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Love can conquer, but cutting through red tape sure helps

Rahaf Alhoush says she is happy. And, so is her husband Shadi Trad. Rahaf is one of several Syrian applicants seeking residence in Finland who's been able to join a family member living here because officials made special arrangements on two occasions this year to deal with their cases.

Shadi ja Rahaf Trad
Image: Retu Liikanen / Yle

Shadi Trad arrived in Finland as an asylum seeker in September 2015. Rahaf finally joined him in Helsinki at the end of April of this year.

For nine months of the year-long reunification process for the Syrian couple, Rahaf despaired of ever getting the chance to explain her position to Finnish authorities.

"I was so desperate. It is so hard to get into Turkey. They don't give visas to a single Syrian," Rahaf recounts.

Shadi phoned Finnish embassies in Moscow, Teheran, Cairo and Ankara trying to set up an interview for his wife - a requirement for the application process.

"They all said that it was possible only in Ankara," explains Shadi.

An application for family reunification can be filed online, but interviews of Syrian family members are carried out at the Embassy of Finland in Ankara, Turkey. If Turkish officials do not authorise entry into the country, the application process hits a wall.

The Finnish Foreign Ministry stepped in and made exceptional arrangements for applicants to meet with Finnish officials in Beirut.

Image: Yle Uutisgrafiikka

"It was great that the Foreign Ministry switched the site from Ankara to Lebanon. It was really great," says Shadi.

Interviews in Beirut

Representatives of the Finnish Foreign Ministry and the Finnish Immigration Service carried out a first trip to Beirut for interview purposes in late January and a second at the end of March.

Rahaf had her interview in January. She was interview for two hours and fingerprinted, spending a total of five hours at the embassy.

"I was asked about everything, about our marriage and other matters," she explains.

In addition to Rahaf, the officials managed to meet with another 56 applicants at that time. The Finnish Immigration Service has so far made decisions in about 20 of those cases.

"Once she was interviewed, the decision came really quickly. Thanks so much to the Finns," Shadi smiles.

Shadi ja Rahaf Trad
Image: Retu Liikanen / Yle

The applications of another 57 applicants for residence interviewed in March should be processed and decisions on them finalised within the next few weeks and months.

Pasi Tuominen, Director General of Consular Services at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, told Yle that he is satisfied how the special arrangements have worked out.

"It sounds like the Immigration Service is working efficiently. I know we here at the Foreign Ministry have been efficient," says Tuominen.

According to Tuominen there is a valid legal basis for organising these interview sessions elsewhere than at the embassy in Ankara. Getting visas to enter Turkey is a problem specifically for Syrians.

"It is a matter of following the law and of justice," Tuominen continues. "Turkey can issue a visa, or not. We do not have the power to make that decision, but we do have the power to make the decision that these peoples' applications get to the Immigration Service for processing within a reasonable span of time."

For some officials, special arrangements may be the very last alternative implemented.

"It's hard for me to say if this is the last straw, but it is something that by law must be done," points out Pasi Tuominen.

Around 150 Syrians were able to deal directly with Finnish officials at the embassy in Ankara over the winter months. The embassy is aware of another 100 or so who would like to move the process forward somewhere else, most in Beirut.

Pasi Tuominen says that close to 20 of them have been able to show that they have attempted to get visas to enter Turkey, but have been denied. There should be about 50 of such cases before Finnish officials organise a third session in Beirut. Tuominen thinks it unlikely that this will happen before the summer.

Not all successful

Rahaf says she doesn't know how things turned out for other applicants interviewed in Beirut. Shadi says he's heard of others who received a positive decision.

Some applications for family reunification filed by Syrians have been rejected. Since 2015, around 400 Syrians have been granted initial residence permits on the basis of family ties.

Despite the long-standing conflict in their country, relatively few Syrians have come to Finland. Since 2015, 1,350 Syrians have been granted asylum in Finland and some 420 granted initial residence permits.

Image: Yle Uutisgrafiikka

At the end of last year, there were a good 3,100 Syrians permanently resident in the country, double the number registered the year before.

Thinking of home

Rahaf has found Finland to be a beautiful country. What is most important to her, though, is being together again with her husband.

"Shadi is a good man."

Rahaf wants to return home to Syria when it becomes possible. While waiting, she plans to study Finnish and get a job. She says she's particularly interested in finding work in the fields of banking, finance or insurance.

Shadi, who has taught Arabic in schools and adult education courses, says he knows of companies that are interested in hiring people with a commercial education who speak the language.

"We have to start a new life," says Rahaf.

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