Editor’s Note: Amanda Bailly is an American filmmaker based in Beirut. Her forthcoming feature documentary, “8 Borders, 8 Days,” follows the story of Sham, a Syrian single mother of two, from Damascus to Berlin. Unless otherwise noted, facts here reflect the research and work of that film. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.
Amanda Bailly: America is missing an opportunity to fulfill its moral obligations to the world
Bailly's forthcoming documentary film follows a Syrian family's journey from Damascus to Berlin
When I met Sham, a Syrian single mother living in Beirut in 2015, she had been waiting more than a year for news from the United States Embassy about her asylum application. She had been told her case would get priority consideration because she is a single mother. She was interviewed at the embassy, underwent medical tests, and attended American culture classes arranged by the embassy. She says she thought she would be permitted to travel any day.
But even for a single mother and two children, categories identified as the most vulnerable groups among refugees, 15 months of waiting didn’t yield resettlement. The process is rigorous, and according to news organizations like the BBC, often takes 18-24 months, should the family be selected. According to an October 2015 analysis from The New York Times, the United States had resettled just under 2,000 Syrian refugees since the war started.
Sham (a nickname she uses) says that meanwhile, life in Lebanon had become unbearable. As a woman and a refugee, she was being exploited at every turn.
“In Syria you either live or you die, in Lebanon you feel like you are dying every day,” Sham told me when I met her.
I’ve heard this sentiment from many Syrians during the two years that I’ve been in Lebanon. Residency laws result in day-to-day insecurity for the 1 million Syrians in the country, and single women are particularly vulnerable.
In September 2015, Sham decided she couldn’t keep waiting for the chance to build a future for herself and her family, so she contacted smugglers and arranged to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece on an inflatable raft. The final straw for Sham was a doctor’s warning that her 7-year-old, Lulu, would have permanent bone damage if she didn’t get more protein, something Sham couldn’t provide on her meager salary from teaching Arabic.
Halfway across the 4-mile stretch, their overcrowded raft took on water and began to sink. Luly and her other child, Yaman, 10, emptied plastic bags and used them to bail water from the sinking raft. Neither knew how to swim.
“We were afraid we would sink with the boat,” Lulu told me. Their raft eventually drifted to shore and everyone survived, unlike the thousands of others who have died on similar routes, but Lulu still remembers the fear.
As an American, I found it heartbreaking to have a 7-year-old girl look me in the eye and tell me that she was certain she was going to drown in the middle of the sea because my country hadn’t helped her.
I followed Sham, Yaman and Lulu on the rest of their journey from Lesbos, Greece, to Berlin with my camera, and have spent the last year and a half documenting their story. I wanted to understand the circumstances that could lead a single mother to decide that risking her children’s lives at sea was safer than staying on land.
Sham didn’t want to take the raft. “But when every other option is closed off, you choose to risk death,” Sham told me from a refugee center in Berlin.
Like American parents, Syrian parents desperately want what’s best for their children.
Today, according to UNICEF, there are more than 2 million Syrian children out of school (in both Syria and neighboring countries) and as many mothers and fathers who wake up in the morning wondering what they can do to provide their children a better future.
With President Trump’s executive order, which indefinitely bans all Syrians, temporarily bans all refugees, and temporarily bans nationals from seven Muslim countries, there will be even fewer options for the single mothers, children, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups displaced by conflict to reach a safe space where they can build a life.
America has a moral obligation to do more to ensure that 7-year-olds are not bailing water out of their sinking rafts, or washing up dead on the beach because their parents are desperate to get them to a place where they can grow and thrive.
Today the family of three is in Berlin. Yaman and Lulu missed an entire school year because there was no space in German schools. Sham wasn’t allowed to earn money for more than a year because her paperwork had not been processed in the backlog. But I have no doubt that Sham will thrive one day when she has the tools to be self-sufficient.
Seventeen months after she applied for resettlement, Sham received word from the American Embassy that there still was no decision on her application. America missed an opportunity to help Sham and her two clever, resilient children. It shouldn’t close the door to the thousands of others still waiting to be resettled.