Two migrant sisters from Syria, now worlds apart

Two migrant sisters from Syria, now worlds apart
Fawziyeh, a 52-year-old Syrian woman, holds her grandson as she attends an interview with Reuters at her house in a small town south of Beirut, Lebanon.

BEIRUT - In a small town south of Beirut, Fawziyeh keeps her apartment immaculately clean despite its crumbling walls and the plastic sheets flapping across its windows. She shares the three-bedroom flat with 12 others including her five children - all, like her, refugees from Syria.

Almost every day she gets cellphone messages from her younger sister Rabab, in Germany.

They both fled their homeland three years ago, and their divergent lives capture the fates dealt to millions of Syrians forced from their country by its four-year civil war.

Rabab, a 42-year-old widow, and her two teenage children are among the few thousand Syrians selected by a rich European country for re-settlement. They live in a comfortable house and receive free education and health insurance.

Fawziyeh, 10 years her senior, was not re-settled. In Lebanon, she is one of more than one million Syrians with no legal right to work and little aid. She and her children cannot return to Syria, she said: Neighbours there told her the façade of their old apartment block was blown away.

Thousands of other Syrians have gambled on paying people-smugglers a few thousand dollars to board leaky boats that could carry them to a better life on the other side of the Mediterranean.

"I think about going to Europe ... but I don't think about going in a boat because the life of my family is much more precious," Fawziyeh says. Last year 42,323 of the 170,100 migrants who arrived in Italy by sea were from Syria, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IMO). So far this year, Italy says, nearly 2,000 have died.

The chance of a refugee winning official resettlement in a rich country such as Germany according to United Nations data is small: around 0.5 per cent. Around 90 per cent of the four million people in what the UN calls the worst refugee crisis since World War Two now live in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

The two most generous wealthy countries, Germany and Canada, have promised to take 30,000 and 11,300 refugees respectively but have yet to receive anything like that. The UK, which supports armed Syrian insurgents, has taken in 143. Russia, which supports the Syrian army, and Japan, the world's third largest economy, have each taken zero.

In all, the UN refugee agency UNHCR thinks about one in 10 Syrian refugees in the region are, like Rabab, vulnerable enough to need resettling. That's a total of 400,000 people. It has asked rich countries to help resettle one third of that number - 130,000 between 2013 and 2016. A UNHCR official described that goal as "ambitious." The official said that asking to resettle all 400,000 was not realistic.

Rich countries have also promised cash. But the UN says it has received only 19 per cent of the $4 billion it asked for.

That leaves people like Fawziyeh facing a tough choice: Forge a life in Lebanon, return to war, or risk the sea passage.

Fawziyeh shares Rabab's blue eyes and soft croaky voice, and is thrilled that her younger sister is now in Europe. "She suffered a lot, I'm so happy for her," Fawziyeh said.

The pair were so close as little girls that their family called them "the secret keepers." Their regular contact today is a mixed blessing, Fawziyeh said. The contact reveals a stability she may never see.

"She is going shopping, getting stuff for her house. She is sitting at home, her children are going to school, her house is organised, she's secure and provided for," Fawziyeh said.

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