Nowhere Babies: Syrians Born in Exile Face Uncertain Future

What do you do when your baby is born stateless, in limbo between nationalities?

Sana, 8, and her 3-month-old brother may grow up in Turkey, a Western country or in Syria. — (Emily Feldman For Vocativ)
Jul 20, 2015 at 3:17 PM ET

Jamal Mamo and his wife never expected a second child. The couple had trouble conceiving for years after their daughter was born in 2007, and hope they had for another baby dimmed when war forced them to flee to Turkey from their home in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Now, two years into their lives as refugees, the Mamos have welcomed a son, a blued-eyed 3-month-old who joins the growing number of Syrians born in exile, without a clear identity or home.

Mamo calls his son a “hero” for his improbable arrival and has doted on the boy so much that his sister, Sana, demonstrates signs of jealousy. But Taim’s birth in Turkey has also added to the family’s struggles and underscored the complexity of raising children in limbo.

“Our biggest concern is that we don’t know what our future is,” Mamo said. “We live with this feeling of uncertainty.”

Along with a flood of other displaced Syrians, Mamo applied with the UN’s top refugee agency with the hope of resettling his family in the West. But it could take years for him to get a firm answer. As he waits, he is weighing how much he should integrate his 8-year-old daughter into Turkish society and what to do about Taim, who at the moment, is not a citizen of any country at all.

It’s a situation that many of the tens of thousands of babies born to displaced Syrians find themselves in, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency, which warns that newborns lacking citizenship or legal birth documents may face major obstacles accessing healthcare, education and legal employment—not to mention traveling—later down the line.

None of the countries hosting the bulk of Syria’s 4 million refugees—Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq—give citizenship to the babies of refugees born inside their territory. Parents can register their children with host governments and refugee agencies, entitling them to limited, short-term benefits. But getting their newborns forms of ID that will mean something beyond the borders of their temporary host countries requires a labyrinth of additional steps that many refugees struggle to navigate.

With a college degree, English fluency and some income, Mamo’s circumstances are a lot better than most other Syrians in exile. Unlike hundreds of thousands of others waiting out Syria’s war in refugee camps, Mamo was able to rent an apartment in Istanbul. He was lucky enough to have a job waiting for him there when artillery crashed into his apartment building in Aleppo, signaling to him that it was time to flee. The job with a Syrian political opposition movement turned out to be short lived, but his background as an English teacher has allowed him to string together enough money through teaching and translation gigs to keep his modest, but bright apartment about an hour from Istanbul’s city center.

Yet, even with his means and know-how he continues to find himself in confusing situations, highlighting the complexities facing all refugee families in Turkey. For example, he was under the impression that the document given to him at a hospital when his son was born was a birth certificate, but was later told that it was not. To officially register Taim’s birth, he would have to bring the hospital birth record to a certain Turkish government office, or alternatively register Taim at the Syrian consulate.

The thought of navigating yet another Turkish government office—without knowing Turkish—discouraged Mamo, as did the thought of visiting the consulate of a government he no longer recognizes. “I won’t go there,” Mamo said. “You can say it’s a form of protest.”

Sarnata Reynolds, a researcher for Refugees International, says that reluctance among many displaced Syrians to do business with Syrian authorities is one of many factors complicating birth registration of refugees. “We met a lot of people who were afraid that they would be seen as enemies for supporting the revolution…some had even been recorded as dead and didn’t want the government to know that they were actually alive,” she said.

There is also confusion about which agencies need to be informed of a child’s birth and why a legal birth certificate is necessary, if, for example, the family already has a residence permit for the newborn.

But the question of citizenship will matter greatly for babies born in exile if stability returns to Syria, and they ever attempt to go “home.”

“The main concern is, will this child be recognized as a Syrian citizen?” Reynolds says.

It’s a question Mamo is putting off for the time being. If in the next year he still has no answer from the UN about resettling his family in the West, he says he will navigate the bureaucracy to get Taim the documents he needs.

More pressing is his daughter’s education. She still can’t speak Turkish, which isn’t taught at the Syrian schools in Istanbul she has attended. But it’s becoming more and more important to Mamo that she learn. His wife Layla agrees, adding that, under the circumstances, the best they can do for their children is prepare them for any future possible—sticking around in Turkey, returning to Syria or eventually moving somewhere else. “I want both kids to speak many languages. English, Turkish and Arabic,” she said. The rest is out of their hands.