since Sawsan Ghazal left to
pursue asylum for her family
A Mother’s Wrenching Choice
Reporting from Ljusdal, Sweden
She woke before dawn in the cramped apartment in Istanbul. She kissed her three children as they slept, and decided not to wake them. She might lose her courage if she did. She said goodbye to her husband and stepped into the chill of the dark street, under the towering minaret of the mosque next door. It was drizzling.
At 44, Sawsan Ghazal could not recall a day she had been apart from her children. A small woman with a dulcet voice, she had always been resourceful, always found a way to protect them, whether from bombs or the mayhem in their genes.
As a girl, she had seen little of her own parents. They had divorced when she was young. When she grew up and built a family, she promised herself, she would never abandon them to that kind of loneliness.
Now, in February 2014, she was convinced that the only way to save her children was to leave them, crossing the continent with a man whose real name she didn’t know. She had an assumed identity and a fake passport.
She had memorized her role. She would be an English-speaking Turkish nurse on vacation, not just another Arab Muslim fleeing Syria’s interminable civil war. The smuggler was waiting.
They had been dressmakers in Aleppo, Syria’s bustling commercial hub. She had never lived anywhere else, and took an outsized pride in her city’s history. It had endured millennia of strife and shifting rule — the Romans and Byzantines, the Mongols and Ottomans, plague and war.
Aleppo had, to her, an eternal quality. Her earliest memories were of her grandmother, who mostly raised her, taking her by the hand through the Old City. They explored the noisy labyrinth of the great bazaar, the tables teeming with dates and spices and gold.
As an adult, she came to search out fabrics for the small garment factory she ran with her husband, Ourwa Alaraj. She would lead her own children — her son Abdulsalam, and daughters Joud and Cidra — through the clamor of the ancient maze.
They vacationed on the Mediterranean shore at Latakia. When she returned from a trip, the city’s smell — a compound of the earth, the trees and the flowers — greeted her like an embrace.
Syria was a police state. But it was possible for a non-political family like theirs, part of the Sunni Muslim majority, to live comfortably. Street crime was rare and harshly punished; she had always felt safe.
More important, there was healthcare for her two oldest children, Abdulsalam and Joud, who had slight, brittle bodies as a result of thalassemia, a genetic blood disorder. Because their bodies didn’t make hemoglobin normally, they needed regular transfusions to live.
Every two weeks, all through their childhood, she had packed them into the family Volkswagen for a four-hour ritual at the hospital. The siblings lay side by side, often asleep, as blood dripped through a tube into their bone-thin arms.
She told them the disease did not need to define them. Their bodies might be weak, but their minds were strong and capable. She had always tried to shield them, to explain hard realities in a way that left room for hope, but there was little she could do when doctors ran tests and learned they had contracted hepatitis C from bad blood.
By then they were old enough to understand that hepatitis could eventually kill them, and that it probably made their one hope of a thalassemia cure — a bone-marrow transplant — too dangerous to try.
They did not want to leave Syria. They clung to it as long as possible, even as it crumbled around them. She and her husband were sure the antigovernment protests that erupted in early 2011 would be short-lived.
They believed it possible to wait out the chaos, even as the street-by-street fighting reached Aleppo and rebels carved out large chunks of the city and her children learned to dive to the floor of the car if she turned down the wrong street.
They believed it even as they became accustomed to warplanes overhead, and as Cidra called weeping from school to say militants had scrawled threats on the walls: If you send your kids to school, we will kill them and send back only their bags.
They believed it even as they learned to leave the windows slightly ajar so they wouldn’t shatter, on nights when they could feel explosions trembling through the carpet of their ground-floor apartment.
Somehow, the children were able to sleep through the encroaching war. She and Ourwa would carry them into the central hallway, farthest from the windows, and tell themselves: If death comes, at least we will be together.
In early 2012, they closed the dress factory. Supplies of cotton and linen and chiffon had been cut off. They rented a shop and sold shoes.
Blood became harder to get. Soldiers needed it. She pleaded with friends and neighbors to donate, so her children could get blood in return.
That winter the hospital lost power, and finally she was bringing the blood bags home for Abdulsalam and Joud and swabbing their arms to insert the intravenous lines herself. She had seen it done hundreds of times. She kept them warm with blankets and told stories of the Old City.
Abdulsalam was a bright, curious, ambitious boy, a social magnet. He was instantly likable. He picked up languages quickly. He had taught himself English watching American movies. He had the high cheekbones and fervent eyes of a pop star. Thalassemia had arrested the aging process. In his late teens, he looked like a much younger boy.
His mother was working in the shoe store in January 2013 when a customer asked if she’d heard about the bombing at Aleppo University. It was the first day of exams, so she knew Abdulsalam would be on campus. He was a first-year geology student there, in a government-controlled part of the city.
She tried frantically to call him but couldn’t get through. An hour passed, and then another, and she thought she might go crazy.
Finally he called to say, “Mom, I’m OK.” He was alive, but he wasn’t OK. He said he had been nearby when the blast tore through the Department of Architecture.
The facades of buildings were sheared away. Smoke poured from the husks of cars. Glass was everywhere, twisted beams, rubble, bodies. More than 80 people were killed, some of them his friends.
Witnesses had seen a warplane overhead, which pointed to a government attack. Had the military targeted the school because it was known as a site of antigovernment protests? Had the real target been rebels, encamped just a few blocks away? Each side blamed the other; nobody took responsibility.
“At that moment I said, ‘No, I can’t stay here anymore,’” she would say. “I could lose them.”
She saw her son change. He said almost nothing for three days. He became withdrawn. He would refuse to talk about what he saw. He refused to return to school.
And so in April 2013, in the third year of the war, they left Aleppo. They were luckier than many other Syrians, who became stranded in refugee camps. They had some jewelry and a car to sell.
A hired driver took them to Beirut, a plane took them to Istanbul. The Turkish government gave them ID cards, with a stamp forbidding them to work. They found a small second-floor apartment in a dense hillside neighborhood in the city’s European side, next to a towering concrete mosque whose loudspeaker filled their living room with the call to prayer.
She and her husband found low-paid, under-the-table factory work to pay for rent and food and blood transfusions, but it quickly became clear their options were meager.
Her husband had slipped disks in his back, from a lifetime of bending over garment-cutting machines. Turkish factories wanted younger, fitter workers.
She had always admired her husband, a talented dress designer and a tireless breadwinner. “An amazing man,” she called him. Of the many men who sought her hand in marriage, as a young woman, most wanted her to abandon any ambition beyond caring for the kids, but Ourwa respected her independence.
He was from a poor family, and had worked double-shifts for years at other people’s factories before he could open his own, and he had had to leave it all behind. “Everything he built is gone,” his son said. “His only future is to see us living a normal life.”
Abdulsalam tried to make some money for his family. He found jobs as a waiter, but got fired because he needed to sit. He worked in garment factories, but his arms were weak and he dropped things.
Nor could he get an office job, because that required perfect Turkish and English. “When I say I am Syrian, they say, ‘No,’” he said. “They want to avoid problems with other Turkish people who think we’re stealing their jobs.”
His sisters stayed in touch with friends from home on social media, but he decided to sever ties with Syria. He kept getting word his friends were being killed. He didn’t want to know.
When he closed his eyes and tried to remember the Aleppo where he grew up — his school, his street, where he played, the way home — he drew a blank. He had a theory.
“It’s like a firewall. If I think about this, maybe I’ll miss Syria. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to look back, so I can go forward,” he said. “I turned my back to everyone I knew. I think that’s the most evil thing I did, trying to protect myself.”
In some ways, Turkey proved generous. When Sawsan found a bureaucrat willing to listen, the government paid for transfusions. This would at least keep Abdulsalam and Joud alive, though they were getting no treatment for hepatitis C.
She had a half brother who had made a new life in Sweden. Of all the places they might try to reach, it seemed the most hopeful — a stable government, big northern forests, human rights. That was its image, at least. It was granting Syrians automatic asylum, teaching them Swedish.
It would be a 1,300-mile journey with the smuggler.
The family managed to borrow $10,000, the fare for just one of them.
After touching down in Sweden and getting a residency permit, the plan went, one of them would send for the others.
It couldn’t be Cidra, 14, who was so anxious she held her mother as she slept. It couldn’t be Joud, 18, or Abdulsalam, 20 — their illness made it too risky.
That left her and Ourwa. Usually, the man went. But Ourwa’s back pain might debilitate him, and someone needed to stay behind to protect the children.
Plus, authorities would be looking for Syrian men, which improved her odds of success. And she spoke better English than her husband, so she could fake a non-Syrian identity.
“I have to be a strong woman,” she would say. “I have to be the strong one.”
And so, on the drizzly morning in February 2014 she left Istanbul, she squeezed into the back of the smuggler’s covered truck for a daylong ride to Athens. She counted 13 others in the crush of bodies, mostly Syrian men.
Soon she was in a security line at the Athens airport. She knew nothing about the smuggler except his first name, Mohammed, and she figured that was probably as fake as the one on the passport he’d given her.
She was supposed to be a Turkish nurse on a ski vacation, but she spoke no Turkish. So if anyone spoke to her, she had to remember to reply in English, rather than give herself away with Aleppo-inflected Arabic.
She and the smuggler boarded the plane, careful not to look at each other. They landed in Copenhagen, and he drove her into the southern Swedish city of Malmo and left her.
She would stay with her half brother in Ljusdal, a small country town in central Sweden, a few hours north of Stockholm.
It was night when she arrived. There was snow on the big open fields and snow on the trees, and the lakes were frozen. Lanterns glowed from the windows of red farmhouses, a sight she found welcoming and beautiful.
The town was a postcard of bucolic Sweden, tidy and sleepy and forested, with one movie theater that closed in the summer. A massive lumber pile greeted visitors at the train station.
The Swedish government had no room for refugees in the big cities and was scattering them across the vast, thinly populated countryside, in dorm-like camps and repurposed apartment buildings and gone-to-seed hotels, some as far north as the Arctic circle. In one well-publicized case, a group of newly arrived Syrians, aghast at the remoteness and coldness, refused to get off the bus.
But she found much to like about Ljusdal. There were hiking trails through deep woods of spruce and pine. There was a public library with a shelf of Arabic books and a geography room, where she studied Swedish atlases until closing. Socially, she quickly learned, it was nothing like the Middle East with its overcrowded cafes, big extended families, spontaneous meals, fast friendships. Swedes were kind and polite, but reticent and hard to approach. It was difficult to make friends.
Six months, she thought. At most, her family would be joining her within six months.
Syrians in Sweden
Total population of Sweden
As of December 2014
Syrian asylum requests
2011 through latest 2015 report
Residency permits granted
Sources: Statistics Sweden and Swedish Migration Board
She was one of 30,583 Syrians to apply for asylum in Sweden in 2014. Despite the deluge, the government was processing some cases relatively fast. By summer she was in her own apartment, with a residency permit, which allowed her to apply for permission to bring her family.
Her husband and youngest child had a strong case, according to Swedish Migration Board policies, but Abdulsalam and Joud were over 18. The board would give permits to adult children only in “special cases,” the website said.
Months passed, and she told herself not to panic.
But how could she not, considering the news her family was giving her — sometimes reluctantly — from Istanbul?
One morning, her husband woke to find dirty footprints in the kitchen. Thieves had climbed through the window at night and stolen their mobile phones, and the last of the family’s cash.
There was little police could do, or cared to do. As much as the theft, the official indifference left the family feeling vulnerable. It chilled her to wonder what would have happened if they had awoken to find the thieves. Would they be alive?
Shortly afterward, her family related another frightening incident. Two Syrian men had appeared at the apartment. They spoke in the accents of the Aleppo countryside.
They had orders from their boss to kill Abdulsalam, they said, but would spare him for $10,000.
Again, the Turkish authorities were no help.
Someone must have informed the men that they had been a prosperous family, and still had money. For all they knew, it was someone in the neighborhood they saw every day.
Her face appears on their smartphone in their Turkish living room. Their faces appear on her Samsung tablet in her Swedish kitchen. They spend hours that way, in a melancholy simulacrum of togetherness. Often they don’t talk at all, just watch each other’s routine chores.
She watches Abdulsalam and Joud in their living room sipping cups of water mixed with Exjade, the iron remover they need to survive. She watches Ourwa unroll his prayer rug in the corner and face Mecca.
It is how they celebrated Ourwa’s 50th birthday. It is how she teaches her daughters things they didn’t have time for in Syria, like how to prepare the Middle Eastern dish kousa mahshi, zucchini stuffed with rice and meat.
“I’m trying to make them feel I’m still with them,” she says.
Often, she and her husband talk about what they will do when they are reunited in Sweden. They talk about opening a shop together. Importing clothes from Turkey, and handbags from Italy. She tells him he will have a chance again to be the man he once was.
The government sends her monthly checks of about $1,200, about half of which goes for rent. The rest she sends to her family and uses for bills.
She lives alone in a small third-floor apartment, amid woods. Her window looks out on a well-kept courtyard with a playground and slide. She knows her neighbors only enough to say hello.
Her closest Swedish friend is Gunhild Carlbom, a 78-year-old pensioner, who found her alone at a folk-dancing festival and befriended her. She helped her buy a wooden kitchen table, and gave her a rustic green one-speed bike, still sturdy in its fifth decade.
“She’s a very lovely person and she has had a very hard life,” Carlbom said. “I don’t understand how she can bear it.”
She keeps a Koran on a shelf above photos of her family that are arranged like a shrine. During Ramadan this summer, she found it impossible to keep the fast required of Muslims during daylight hours, because just about all the hours were daylight hours in summertime Scandinavia. When night came, it was like a hand passing quickly over your face.
Like many Syrian refugees in Sweden, she can’t find a paying job. She’s willing to work anywhere — in a restaurant, a hotel, a shop. She has worked her whole adult life, and prolonged periods of enforced idleness are grinding.
As part of the government’s effort to acculturate her, she puts in a few unpaid hours at a perfume shop in the downtown mall. She struggles to understand the labels. She misreads Swedish menus and has to pick ham chunks out of her salad.
She takes Swedish classes, where they watch American movies and TV shows like “Welcome to Sweden,” a sitcom finding mirth in the cultural idiosyncrasies of Swedes.
But how can she focus, when every second thought is about her family?
Nobody will tell her how long it will take to process their case. About 74,000 more refugees, from Syria and elsewhere, are expected to reach Sweden this year.
Her greatest fears are for Abdulsalam and Joud. How long will blood supplies last, now that Turkish soldiers are in harm’s way in the fight against Islamic State?
“Nothing can make me happy here,” she said. It is a feeling of being amputated; half of her is somewhere else.
Every spare moment, she Skypes her family. She teaches them basic Swedish phrases. God morgon. Good morning. Mar du bra? Are you OK? Hej da. Goodbye.
More than once, she has had to remind them to study the language. They will need it when they get here.
There is no chance of going home. On her tablet, she calls up photos of Aleppo — what it was, what it is.
The great mosque, its minaret smashed.
The great bazaar, burned.
The Old City where she grew up, rubble.
“Even I can’t understand what’s happening. It will take a generation to repair,” she says. “My life is just a memory. I carry it on my tablet.”
There is a little Syrian grocery store behind the language school, where she buys thick Syrian coffee, grape leaves, olives, spices, falafel mix. There were only a few Syrians in town when she arrived, but more seem to be coming all the time.
One of them is another refugee from Aleppo named Amar, a pharmacist, who wears a stricken and baffled look when he talks about what Syria has become.
On his smartphone he calls up footage of Islamic State militants beheading a man in the desert.
The victim was a family friend, he says, accused of working for the Syrian government. His throat spills blood into the sand. Sawsan looks away.
For her daughters, Cidra and Joud, the apartment in Istanbul is a kind of prison. It is plain, the walls bare. There is no air conditioning in the brutally hot summer months.
Their father does not let them out of the house unescorted. They aren’t enrolled in school. They play Candy Crush on the smartphone, and draw elaborate cartoons based on Japanese anime.
Her husband, a proud man, left the core of his identity in Syria. “My husband feels like a destroyed man,” she says. “He used to support the family, and now he can do nothing.”
He likes to say that it is all in God’s hands. “Whatever happens, we believe destiny has been written,” he says.
His temper is quick to flare. He buys cheap bags of hand-rolled cigarettes, 20 for a dollar, which he methodically deposits in an empty pack of Gauloises Blondes, the more expensive brand he smoked back home.
Fate in its mystery has somehow brought him full circle, from a poor man to a comfortable man to a poor man, now without even a country.
He carries a plastic bag full of butts and ashes from the living room to the trash can. This is what he does now, he says ruefully. This is his job.
Then there is Abdulsalam. He sleeps through the day’s heat and stays up late smoking and streaming “Agents of Shield” and other TV shows on his smartphone.
He is determined, somehow, to make it to Sweden. He’ll walk, if he has to. “It may take a lot of time, but I’m going there,” he says.
It is unwise to speak Arabic too loudly in public, he says, because there are enough people in Turkey who don’t like Syrians to make it dangerous. Once, he says, men attacked him at a train station and shocked him with a taser.
He reads psychology texts online, to understand human motivation. He thinks of it as a matter of survival, a way to protect himself. He has read that raising your elbows when you speak disarms people, as does a big smile, so he practices these.
“I give the friendly signs, so people don’t think of me as an enemy, so I don’t have to fight, because physically I’m weak,” he says. “Because I’m Syrian, I’m always in danger. My muscles don’t get enough blood, so I can’t fight.”
He studies psychology, too, because he knows he hasn’t recovered from the day the bombs hit his school.
“The light inside me is broken, and I need to find a way to fix it,” he says.
All day long she checks the migration board’s website for the status of her request to bring her family over. When she wakes up. At lunch. After school. Before bed. It is always the same:
She emails the United Nations refugee agency, writing “Save my family” in the subject line.
The U.N. refers her to the Red Cross, which refers her back to the Swedish Migration Board, which replies with form letters when she sends pleas to consider her children’s illness and expedite their cases. The letters send her into the woods on her old bike, pedaling furiously to outrace her growing desperation.
Her mind races. The war goes on and on. The deaths have passed 200,000. The news is full of Syrian refugees decomposing in trucks and vanishing in the Aegean and washing up on beaches.
She thinks of flying to Turkey and bringing her family back herself, by land or sea, whatever the risks. “Maybe if I die, I could find peace,” she says.
Twice, she has been back to visit them, and it is terrible to say goodbye. But Sweden is where she lives now. It is where she is laying the groundwork for a future she is struggling, more and more, to make them believe in. It is where they are going to live together and tease each other about the difficulty of learning a strange, brand-new language. It is where, every Wednesday, she walks to the government building across the street from the downtown mall to see the migration authorities.
She waits amid wall murals celebrating Sweden’s pastoral glories: big farmhouses, picture-book fishing villages.
The young official who greets her today, Zlatko Powicevic, listens politely as she explains that she’s been here more than a year waiting for her family. That she keeps emailing the case officer, but gets no reply.
“What shall I do?”
“You can email her again,” he says, but seems doubtful that would help. Unaccompanied minors seeking asylum have been contributing to the backlog. “There’s a heavy flow of kids now, so they’re prioritizing those cases.”
“I kind of lost hope.”
This is Abdulsalam, his face appearing on her tablet one day this summer.
“After two years now, I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere,” he says. “That’s killing me.”
He speaks with a despair that she knows she cannot afford to surrender to, and so she sits at her kitchen table telling her son what she has told him many times before: “But I will win it. I will do it.”
“You can’t win every fight.”
“You don’t know what the heart of a mother can do.”
He is alive, he says, but not really living, because “only breathing doesn’t count.” He believes that if Sweden were going to approve their case, it would have happened.
“I just think this is going nowhere,” he says.
They talk for a while, and then it is time to sign off.
“Hej da,” she says in Swedish.
“Hej da,” her son replies.
She covers her face. Her eyes are wet. She has always found shreds of hope where others couldn’t. Right now, it is in the language he spoke when he said goodbye.
About this story: Times reporter Christopher Goffard spent three weeks in Sweden interviewing Sawsan Ghazal, other Syrian refugees and immigration officials. He also conducted multiple interviews in Istanbul with her family.
About this series: This is the second in a series of reports on the greatest trans-national human migration since World War II. How we reported the series and reader reaction here »
Additional Credits: Digital design director: Stephanie Ferrell. Digital producer: Evan Wagstaff.