Syrian migrant family in limbo at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Moscow

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media captionRinas: "This is for transit for one hour but ours is 40 days"

For almost seven weeks a Syrian family has been camping-out in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. The Ahmads brought their four children to Russia seeking safety. But they were accused of using fake passports and refused asylum. Now the family are stuck in the transit zone.

It's not hard to spot them through the glass walls of the old smoking room next to departure gate 36. They sit surrounded by the few bags of belongings they brought with them.

"This is for transit for one hour, for two hours," the eldest son, Rinas tells me in English. "But ours is for 40 days. And what it will be, we don't know."

Perched on the one inflatable mattress that hasn't burst, his father tells their story.


Hasan is a musician, from a Kurdish region of Syria. But the Ahmads were living in Northern Iraq until militants from the so-called Islamic State (IS) came too close for comfort. So they decided to leave for Russia. His daughter is just 3; the boys are 7, 8 and 12.

"We didn't expect to end up living in the airport, but we've been forced to," Hasan says, explaining that they had intended to stay with his sister-in-law, here in Russia.

image captionThe Ahmads brought their four children to Russia seeking safety, but they were refused asylum

"I don't know how people can be so heartless. I don't understand. People are fleeing from war, from violence," he says.

The family spent the first two weeks in Russia in detention, accused of attempting an illegal border crossing. Hasan insists that their passports are genuine.

But the stress has taken its toll. A week ago, his wife collapsed and was rushed to hospital.

"We left our homes, everything. We just wanted to live in peace like other people. But they refused us asylum. They said this is not Europe," Gulistan says, her voice still weak and her face clearly distraught.

image captionThe stress has taken its toll on Hasan's wife, Gulistan

There are two police officers posted at the door of her ward.

"I just feel so sorry for my children. They want to know what we've done so wrong for this to happen," she says, close to tears. And Gulistan has another worry now - the family has no idea who will pay her hospital bill.

'Smear on Russia'

Russia has been carrying out airstrikes against IS targets in Syria for almost a month. Every day politicians on state television preach of the menace of IS.

And yet just three Syrians have refugee status in Russia. Fewer than 1,600 have been granted temporary asylum, valid for a year. Human rights activists say many more have been refused.

image captionHasan's frustration is growing about the way his family is being treated

"If we have intervened in this war, then we know about the threat and we cannot then deny people asylum," argues Svetlana Gannushkina who runs a refugee aid centre Civic Assistance in Moscow.

Russia, she explains from long experience, has a general policy of refusing refugees. But even if the Ahmads' passports were fake, she argues that they cannot be charged with illegal border crossing if they were fleeing danger.

"The way the family has been treated is very strange and inhumane," Svetlana Gannushkina says. "It's shameful for our country. A smear on Russia."

Heating stopped

Back in Terminal E, there's not much for four young children to do all day, lodged between Duty Free and the coffee shops. They used to play football in the corridor until they lost their ball behind the currency exchange.

Every now and then a curious tourist presses their face to the glass of the room, and some take photographs. At one point, a young couple wander in with backpacks, mistaking the room for a rest area.

There are children's clothes draped all over the radiators. Hasan washes what he can each day in the airport toilets. But the heaters stopped working 10 days ago.

"Sometimes we are cold. At night time it is very cold," Rinas says. "Here is not good for us."

image captionThe children say the old smoke room gets cold at night since heaters have stopped working

And after so long in limbo, Hasan's frustration is growing.

"They have left us here for more than 40 days. It's not humane!" he says. "Russia can drop bombs in Syria no problem. It costs millions. We are one family. Can they not help us?"

A Russian girl comes in with a bag of toy cars to give to the children before she catches a flight. She says she read about the family in the newspaper.

Other well-wishers have sent warm clothes and food, and someone has even set-up a bank account for donations. And this week, after so long on the cold, terminal floor an anonymous sponsor has funded a few, welcome nights in the transit zone hotel.

But the harsh reality is that the family's asylum case could take months to resolve. Until then the Ahmads are trapped in Terminal E - safe from IS, but stuck in no-man's land.

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