyprus may experience a spike in arrivals, possibly through the breakaway north.
“Migrant arrivals to Cyprus could increase as people seek alternative routes to Europe if flows from Turkey to Greece stop or are greatly reduced,” said the IOM’s Xenophontos Koudona.
Ismail said the war took everything from him — his carpentry shop where he employed 10 people, and his three properties. He’s already spent the 30,000 euros ($33,500) in savings he brought with him from home and lives on a 900 euro-a-month ($1,005) allowance he receives from the state.
Now he’s looking to get Alaa the surgery she needs to walk properly, in Germany where his wife has family.
“The people are nice here, but it’s difficult,” he said. “Life in Syria is a thousand times better. … Hopefully the war will stop and we’ll be able to go back.”
Not for little Amal. “I don’t want to go back home,” she said.
MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS, Associated Press