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Syrian Refugees Face Another Battle Through French Bureaucracy

Syrian refugees sit outside their tent at their camp in Amman, Jordan, Dec. 23, 2013.
Syrian refugees sit outside their tent at their camp in Amman, Jordan, Dec. 23, 2013.
Lisa Bryant
Rights group Amnesty International has sharply criticized the European Union this month for not widening its welcome mat for Syrian refugees. It says only 10 out of the EU's 28 members plan to take in Syrian refugees - even as the United Nations is calling for Western countries to admit up to 30,000 Syrian refugees in 2014. But arriving in Europe is only part of the challenge.

The sign posted on the door of the small office simply says "Syria." Inside, Sabreen Al Rassace is helping one of her clients - a 56-year-old Syrian doctor called Fares Egho - through a complicated French government form.

A tiny woman with a shock of curly hair, Al Rassace works for Revivre, a French nongovernmental organization that welcomes Syrians arriving in France and helps them through the bureaucracy of applying for asylum here. Neither job is easy.

"This office is not just a technical step. It's also an office to take time to listen to the Syrian refugees because for the first time [since] they fled from their country," she said. "They've been traumatized. They've been tortured. So at least at this office we need to take the time [to listen to them]. Even it it's more than one hour. It's a duty. "

The Syrians who arrive in France are the lucky ones. Rights group Amnesty International has sharply criticized the European Union for taking in what it calls "paltry numbers" of Syrians fleeing their war-torn country. While Germany plans to admit 9,000 Syrians, Amnesty notes that some countries like Britain are not offering any places. France plans to take in only 500 refugees.

EU members say they are instead helping Syrians inside Syria and in neighboring countries. In December, for example, the EU announced more aid for Syrians totaling $244 million.

But Frederique Calandra, the mayor of Paris' 20th arrondissement agrees with Amnesty's criticism.

Mayor Calandra says European and other Western countries should be more welcoming to Syrians, who she says are living through a massacre. She believes their scars will take a long time to heal - and Syrians may later feel deep bitterness toward countries that appeared indifferent to their suffering.

Mayor Calandra offers up meeting rooms to Syrian opposition members when they meet in France. Her city hall has also lent an office to Revivre to welcome asylum seekers like the doctor, Fares Egho.

Egho fled his home in the Syrian city of Aleppo with his family, arriving in France over a year ago. But his troubles are far from over. Today, Egho still doesn't have the legal papers to work and live in France as a refugee. It's taken him half a day just to fill out one form - with help from Revivre's Sabreen Al Rassace.

"At the first meeting we have to explain to them that you are safe here but at the same time you have to deal with the French system which will be very tough, very long, so it will take a lot of energy, a lot of time, so you have to be patient," she said.

Even so, she says, many Syrians are shocked by the long lines, the endless appointments and the sometimes shoddy treatment they receive from French officials.

"When they were in Syria there wasn't freedom of expression there wasn't freedom of conscience or freedom of association," she said. "But they had a roof, they had a place. So they had their dignity. But when they came to France, they were traumatized a second time, because they lost their dignity. And they use the term in Arabic very strongly - [gives term in Arabic] - which is a shock. It's a great shock."

Still, Egho for one, is grateful to be sheltered in France. His children are enrolled in French schools. He is studying to pass French medical exams to work as a doctor here.

But Egho says his heart lies in Syria. He's attached to his culture, his language, his community - even if his fellow Syrians can't agree on their political future. But for now, the doctor cannot look ahead. And he thinks it will be a long time before his two young daughters return to their homeland.

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