Lujain Mourad | Ola Suleiman | Khaled al-Jeratli
“They ask me how I was duped? I was on the Internet dealing with a perfect person, and in reality, I found myself facing a monster”. In a sarcastic tone, Salma, 34, talked about the “hoax” of marriage via the Internet to which she was exposed.
Salma met her Austria-based husband through his relatives in Syria. After a few months of communicating on social media, she traveled to Sudan to get married, where she received the “first shock,” according to what Salma (a fictitious name for social reasons) told Enab Baladi.
Although there were many indications that there was a “trap” awaiting her, Salma’s fear of society’s view overcame her desire to end the relationship, which prompted her to travel to Austria and try to start a new, stable life.
The war circumstances that cast a shadow over Syrian lives and left them in a spiral of successive crises have prompted many Syrian women to seek survival opportunities and start a new life in other environments, such as Europe, to compensate for the security and economic suffering they endured in regime-controlled areas.
Acquaintance via the Internet preceded in some cases by “asking the parent’s permission for engagement” between young Syrian men who have taken refuge in Europe and young women who continue to suffer in a war-torn country, after which women travel to the unknown to start a married life with equal chances of either failure or success.
In this file, Enab Baladi tries to clarify the motives of both parties for opting for this type of marriage and to measure the impact of the experience on them socially and psychologically through the stories of young Syrian women and men and the opinions of experts and specialists.
It also attempts to highlight cases of exploitation to which both parties have been exposed and the law’s position thereon, in addition to making recommendations that could limit the negative impact of failed experiences.
What are the motives?
Given the likelihood of a difference between the motives of marriage between the two partners and the many external influences surrounding them, online marriage can have negative or positive consequences for both partners.
“My life was stable despite the war, but I wanted to start a family”. This prompted Salma to accept online marriage, despite her previous rejection of this option.
Salma possessed the luxury of accepting or refusing because of her “relatively” stable financial situation in Syria, while many women are forced to accept this type of marriage in order to salvage their challenging conditions in Syria, Salma continued.
In a country where the humanitarian, political, and economic crisis is constantly deepening, women face various problems that drive them to find ways to survive.
Syria is ranked the penultimate worst country for women to live in after Afghanistan, out of a total of 170 countries participating in the American Georgetown Institute’s Women Peace and Security Index (WPS Index).
While many hope to start a stable family and reach certain professional and scientific levels, women find themselves far from achieving that goal.
The desire to travel is the most important motive for women to accept an online relationship, according to cases spotted by Enab Baladi on social media platforms.
Women’s desire to seek an escape was deepened by the marked change in Syria, which left women wishing to start a family with limited options.
According to a statistic shared by the Russian Sputnik News Agency in September 2022 from sources in the Syrian Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, the rate of “spinsterhood” in Syria reached 70%.
The society-imposed stigma resulting from classifying women as “spinsters” places significant pressures and additional burdens on them.
Salma faced these pressures after she was over 30 and unmarried, but her financial independence and the supportive nature of her family saved her from that, she said.
“A girl from the mother country”
The conditions in the countries of asylum made finding a “suitable” partner a task akin to a “miracle,” according to interviews conducted by Enab Baladi with young Syrians who sought refuge in Europe.
The young men attributed this to the high prices of dowries and the refusal of many girls to marry because of their desire to achieve scientific and professional goals that could be “impeded by marriage”, according to their perspective.
With the absence of ties between Syrians in the countries of asylum and the limited opportunities for acquaintance, young men are reluctant to marry European girls for fear of religious and cultural differences.
Nader, 40, a pseudonym for a young man who took refuge in Norway nine years ago and works in the Asylum Camps Administration, justified young people’s tendency to marry online by wanting to marry “a girl from the mother country” in an attempt to ensure social and cultural consensus.
Nader married a young Syrian woman residing in Norway, but their marriage only lasted for a few months, which the young man attributed to the great difference between the two partners.
Although he was aware in advance of this difference, limited options forced him to pursue an unequal relationship, as he told Enab Baladi.
Nader sought to remarry after the divorce but chose a young woman residing in regime-held areas, similar to many young Syrian men residing in Europe.
Like other Syrians in Europe, Nader once again bumped into the difficulty of family reunification procedures, especially those who married after obtaining asylum in a certain European country, leaving him facing another “failed” relationship.
Discovering the other
“The bad qualities were hidden. After the meeting, I had a confrontation with successive and endless trauma”, Salma said, noting that the first and “simplest trauma was in his physical appearance” after her husband had only sent old photos that did not show what he looked like at the present time.
“The great hoax was when he hid his previous marriage from me,” Salma continued after discovering her husband’s previous relationship by finding women’s belongings in their home in Austria.
In light of the marriage being limited in most cases to acquaintances on social media platforms, and given the absence of physical communication between the two parties, each of them can find themselves after the meeting in the vortex of discovering one another.
Sociology specialist and researcher Safwan Qassam considers that marriage limited to online acquaintances is unlikely to produce a healthy relationship, as the parties cannot show their full personalities during such communication.
According to what Qassam had told Enab Baladi, dealing with the differences discovered after marriage and the hidden aspects of both partners requires considerable flexibility from both.
If one party does not have sufficient flexibility to accommodate and adapt to the other’s differences, an unhealthy relationship between them will be formed, added Qassam.
The success of the relationship requires a balanced relationship between the two partners, especially since this marriage will result in children whose upbringing requires a stable family environment.
Qassam pointed out that “normal attraction” in a sexual relationship cannot arise online and requires a long acquaintance between the two partners.
Syrian law and remote marriage:
The law overlooked remote marriage and did not address it at all, leaving it to the general rules of the Personal Status Law.
According to the law, the marriage must be registered through an administrative procedure in the Sharia court, either by the spouses themselves or by two representatives under the supervision of the Sharia judge. There is leniency by the judge on the issue of representatives.
Matters of marriage registration are easy if the spouses are able to appoint a lawyer or someone else for this matter in order for the marriage to be confirmed and registered in the Civil Status Register.
An informed lawyer in Damascus
The desire for control, Women facing male power
There are periodic reports about the high rate of divorce among Syrians in Europe, amid accusations of women being “liberated” and influenced by a surrounding society that gives them “absolute freedom”.
Although there has been repeated talk of divorce becoming a “phenomenon,” there are no precise statistics or information on divorces.
Women bear the burden of such accusations by a society that, in most cases, ignores men’s role in the relationship being brought to an end.
“He has a desire to control all aspects of my life to always be the strongest side,” Salma described her husband’s approach to dealing with her.
Despite her being a doctor, her husband used her lack of knowledge of German (the official language in Austria) to remain superior to her and able to control her own fate, as she put it.
While the passage of years since the asylum required young Syrian men to be proficient in the language and be part of the society of the host community, even partially, the women coming from Syria are taking their first steps in the journey of marriage in a new country and a completely different society.
These circumstances place women in a position of “weakness”, reinforced by the man’s desire in some cases, to appear as the “savior” of women from the conditions of war in which they lived for years.
Sociology specialist Safwan Qassam said that “male ego” is one of the main reasons for the failure of these relationships.
Qassam explained that men’s coping in the country of asylum enhanced their sense of superiority in exchange for belittling their partner.
For her part, Wanessa Nasrallah, a psychologist concerned with the psychological state of refugees in Austria within the AFYA Foundation, told Enab Baladi that the man’s inability to accept change and cope with it is one of the most prominent problems that condemn marital relations to failure.
Men refuse to assimilate the difference in society and the existence of a space for women to develop themselves, thereby restricting their freedom and preventing them from even enrolling in language courses.
During her work in psychological support sessions for women, Wanessa Nasrallah encounters many women who attend psychological support sessions behind their husbands’ backs.
“He leaves the house and leaves me dimeless.” In small terms, Salma summarized the economic violence to which she had been subjected for a year, noting that she had no social assistance because of the type of her residence.
Salma is prevented from turning on the heating in the house, which her husband justifies by saying; “It is not like you were able to turn on the heating in Syria!” in addition to preventing her from buying most of her needs under a similar pretext.
“I was ill for a month, and he did not even get me medications,” Salma complained of her husband’s violence, to the point of depriving her of her right to medical treatment.
Salma’s husband denies her access to psychological support services or social relations that can protect her from violence. Over the past months, however, she has been able to do so while he was at work.
“I will deport you back to Syria,” a threat that Salma’s husband kept repeating, taking advantage of her lack of knowledge of the country’s laws, which genuinely terrorized her.
Hasnaa, 27 (a pseudonym for social reasons), lived a story similar to that of Salma, as she married a Syrian doctor residing in Germany.
Months after her husband’s attempts to lock her up at home and deny her work and access to money, she decided to separate from him, she told Enab Baladi.
The decision prompted her husband to try to convince her that their separation would be official in Syria, meaning she would be deprived of all her rights in Germany, including her right to reside in the said country. However, consulting with competent legal authorities saved her.
Reunification: The law in European countries grants the refugee the right to apply for family reunification after three months after being granted the asylum residence permit by the Immigration Office.
– For the approval of family reunification, it is required to prove that the marriage took place before applying for asylum.
– Family members (spouse and minor children) coming under family reunification automatically receive asylum after they arrive in Europe.
– Reunification with a collateral guarantee: The law grants refugees who got married after obtaining residency or who exceeded the period specified for submitting papers the right to family reunification according to specific conditions.
– The conditions for family reunification with collateral guarantee include the existence of a fixed income (the amount of which varies between European countries), sufficient for the person to secure the financial needs of the people he sponsored.
– Family members obtain a residence permit that is renewed periodically based on papers submitted by the party obtaining the right of asylum (family residence permit).
– Persons arriving under family reunification with a collateral guarantee are only entitled to apply for asylum in exceptional cases.
Material and moral exploitation for young men
In recent years, many stories surfaced on social media that spoke of cases of fraud and exploitation in which young Syrian men had experienced marriage remotely.
The Syrian YouTuber, Yaman Najjar, shared a video clip on his personal account in October 2022 about the story of a young Syrian woman residing in Damascus and linked to two young refugees in Europe.
According to what Najjar narrated at the time, the young woman was able to obtain money transfers for months from Germany and Sweden after she made the two young men deluded with love.
Although Najjar was subjected to criticism and accusations of defamation and violation of privacy against the young woman by a wide segment of Syrians, including public, human rights, and artistic figures, this incident shed light on many similar stories.
As if a foreigner
Baraa, 28, a Syrian residing in France, decided to marry a young woman residing in Syria, despite his family’s rejection of that option, for fear of the long time that family reunification procedures would take.
In mid-2022, Baraa got engaged to a young Syrian woman residing in Hama governorate, only to find himself forced to pay expenses that exceeded his ability, according to what the young man told Enab Baladi.
“I was treated like a foreigner,” said the young man, indicating that his fiancée’s family took advantage of his lack of knowledge of the fluctuating prices in Syria and imposed heavy financial burdens on him.
Despite the devaluation of the Syrian pound against the dollar, his fiancée’s monthly expenses exceeded half of his salary, which eventually prompted him to separate from her.
This was not the first time that Baraa was subjected to financial exploitation, as he had the experience of marrying a woman residing in Syria, but it ended in failure after the requirements of his wife residing in Syria amounted to about 500 euros per month.
Girls whose goal is to travel
Alaa, 31, his wife abandoned him due to the failure of the family reunification process and her rejection of the idea of him returning to Syria, where she lives, so they can live together.
Alaa sought refuge in Germany in 2014 and, two years after settling there, was able to establish a private business for his family in Syria “in the hope that the period of asylum and separation from the family will not be long,” according to what he told Enab Baladi.
In 2016, the young man married a young woman residing in Syria to begin the process of legal family reunification.
As Alaa’s wife was under the legal age for marriage in Germany, the authorities did not agree to his reunification with his wife.
After constantly thinking about returning to Syria, Alaa decided that this was the right time for that, since he would not be able to reunite with his wife anytime soon.
On the other hand, that decision prompted his wife to separate from him, claiming her financial dues under the marriage contract between them.
“Nader” lived a similar story after he decided to separate from his fiancée in Syria for fear of the complications of family reunification papers that could take years.
“Lend me the cost of the smuggling journey to Europe,” said Nader’s ex-fiancée, enough to make him realize that her relationship with him was nothing more than an attempt to escape from her life in Syria.
What does the law say?
While the man is trying to threaten the woman with revoking her residency, the law in European countries preserves the right to apply for asylum in the case of the Syrian woman, according to Abeer Haidar, a consultant in the feminist organization “Orient Express”.
The organizations seek to focus on the right of Syrian women to apply for asylum in such cases, which gives women a legal argument to limit any possible violence under the threat of “deportation to Syria.”
According to Haidar, the law also grants women the right to obtain sole custody of their children, even if they file an official complaint to prove that they have been subjected to violence unless they choose not to separate.
Haidar explained that the woman’s acceptance of living under the threat of “proven” violence from the man gives the competent authorities the right to intervene to protect children from both sides.
Lawyer and legal advisor on immigration and asylum issues, Bassem Salem, says that Syrian women are able to separate and give up their residency associated with their husbands while preserving their right to obtain asylum.
He attributed this to the circumstances in Syria, pointing out that a woman who holds a nationality that does not allow her to apply for asylum is able to stay in the country if she proves that the husband is the primary cause of the separation.
The regional director of the Arab-European Organization for Human Rights, Muhammad Kazem Hindawi, believes that the husband’s threat to deport the woman to Syria is “retaliation,” which is categorically rejected by the law.
On the other hand, Hindawi said that the law does not hold women accountable based on the man’s point of view of being subjected to material exploitation.
Hindawi explained that the law considers that the man bears these costs by a personal decision and that he must bear his responsibility, pointing out that there are many stories of “reverse exploitation.”
How to reduce negative impact
“Failed” relationships carry negative psychological and social effects on both partners or one of them in most cases.
According to Abeer Haidar, a consultant in the feminist organization “Orient Express,” the woman’s presence in a strange society, unable to communicate with it as required and unfamiliar with its laws, poses a greater danger.
In order to limit the negative effects in advance, the social worker, Safwan Qassam, recommended that the two partners obtain a sufficient acquaintance period in order to reveal the largest part of the hidden qualities and temperaments of the two parties.
According to Qassam, each party to the relationship must make enough effort to try to accept the other’s differences, pointing to the importance of forming a supportive social network for the relationship in the country of asylum.
For her part, the psychologist in the AFYA organization concerned with the psychological situation of refugees in Austria, Wanessa Nasrallah, recommends that women seek psychological support services in the first place.
Consultant Abeer Haidar recommended that women who are subjected to any form of violence to report to the police even if they do not have the language ability to fully explain the case.
She explained that the police take preliminary action to distance the man for two weeks to protect the woman from any possible danger.
Women can go to many organizations active in women’s protection affairs, which are able to guide them on the right steps to protect all their rights.