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Denmark: Refugee grandmother told to return to Syria

Copenhagen, Denmark – Rihab Kassem, a retired nurse and grandmother of Syrian and Palestinian origin, arrived in Denmark more than eight years ago.

She had been living in Yarmouk, an unofficial camp in Damascus for the Palestinian refugee community in Syria.

Her initial plan was to visit Waled, her son who had been living in Denmark since 1996 and has long been a citizen of the Scandinavian country.

But after she arrived, as the war intensified in Syria, violence gripped her refugee camp.

She applied for asylum and in January 2014, Danish authorities gave her a residence permit, valid for five years. That was then extended for another two years. Later, she was granted temporary protection status.

Her new life grew as the one she had known in Syria faded. She enjoyed time in Europe with her children and grandchildren.

But early this year, as the Danish government made a controversial decision to declare parts of Syria safe enough to return to, her application for residence was rejected and she was called in for an interview.

Kassem, 66, was nervous but hopeful.

Two months later, however, she was informed that her permit was revoked because the Danish government considered that security in Damascus, the capital of Syria, and surrounding areas had improved enough to be called home again.

“Return to where? I have no one, nothing, in Syria,” she told Al Jazeera. “My family lives in Denmark and I’m the only person who was asked to leave.

“We are not beggars here, we work, we work hard, we go to school, we pay taxes and this is happening to us … I cannot understand it.”

Kassem moves and breathes with difficulty.

She says that her lungs operate at 35 percent of their capacity, the result of a strike coordinated by the Syrian army using poisonous gas.

She was hoping to receive medical treatment in Denmark but because her residency permit was revoked, she is no longer entitled to government support or national healthcare.

“I worked for three decades as a nurse, my dream was to make enough money so I could build a hospital in my neighbourhood (in Syria)”, she said.

She saved enough to buy a plot of land and a house to be transformed into a hospital. But during the renovation, the house was bombed.

“All of a sudden there was nothing left. Nothing,” she said.

The official letter rejecting her residency application cited three reasons.

The first was that her children are adults and no longer depend on her. Secondly, the letter said Damascus was considered safe by the Danish government report and claimed her life would not be at risk. And finally, while authorities recognised she has health issues, they said they were not severe enough to justify her stay in Denmark.

“The stress that I’m living is incomprehensible,” she said. “The rules keep on changing, the government is not living up to their end of the contract.”

When Al Jazeera contacted the Danish Immigration Service for a response, a press officer shared the document explaining why Kassem’s status was revoked.

Rihab rejects all the government’s claims and, since May 18, has been protesting against the ostensible efforts to deport refugees with several others in front of the Danish Parliament.

She intends to stay at the sit-in until she receives more concrete answers or is forced to leave.

At one point, she went on a three-day hunger strike.

Hundreds of Syrians in Denmark have been thrust into the same precarious position after the government’s widely criticised declaration that Damascus was safe.

It was the first European country to make such a statement.

But because Denmark has no diplomatic relations with Syria – it does not recognise the government of President Bashar al-Assad – refugees cannot be forced back.

Rather, they will likely be sent to deportation camps – or “departure centres” – inside Danish territory.

“They have a ‘tolerated’ status: deported from the political and social systems, but not physically deported,” said Violeta Ligrayen Yañez, a freelance facilitator and educator who has been working alongside the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance.

Most will refuse to go. Some will try and seek asylum elsewhere.

“They [Danish authorities] have two options: either they send me to a deportation camp or to a hospital, but I will not leave,” said Kassem.

“Treat us like humans, we deserve to be treated like humans. We’ve seen so many hardships in Syria, in Lebanon, in Palestine and even when we come here to Denmark – supposedly a free country – this is happening to us … So my main message is that I want to be treated as a human. Syria is not safe.”




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