Stranded in Sweden aged 12: Why reuniting with relatives is crucial for refugees

Omar, a refugee from Syria, was just 12 years old when he accidentally arrived alone in Sweden. It took months of tears and worry, emails and phone calls before his parents and big brother could join him. As Denmark proposes delaying family reunification for up to five years, their story shows why the right to a family life is worth fighting for.

“I slept in jeans, not pyjamas,” says Maha Khadour, Omar’s mother, recalling the summer of 2012 when bombs starting falling on their neighbourhood in Syria. “You just didn’t know when you’d have to flee.”

Despite being a veterinarian, not a doctor, her husband Mohannad gave medical help to injured neighbours who feared being arrested if they sought help at a public hospital. When rumours started circulating that the government was looking for Mohannad, he and Maha fled with their two sons, Ali, now aged 19, and Omar, now 14, to neighbouring Turkey.

They had hoped to travel on to Europe, but it soon became obvious that getting there legally wasn’t an option. As Palestinian Syrians, Maha says they had little hope of ever getting the residence permits needed to work and study. Then most of their money was stolen. As the region’s refugee crisis escalated – Turkey is now home to over 2 million Syrian refugees – they were trapped.

“I tried sending messages to 10 European embassies and consulates in Istanbul, explaining our situation,” Maha says. “I never got an answer. We couldn’t even enter [the buildings].”

Alone in Stockholm airport

Frustrated, the family tried twice to fly to Europe. But without an EU entry visa, they were stopped twice. Finally, Mohannad tried a third time with Omar and a woman smuggler who pretended to be his mother. Mohannad was stopped again by Turkish police, but Omar passed under the radar.

It wasn’t until hours later, when Omar found himself completely alone in Stockholm airport, that he realized his dad hadn’t made it.

“It was horrible,” his mum says. “I sent the Swedish embassy hundreds of emails saying: ‘Please, my son is there, I have to go to him.’ He was just 12 years old.”


Four months later, Omar got his residence permit and the right to be reunited with his family – guaranteed by both international and European law. In August 2014, his parents and older brother finally joined him.

Arriving in Sweden, some things felt surprisingly familiar: “When we came to Uddevalla [a town in south-western Sweden], my husband and sons laughed at me,” says Maha, “because every now and then I’d say: ‘Look at this grass, look at that mountain – it’s the same as in my village [in Syria].”

“I started working as an English teacher and it was wonderful. I feel better when I can teach children. My husband is still studying Swedish. It’s harder for him – he worked as a veterinarian for 20 years and is an expert in his field. To work here he has to study the language for three years, then go to university for another two years.”

Walking from Greece to Germany

Maha and her family have recently made room for two more people in their small apartment. Their young niece, Rahaf, aged five, and her big brother Noor, 19, have arrived after a dangerous and lonely journey through Europe on foot.

“It took them 20 days,” says Maha. “Rahaf is five years old – she shouldn’t have to walk from Greece to Germany.”

“It was an awful experience for her – she’s always talking about the police,” she continues. “They were afraid of the police in all the countries they went through. I tell her that the police here helps you. But she’s still afraid.”

The gruelling journey Rahaf and Noor were forced to undertake is a symptom of a much bigger problem: For most refugees, despite their right to seek asylum and get protection abroad, getting to Europe safely and legally is now almost impossible.

The human right to a family life

In the chaos of the global refugee crisis, close relatives end up separated for many reasons. For them, family reunification is one of the few legal ways they can be together again. “I wouldn’t have been able to go to Sweden if my son wasn’t already there,” Maha says.

But now, even the human right to a family life comes under attack, as Denmark proposes legal changes that could force close relatives to wait up to five years to see each other again. This is despite research showing that family support is crucial for refugees, helping people deal with trauma and integrate in new societies.

And the harder it gets for refugees to find protection abroad, the more people will be forced to go through hell – walking for weeks in the freezing cold and risking their lives in inflatable boats – to find safety.

Dreams for the future

Maha thinks the current situation is “insane”: “If these governments could do one thing, at least they could help people to come here normally.”

“My dream for the future is to go back to my country,” she says. “At night I dream about going back to these villages I loved. And sometimes I think about how many relatives I have lost in this conflict. Almost all of them are dead.”

“And I think a lot about what you can do to make real change. Maybe that’s what makes me want to be a teacher so strongly. I know that what I teach a child today, she will make use of tomorrow. And that’s good. Maybe it’s one way to create change.”

Learn more and take action: The Syrian Refugee Crisis