BERLIN — In his tiny room inside a refugee center, moldy strawberries lie rotting on a table. Because some days, Mohamad Subheia, a young father of two, cannot bring himself to eat. Some days, he cannot get out of bed.
He reached across his wrinkled sheets, grabbing the plush toys — two stuffed rabbits — that keep him company. “These are my girls,” he said. “Afifa and Farah.”
Those are also the names of his two daughters, ages 5 and 3.
He last saw them eight months ago, he said, when he kissed his wife and girls goodbye in devastated Syria. He would make a break for Europe and, he promised, they would soon join him. But as a migrant-weary continent stages a new crackdown on record waves of asylum seekers, the Subheias are one of the countless families facing indefinite separation as an added price of pursuing refuge in Europe.
“And they blame me — my family blames me,” said Subheia, 33, rocking back and forth on the edge of his bed as he clung to the two little rabbits.
“I know they blame me because they told me they did,” he continued. “My wife blamed me. And my 5-year-old girl. She stole the phone from her mother and called me one night. It was just after her birthday. She said, ‘Daddy, Daddy, why did you leave us?’ ”
In Europe and the Middle East, this is a season of broken families.
Last year, a historic wave of migrants came ashore in Europe, the majority escaping war-torn nations including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Germany, in particular, opened its door, with Chancellor Angela Merkel famously declaring “no limit” to the number of asylum seekers her country could take in.
The move led thousands more to risk their lives for a shot at safety and prosperity. But more than a million migrants have already come. And Europe has decided enough is enough.
A new European Union deal brokered by the Germans with Turkey has already started to take effect. Migrants are being blocked at their primary gateway into Europe: the Aegean Sea. Those who made it as far as Greece are being held there, and new arrivals are starting to be sent back. Many thousands more — including Subheia’s wife and children — are stuck in Turkey, stranded on their way into Europe just as the new crackdown began.
Hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers who arrived last year, including many fathers and husbands, had hoped to bring their families in legally — and safely — once they applied for and won refugee status. Technically, refugees in Europe have the right to do just that.
But bringing in family members legally is becoming harder and harder. Fearful that the number of newcomers could grow exponentially as new waves of spouses and children arrive, Germany, for instance, passed a bill in February forcing some asylum seekers to wait at least two years before starting the cumbersome process. Denmark is saying three years. Sweden is debating a measure that could bar some asylum seekers from bringing in family members altogether.
In Germany, Syrian refugees theoretically get preferential treatment, enjoying faster access to family reunification. But authorities, aid groups say, have begun to be much more selective. What’s more, they are so overwhelmed with requests that even for Syrians, waiting periods once measured in weeks are stretching to beyond a year.
Possibly much longer.
“These people have already faced so many dangers and made these dangerous trips,” said Karin Alwasiti, a refugee reunification expert for the aid group Pro Asyl. “Now they are facing the problem of how to be together. For them, it’s devastating.”
Mohamad Subheia chose well when he bought a pair of toy rabbits as proxies for his daughters.
On a recent evening, they were as cute as bunnies and just as active. Their mother, Rafa, 25 years old and round-faced, sat at an outdoor cafe in the Turkish port city of Izmir. The restless girls wiggled in her arms and kept hopping off her lap.
They have been stranded here for weeks.
In January, Mohamad called home — the destroyed city of Homs, Syria — and told them to pack their bags and join him. Six months after arriving in Germany, he had not even won asylum yet, without which he could not start the long process to legally bring them in. When and if he did, other waiting refugees warned them, it could take years before she and the girls could legally come to Europe.
They would first need an appointment at a German embassy in a country neighboring Syria. And the best Mohamad could manage after countless phone calls was a slot eight months later in Beirut. Even that would be useless if he did not win asylum by then.
“I could not wait,” Rafa said. “The children will not know their father in two years. He will be a stranger. In 2017 or 2018? I cannot imagine that far into the future.”
By the time they arrived at the Turkish shore in March, however, Europe was already starting to close the door. The Turks were becoming more aggressive at stopping migrants. They also had their share of bad luck.
On their first stab at the Aegean, they were hustled onto a 10-meter rubber raft, so new and so cheap you could smell the glue holding the seams together, Rafa said. There were 60 people aboard.
“The engine died. We drifted in the currents away from the coast,” she said. The children, she said, were crying. Eventually, someone on board called the Turkish coast guard using WhatsApp. The Turks saved them but dropped their bags into the sea. They were detained, she said, for 36 hours.
“We came back with the clothes on our backs and what we hid in our pockets,” she said.
Over the next two weeks, Rafa and the girls tried six more times to cross the Aegean. Each time, they were caught and hauled back.
She and her girls are not the only ones stuck. In Izmir, the refugee camps and bus stations, the cheap hotels and smuggler’s crash pads, are filled with mothers and children trying to follow the route taken by husbands and fathers last year. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 62 percent of the irregular migrants who arrived on the Greek islands in March — right before the crackdown began — were women and children.
As she waits in Turkey — who knows for how long — Rafa is struggling to make ends meet and quickly running out of cash and ideas. She was paying 40 euros a night for a flophouse for her and the girls, but it became too pricey, so she downsized recently to a less expensive and more precarious space.
“We had a good dream,” she said. “But the plan is falling apart.”
Around noon in a Berlin park, Mohamad was feverishly texting Rafa. “Where are you, my dear?” he typed on WhatsApp in Arabic. “I have not heard from you for hours. Please, my love, answer me.”
He talks to her — or tries — at least 10 times a day. But there is a problem. She does not always answer now. Because it is not just their dream that is falling apart.
It is also their marriage.
Her fear, he said, is ebbing into anger — a rage directed at him. “She says, ‘Why didn’t you take us with you at first? If you did, we wouldn’t be stuck here.’ She thinks my life is great in Germany. She thinks I have it easy.”
He paused, looking down at his hands. He grows quiet. Then, he says: “She threatened to leave me when she gets here. She is starting to forget how much I love her, how much I love my girls. She doesn’t know how much I am suffering, too.”
He has slipped into what looks like a profound depression. He and Rafa had both taken German classes back in Syria to prepare for their new lives. But now that he has actually made it to Berlin, he has stopped studying. It is partly because he has run out of money to pay for classes. But that is not the only reason.
He is holing himself up in his room, he said, sometimes unable to leave for a week at a time. As he sat on a bench in the open air — his first venture outside in days — he said he is giving this two more months. If his family has not arrived by then — something that seems a possibility — he says he will abandon Europe and join them.
He sold his small pizzeria in Homs to finance the trip. They borrowed money. Pawned their furniture and valuables. They spent, he said, nearly $20,000 in total. If he leaves Germany to join her in Turkey, he knows there is no coming back. And that he will never make that money back.
“Sometimes I think maybe it’s better if I killed myself,” he said. “But I can’t, because of them. So then I’ll just give up and go back the way I came. If I can’t be with my family, what was the point of all this?”
Suddenly, his phone rings.
“My dear,” he answers hopefully. It is Rafa. She says hello.
In the background, one of his little bunnies is yelling for “Daddy.”
His face lights up.
“Please tell her Daddy loves her,” he said.
Booth reported from Izmir. Zakaria Zakaria in Izmir contributed to this report.