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Friday, July 30, 2021

Five stranded families struggle to survive after the closure of HIA

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by Sahar ElKabbash

Hamad International Airport has been closed for arrivals since March, leaving many residents stranded abroad while their loved ones remain in Qatar. Here are some of their stories.


It’s been a tough few months under lockdown, as many of us struggle with coming to terms with confinement. For some, that means learning to get along with family members and house-mates that we usually wouldn’t spend so much time with. But for others, the struggle has been a lot more lonely, especially those who as a result of global travel restrictions, have been separated from their loved ones.

Umm Mohammed’s story is an example; hers began in late February when her mother in Egypt got sick. Without knowing the full ramifications of travel at this early stage of the pandemic, she flew to her mother’s side on February 28, leaving her five children and husband in Qatar. They thought it would only be a short time before she’d return, little did they know that within days countries around the world would be shutting their borders to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

To make things worse, on the first day of Eid, Um Mohammed’s two-year-old daughter tested positive for COVID-19. The little girl was quickly admitted to hospital and when a medical team ran tests on the rest of the family, they all came back positive except for Um Mohammed’s 11-year-old daughter.

All infected family members would have to be quarantined. But what of the healthy girl? With no family or friends to look after her — and too young to be left alone — her father, with a heavy heart, decided to take the child into quarantine with the rest of the family.

In doing so, he had to sign a form accepting full responsibility in case she too contracted the virus. (The family are recovering but remains in quarantine at the time of writing.)

Um Mohammed told Doha News it is the inability to be there for her children that she struggles with the most.

“I’m a mother watching her husband and children suffer from afar and my hands are tied.

I just want to check on them. They send me videos of my two-year-old crying and asking for me… but all I can do is watch.”

Photo of a child video-calling his mother after months of separation

In the case of Umm Omran it is the husband who’s been stranded, stuck in Turkey while she looks after their seven children. Due to the economic impact of covid, her husband’s salary has been suspended, and as a result she says, the family has had to resort to borrowing money from neighbours and friends.

“I ran out of excuses. My seven-year-old cries and asks me about her father everyday. I try to comfort the child and tell her he’ll come soon but she says ‘you’re lying’. I have no money, no job, and nothing to sell. I borrowed from everybody.” Umm Omran told Doha News

It’s not just expats who’ve been impacted in this way. Mariam is a Qatari who flew to a European capital to be by her mother’s side as she underwent medical treatment earlier this year. She’s been unable to return to her husband and two children in Doha because she can’t leave her sick mother alone; and none of Mariam’s family are able to fly out of Doha to take her place as the Qatari government has banned citizens from flying for over two months now.

Asmaa with her two daughters during happier times

Perhaps the most dire cases are where children have been left without either of their parents. One such story is that of Asmaa, a wedding photographer who flew back to her home country to attend a funeral and left her two daughters, 12 and 16 with the housekeeper.

The single mother thought she’d be back within three days, it has now been almost three months. She told Doha News that her young girls are overwhelmed with the responsibilities now resting on their shoulders and often breakdown crying when they video-call.

With no weddings taking place due to the pandemic, Asmaa has also been out of work.

“We haven’t paid rent for three months. Thankfully the landlord understands our situation and lets us stay in the house, but how long can he wait?” she tells us.

Government plan for the lifting of transportation restrictions

Cases such as these are by no means unique to Qatar, there are people across the world stranded in foreign countries unable to return to their loved ones. Governments, like Qatar’s made a decision that it was better to suspend international travel in order to save lives and stop the spread of the coronavirus. For authorities the choice was between taking measures that would result in some families being separated for a number of months, or taking measures that could potentially result in people losing loved ones for good. The tragic stories of separated families are in essence the collateral cost of a global pandemic that caught everyone by surprise.

On Monday, Lolwah Al-Khater, spokesperson for the Supreme Committee of Crisis Management announced that Qatar residency permit holders will be gradually allowed back starting from August as part of Phase 3 of the country’s lockdown easing process.

However initially only those coming from “low-risk countries” will be allowed to return, and its not yet clear which nations fall under that category. Some families are therefore worried they will be forced to stay out of Qatar for even longer. Others are more concerned about affording the return, now that its been announced that returning residents will have to self-fund hotel accommodation for a 14-day quarantine period. And who knows if a rise in case numbers will further delay the easing of the lockdown?

The big question is, will these families be able to wait until August — or beyond — to reunite?

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