Leyla Al Jabiri lies frail in a single bed at home in Sheffield, battered by the effects of months of chemotherapy.
Cancer is just one of a long line of battles Leyla has faced in her life. Her first husband was murdered in tribal fighting in the country of her birth, Yemen. Later, she had to flee to Egypt after her second husband was kidnapped by government forces. She then resettled in England with her two daughters and son.
Now, gazing out her window over rows of terraced houses, she explains with laboured breath her latest struggle; not the lymphoma that has left her bed-bound, but her wish to be reunited with her 27-year-old son, Amir. UK laws mean this will be a huge challenge.
Leyla is not in the UK alone but her life is complicated. She and her two youngest children, Rayan, 14, and Mariam, eight, are looked after by her 24-year-old daughter Amal. Amal is also experiencing the lasting effects of an earlier cancer diagnosis. The strain of running the household, caring for her mother and raising two children has caused seizures to return.
This is why Leyla desperately wants her son to join them. “I would feel safe,” she says. “And, even if I die, at least I know my family here will be safe.”
UK immigration rules only allow adult refugees to apply for their married or civil partners and dependent children under 18 to join them. Grandparents, parents, siblings and children who are 18 or older are not eligible.
In addition, children who are in the UK alone and have refugee status do not have a right to be reunited with even their closest family members.
Attempts are being made to change this. The Scottish National MP Angus MacNeil has a private member’s bill going through parliament. It has reached the committee stage, during which the details of the proposed legislation will be discussed, but no date has been fixed.
MacNeil’s refugees (family reunion) bill would broaden the definition of a family member to include parents and adoptive parents,and children and siblings who are under 18, or who are under 25 but were under 18 when the person granted asylum left the country of their habitual residence in order to seek asylum.
The bill attempts to address the fact that families come in all shapes and sizes, and that, contrary to the accepted wisdom,the person left behind might be the one able to provide stability or practical help to the person in the UK.
Leyla and her family would fall into this category and have compelling reasons to ask for the definition to be expanded to ensure the family can help each other rebuild their lives. As Amal struggles from the effect of illness, additional support for Rayan and Mariam is desperately needed. Amir, meanwhile, is in limbo in Egypt, working in a restaurant and feeling helpless to care for his mother and siblings.
Amal explains why Amir’s presence is needed. “He speaks fluent English – as well as Arabic and German – and he could help with interpreting.
“He could work, and this would make things easier for money. We would have an income in the family; he finished university so he can find work easily.
“He can also drive, so this would make hospital appointments much easier; we wouldn’t have to be waiting for buses, and my mum just can’t go on the bus now. It would mean that we could go out to places with the children so that they feel better. He is very nice, it would really help to have him to talk to; when I’m tired, or Mum’s tired, he can be there for us.”
The family’s trouble in Sana’a started at the end of the revolution in 2012 with the forced resignation of the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Amir worked as security for Saleh and he and anyone related to him were targeted after the president stepped down. Leyla’s brother and her husband, Badr, were kidnapped on their doorstep.
“We never felt safe after that,” Amal says. “We were smuggled out of the country.”
They fled to Egypt where they were placed on a resettlement list through the UN refugee agency. Leyla’s husband – released by his captors – did not arrive in Egypt until they had already left for the UK. As Leyla’s spouse, he has the right to join her but they do not want to leave Amir and two older daughters without a parent in Egypt.
“We were aware of what was happening in Yemen,” Amal says. “We were still scared. We were frightened. We thought we were being spied on. We kept ourselves to ourselves.”
As they waited to learn their fate, Amal was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
Eventually, they were resettled in Sheffield – without Badr and Amir – and have received support from the Refugee Council in adjusting to their new life. Their home in the north of the city is basic: the landlord has forbidden wall hangings, leaving the property looking bare, but it is of good quality.
Anna Musgrave, the head of advocacy at the Refugee Council, says: “Families come in all shapes and sizes and the refugee family reunion rules need to better reflect this.
“As is clear in the case of this family, being reunited with loved ones can make a crucial difference to refugees being able to start a new life and find happiness in the UK. Being apart from loved ones – in this case a much loved son and brother – can result in people feeling nothing but pain and worry.”
Musgrave said the home secretary could amend the rules “with the stroke of a pen”, but has not done so.
A petition calling on Sajid Javid to alter the rules has secured around 1,000 signatures.
Before Leyla’s cancer diagnosis last December, the family felt secure. She had started taking an interest in gardening and Amal had been attending English language classes.
“We feel safe here,” she says.
Leyla kept the illness from her family but in March had no choice but to reveal the diagnosis to them. Since then, despite the healthcare they have received, for which Leyla expresses deep gratitude, they have been struggling to cope.
“I need my son here,” Leyla says. “I’m ill. My daughter is ill. I need my family to be with us.”