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Female Migrants Struggle To Reunite With Family In Northern Europe


Refugees flowing into Europe and elsewhere are an issue in the presidential campaign. And here is a reality the candidates have not always acknowledged. The United Nations reports that most refugees and migrants are women or children. Many come from war zones of Syria and Iraq. And some hope to reunite with men already in northern Europe. Reporter Joanna Kakissis met Syrian women traveling through Greece.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The giant white tent at the end of the refugee camp at the Greek-Macedonian border vibrates with the sound of children. In the corner are two mothers in their 30s, Safa Diab and Rwaida Abd. They're traveling together, each with two young children. Both are religious and cover their hair.

SAFA DIAB: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "We are both mother and father," Diab says. "And sometimes we are afraid, mostly for the children." Before the war, they were shy housewives living on opposite sides of Syria. When the war destroyed their livelihoods and their homes, they sent their husbands to Sweden to seek asylum. That's where their husbands met, became good friends and asked their wives to meet in Turkey and travel together to Sweden.

RWAIDA ABD: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "When we first met, we cried a lot," Abd says. "We cried about the situation we're in." They stayed together in Turkey for 40 days, watching each other's backs when they dealt with smugglers.

DIAB: (Foreign language spoken).

ABD: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "We got used to each other," Diab says. "We found out that we really liked each other, that we could help each other." "We decided to be brave," Abd says. "We had to help our kids." The U.N. refugee agency reported last month that the number of women and children arriving as refugees in the European Union now surpasses the number of men. I met Marah al-Hulu at the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos. She's 21 and from Damascus. Her husband is in Germany, which has suspended family reunification visas for refugees. So he told her...

MARAH AL-HULU: You have to travel to me.

KAKISSIS: Were you afraid?

AL-HULU: Very afraid. And the sea - very afraid.

KAKISSIS: Al-Hulu is the head of the family for now, responsible for her mother-in-law and her husband's two young siblings, who are traveling with her. She is the only one who speaks a little English. They have limited resources.

AL-HULU: We didn't have money to travel after Macedonia.

KAKISSIS: Macedonia is Macedonia, where the road to northern Europe has closed for asylum seekers. Safa Diab and Rwaida Abd are stuck there. Sweden has also suspended family reunification visas. Diab's 3-year-old daughter, Sima, desperately misses her father.

SIMA: I need my father.

ABD: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "We thought we could get to Sweden in a week," Abd says. "But we've spent two weeks in Greece." Abd spoons donated cough syrup into the mouths of the children as Diab listens to a man give an update on the border.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "Still closed," the man says. "The Macedonian police keep changing the rules." Diab looks stressed. Abd stands up.

ABD: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "We have to speak to many people," she says. "We have to figure out how to get out of here. We have to find a solution." Diab nods as she watches her once-shy friend tighten her dark blue headscarf and stride out. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Idomeni, on the Greek-Macedonian border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.