For a dozen years after Ahmad fled Iran in fear of his life, he was sustained by his Christian faith and the hope that one day he would be reunited with his wife and two sons.
Now the family is once again living under one roof – and with an additional member: a boisterous shih tzu terrier, who flew to the UK to complete the reunion.
It has not been easy. After being granted leave to remain in the UK in June 2022, it took Ahmad more than 16 months to secure visas for his wife, Maryam, and their children under the Home Office’s family reunion programme. The toddlers he left in Iran are now teenagers who are learning to live with their father again. Maryam and Ahmad are rebuilding their relationship after their lives fell apart in 2011.
But at least the family is together and settled in a flat in north-west London, not too far from Ahmad’s zero-hours contract job in a cash-and-carry warehouse. The boys are waiting for school places.
Ahmad was helped in his long quest to reunite his family by the Refugee Council and Refugees at Home, two of the trio of charities supported by the Guardian and Observer’s annual appeal, this year in support of refugees and asylum seekers (the third charity is Naccom, the No Accommodation Network).
“Even the most straightforward cases are taking a long time to be processed, meaning family members may be in danger [in their home country] or may risk their lives by trying to make their own way to the UK,” said Emmeline Skinner Cassidy of the Refugee Council.
Any adult with refugee status in the UK has the right to family reunion. However, children with refugee status are not entitled to be joined by their parents or siblings, in many cases resulting in anxiety, fear for their families’ safety and mental health issues.
Figures obtained by the Independent earlier this year under freedom of information requests, showed there were 11,189 people – mostly women and children – waiting for family reunion visas to enter the UK. Most had been waiting for more than six months, and almost 1,800 for more than a year.
“The backlog in family reunion applications is causing real harm to families who don’t know how long it will be before they are reunited. But so far we haven’t seen evidence that the government is prioritising processing these applications,” said Skinner Cassidy.
“We saw how quickly the government acted to reunite Ukrainian families after the Russian invasion. We need the same urgency to reunite other refugee families separated by war and persecution.”
People were at “their wits’ end”, she added. “Often the first thing people ask when they come to the Refugee Council is ‘How can I bring my family here?’ Children are growing up without their parents.”
This is what happened to Ahmad’s family after he fled Iran in fear of his life after converting to Christianity. He was a successful businessman, he family was affluent, with a nice home and good prospects.
Then Ahmad was invited by a colleague to attend a house church, where Christians gathered to worship in secret. In Iran, Muslims are forbidden to convert to Christianity. Despite the risks, Ahmad joined.
Just weeks later, he got word of an imminent raid. Warned that the security police were looking for him, Ahmad phoned Maryam to say goodbye and headed for Iran’s border with Turkey. He paid a smuggler to get him out of the country. “When I left Iran, I knew nothing would be the same again, but I had no regrets,” he said.
He spent the next eight years in Turkey, keeping in contact with the family by WhatsApp and Skype. From there he travelled to Greece and France, and in September 2020 he crossed the channel in a dinghy – a terrifying experience, he said. On arrival in the UK, he claimed asylum.
Maryam and the boys had been forced to move to another city, and were cut off by Ahmad’s family. She brought up the boys alone, in fear and insecurity. “I know he believed what he did was right, but it destroyed my life and my children’s lives. We lost everything,” she said.
Now, she said, “we are still working on being a family again. It’s taking time, especially for the children.”
Sara Nathan, co-founder of Refugees at Home, who hosted Ahmad for several months last autumn, said: “Families don’t get back on an even keel in a month after such a long separation. But at least they are all safe now.”
She found Ahmad a lawyer to help with his family reunion application, and secured the funds for airfares – including for the family’s dog – from a member of a nearby Anglican church. “The important thing about hHosting a refugee is not just providing a roof over their head, but connecting them to wider society. Refugees are inevitably quite isolated. We all need networks and communities, and refugees don’t have that access to begin with.
“It’s also about basic human connection – ‘How did you sleep?’, ‘What are you going to do today?’ – and helping them to feel safe, to relax, to be able to exhale.”
Ahmad and Maryam are pseudonyms