He is thousands of miles away from his home in Aleppo, Syria, in a refugee camp in Bastad, Sweden. The Nordic winter is bitterly harsh here in December. The journey as a refugee has been long and winding. “We travelled mostly on foot; it was dangerous,” says Ahmad Al Haj, one of the more than four million Syrian refugees who have had to leave home in quest of safety. But Ahmad says it was all worth it in the end, as in the midst of war and displacement he found the love of his life.
For Tracey Shelton, now Ahmad’s wife, the wait for her husband to get legal residency in Sweden is not easy. “It has been really tough being forced to stay apart for so long, but hopefully it will be coming to an end soon. His asylum has been approved; we are now undergoing what seems like an endless wait for them to issue his papers,” says the Australian journalist and photographer who has spent years covering conflict in volatile regions, including Iraq, Libya, Syria and Lebanon. She is presently living in Istanbul, Turkey, in what she calls a “limbo”, waiting to move to Sweden to start a new life with Ahmad.
Images of those affected by the Syria crisis and painful headlines about the spillover effects of it tell much about the situation on ground, but millions of stories behind the images and headlines remain untold. Ahmad and Tracey’s love story is one of them.“Her work and her understanding of the situation in my region,” is one of the things Ahmad mentions when asked what drew him to her. By reporting on conflict and internal displacement, mostly within the Middle East, an affinity with Ahmad came naturally to Tracey. “After six years of working largely on frontlines and with Arab families, it’s hard for me to fit back into life in a Western country,” says Tracey.
The couple met socially when Tracey was living in Syria. “We met through a mutual friend. Ahmad and I got along really well from the beginning and became close friends. Things developed from there,” explains Tracey, adding that one of the reasons Ahmad took the trip to Europe was so that they could establish a life together.
Getting married was another obstacle for the two of them. Here were two people wanting to start a life together, and the proverbial man-made laws restricting them from doing so. “In Turkey it is illegal for a Sheikh (Muslim clergyman) to perform a nikaah (religious marriage) without a legal marriage so we couldn’t find anyone to do it there,” says Tracey. “Although in Islam, marriage between a Christian woman and a Muslim man is permitted, the Sheikhs did not want to accept the responsibility. We eventually found someone (to perform the nikaah) in Sweden, but we are still waiting for our marriage to be registered.” After trying for six months, the couple got married in June this year.
The couple has been living apart since Ahmad left Turkey for Europe earlier this year; they only get to meet sporadically when Tracey visits him. “Since he’s been in the camp, it’s harder for me to visit.”
While Ahmad has dreams of a secure future with Tracey, the ordeal has been traumatic. “Life was normal in Syria before the revolution. I never thought I’d be a refugee one day. I was still studying at the time and thought I’d go on to develop my career in IT,” reminisces Ahmad, son of a civil engineer and businessman and the eldest among three brothers and a sister. “The fighting in our area turned intense. It became hopeless to stay there. It was difficult to even get food and medicine. Our entire family left Syria together,” he recalls.
The Al Haj family, today, is spread all over, and none of them have yet acquired asylum anywhere. Ahmad’s father returned to Syria to try to sell some of his property, while his mother, brothers and sister are in Southern Turkey. “The displacement affected us in every way possible. I don’t have any legal status anywhere. On paper, technically, I didn’t exist. You have no rights, no identity, no work, and no way to study again,” says Ahmad, who now spends most of his time in the camp fixing everyone’s phones and laptops.
Despite the situational difficulties and a mostly long distance relationship, the two of them lighten up when asked about each other. “He is intelligent, funny, cool, sweet and charming. He cares about me and looks after me in a way I never dreamt of. He is also excellent with languages. He speaks three languages expertly,” says Tracey. Ahmad’s easygoing charm worked on her, as he was easy to talk to, she shares. “He has a lot of knowledge and a deep understanding of things. I love talking with him and listening to his ideas.” For Ahmad, what attracted him to her was “how she treats people. Her personality. And her beautiful eyes”.Tracey recalls when she met him twice en route to Greece and Serbia. “The soles of his feet were just two huge blisters from walking, just cushions of liquid. I don’t know how he managed to walk on them. But from there they had to keep walking through to Hungary.”
According to Sweden’s migration agency Migrationsverket, the applications for asylum received by Sweden in January 2015 were 4,896. By November 2015, the number rose to 36,741, and more than 25,000 of these are males. So far this year, more than 120,000 people have applied for asylum in Sweden.
While the future looks bleak for Syrian refugees, they have certain advantages, according to Tania Karas, an Athens-based journalist covering migration and refugee issues. “Syrians in particular tend to be middle-class, educated and technologically literate,” she says, adding that while this may be a slight generalisation, it does mean that Syrians, more than other refugees, have an easier time navigating their journeys and assimilating into European society. “Another advantage is that Syrians are considered ‘prima facie’ refugees because there’s an active war going on in their country so they are highly likely to be granted refugee status,” says Karas, who has been actively working with Syrian refugees in the Greek island of Lesbos. More than half of the refugees and migrants who have reached Greece this year have landed at Lesbos. Some 3,460 lives have been lost crossing the Mediterranean, reveals data provided by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The number of Syrians arriving in Europe seeking international protection continues to increase. However, according to the UNHCR, it remains low compared to Syria’s neighbouring countries, with slightly more than 10% of those who have fled the conflict seeking safety in Europe. Sweden which has had a very relaxed system in the past, where refugees could enter the country unobstructed, is now introducing border checks. The laissez-faire might not be feasible for Sweden any more, considering the very real security threats following the attacks in Paris. The situation, thus, seems poised to make life even tougher for the refugees. And a solution seems nowhere in sight.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres acknowledges that this is the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation. “It is a population that needs the support of the world but is instead living in dire conditions and sinking deeper into poverty,” Guterres says. According to the UNHCR, Syrians in exile face trials such as living in sub-standard shelters and below the poverty line in countries like Jordan and Lebanon. “Having to leave behind their family and friends and not knowing when they will see them again or whether they will see them alive are the prime difficulties Syrian refugees face,” says Argentina-based correspondent Kamilia Lahrichi. It’s tough for refugees to adapt to a new culture because of cultural barriers, she adds.While Ahmad appreciates European countries opening their gates for the refugees, and acknowledges that they try their best to help refugees and keep them comfortable, he is very clear when asked what he sees as a solution to the Syria crisis. “All of the outside countries — USA, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia — need to back off and let us solve our own problems. Foreign powers have made Syria their playground, trying to prove their strength,” he says. Tracey echoes the sentiment and expresses dismay at what started as a revolution has escalated into a regional proxy war. “Everything in Syria has become so complicated with too many players. I honestly don’t know what the solution is anymore.”
But for Ahmad, “the most difficult thing is being apart from Tracey” at the moment. “Until Ahmad’s final residency decision, everything is up in the air. Once it’s finalised Ahmad can start working here in Sweden and I can join him. We hope to start a family too,” says Tracey. Till then, love must wait.
Farahnaz Zahidi works as a senior subeditor at The Express Tribune. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 20th, 2015.