How does a father who has spent years apart from his two daughters prepare for a reunion? Girmay put on his best suit and held a big balloon that said “I Love You” as he waited for them to land at Amsterdam airport.
Girmay had not seen Kyara, 14, and Sara, 12, since he fled Eritrea in 2014 and came to the Netherlands. Since then, they had lived first with their stepmother and then with their paternal grandmother, before fleeing from Eritrea to Ethiopia in 2018.
Back in 2014, Girmay never imagined he would have to wait seven years before he would see his daughters again.
“I missed them every day,” he said, pacing up and down the arrivals hall concourse at the airport. He was accompanied by his two other children, Sinit 8, and Yodit, 6, who would be meeting their half-sisters for the first time.
Kyara and Sara were finally given the green light to join their father in the Netherlands earlier this month after years of family reunification procedures during which they were supported by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the Dutch Council for Refugees (Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland).
Family reunification is key to fulfilling refugees’ fundamental human right to family unity. It provides a legal route for refugees to be with their families, avoiding the need for dangerous land and sea crossings. But the process can be lengthy, taking a toll on families, especially children, and hindering their integration in host countries. In the Netherlands, it takes a year on average, but can take longer, especially when documentation is lacking.
Many Eritreans, including Girmay, struggle to obtain the required documents for their families. Girmay’s case was also delayed because he lacked written consent from the girls’ mother or a certificate to prove her death from natural causes in 2011. The recent conflict in Ethiopia and the COVID-19 pandemic further delayed the process.
For families who have been through a years-long bureaucratic process, the final hurdle can be raising the necessary funds to cover their loved ones’ travel costs.
“The first global airmiles fund that provides practical help.”
Fortunately for Kyara and Sara, the cost of their commercial flight from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to Amsterdam was covered by Miles4Migrants. The US-based charity uses donated airline frequent flyer miles to help people impacted by war, persecution, and disaster bring their loved ones to the countries where they have found refuge.
The girls’ case was the first to be referred to the charity by UNHCR since the two organizations signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in January.
“It constitutes an innovative solution to realizing the right of family unity for refugees who have the legal approval to travel for a reunion but can’t afford the airfare,” said Anna Gekht of UNHCR’s Resettlement and Complementary Pathways Service.
“It’s the first global airmiles fund that provides practical help with refugee family reunification. I would call upon everyone to consider donating their miles through the Miles4Migrants website,” she added.
After his wife’s death, Girmay remarried and had three more children, Sinit, Yodit and Kristina. They came to the Netherlands in 2017.
“I look forward to a beautiful future.”
Finally, Kyara and Sara walked through the arrivals gate and the family hugged each other tightly. There were no words, only astonishment that this long-awaited moment had finally arrived. Girmay’s wife had prepared a special meal for the family at their home as a way of starting their new life together.
His only regret was that an application for his foster son and nephew Michaele, to join them had been denied. He has been living with Girmay’s family since the age of five, when his parents were imprisoned in Eritrea, but there was no formal documentation to prove Girmay’s custody of him. Micheale, who suffers from a disability, for now remains in Ethiopia with his aunt.
“I am happy Kyara and Sara can continue their education here. I look forward to a beautiful future for them in safety, free from worries,” said Girmay.
This story is one of many that can be supported through donations to the Miles4Migrants airmiles bank. For more information on how to donate miles please visit: https://miles4migrants.org/campaign-unhcr/.