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The desperate families still torn apart by Covid rules

When the European Union recently announced that vaccinated Americans will be allowed to enter the EU this summer, many US travelers celebrated, eager to dust off their passports for a long-awaited trip abroad.

But for many families in the EU separated from loved ones in non-EU countries — some for a year or longer — by those same border entry restrictions that will soon be lifted for some tourists, the news exacerbated feelings of outrage and isolation that have been building for many months.

“How do you even allow yourself as the government of a country or a union to decide that some people’s holiday plans are worth more than families being able to be brought back together?” said Alix Indigo Holmgaard — pictured above with her family — a Denmark citizen and mother of three who hasn’t seen her fiancé and stepdaughter in the UK since last year.

“I’ve been very supportive regarding restrictions, but my family has been torn apart.”

Prior to the pandemic, Holmgaard and her fiancé, a UK citizen and member of the British Army, would see each other almost every weekend. That “unconventional but very functional” relationship anchored their “international family,” she says.

“Denmark is where we have our house and our everyday family life,” she explained via text message while keeping an eye on her children. “It’s where we cook meals and tuck the kids in.”

But border closures and constantly shifting entry and quarantine restrictions over the last year have dashed that stability for Holmgaard’s family, as well as many others like hers who are spread across different countries and, sometimes, continents.

Increasingly, frustrated families are speaking out via movements such as Family Is Not Tourism.The initiative has gathered more than 20,900 signatures on its petition to lobby European Union governments to lift entry bans on third-country family members, saying such travel restrictions “[go] against the letter and spirit of EU legislation.”

The petition was deemed admissible for preliminary investigation by the European Commission in February. But petition founder Kristina Henry-Machulskaya told CNN she has not received any status updates since then.

Since March 2020, the European Union has had in place a recommendation for individual countries, or member states, to restrict non-essential travel by third country nationals, a spokesperson from the European Parliament confirmed to CNN in an email.

Member states are then responsible for implementing the recommendation’s content, the spokesperson said.

‘Very unfair’

Many families affected by the restrictions say it’s difficult to get much clarity from government officials, with constantly changing rules that make an already complex issue even more confusing.

“The EU ping-pongs back to the national states, and the national states mostly ignore you,” says Yulia Kulikova, a lawyer and mother of three who’s a dual citizen in Russia, where she was born, and Switzerland, where she’s lived for 17 years.

For months, Kulikova appealed to various government officials and agencies in three EU countries where her husband and three children have various citizenship rights — Switzerland, France and Italy — to let her mother visit from Russia after more than a year. Eventually, Kulikova says, Switzerland changed its border restrictions to include baptisms as a valid reason for non-EU family members to enter.

So Kulikova and her husband decided to move up plans for a summer baptism for their 6-year-old twins, and after Kulikova obtained a certificate from the Catholic priest who would baptize them, her mother was allowed as one of the five guests in the winter ceremony.

“Some people are already married, some children are already baptized, so they can’t pull out a good reason for a family visit, as funny as that may sound,” Kulikova tells CNN. “But that doesn’t mean they miss their parents less. They miss them as much as we do. And this is very, very unfair.”

In Germany, non-EU close relatives like grandparents are allowed to enter the country for a child’s birth — albeit with extensive paperwork and certifications, including ultrasound scans provided by the expectant parents. However, other countries including the Netherlands and France have much stricter rules that virtually ban entry for all non-EU family members except parents.

What’s most baffling — and infuriating — for many cross-border families are the various entry ban exemptions in many EU countries for business travelers, professional athletes, students, romantic relationships and, soon to come, vaccinated US tourists, while extended family members are still mostly not allowed.

In fact, Andrea Morales, a mother of three who is married to a Dutch man and has lived in the Netherlands for 10 years, claims that the country is in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which outlines the “right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence” for EU citizens and legal residents.

“We are in a country that’s well-known for its commitment to human rights, its respect for human rights, for diversity,” says Morales, who’s licensed as a lawyer in Ecuador, where she was born, and is currently non-practicing in the Netherlands. “It stands for everything I believe in, and it’s doing exactly the opposite to its own citizens, to legal residents. It’s treating us like second-class citizens.”

The Netherlands’ Ministry of Justice and Security, the government agency that makes policy decisions about the ban, did not respond to text message requests from CNN for comment.

Acute anguish

Global estimates vary on the number of people living outside their home country. But in the EU alone, more than 3 million first residence permits were issued in 2019 by EU member states, according to government data.

For many of these cross-border and transnational families, prolonged separations from loved ones bring an acute anguish often overshadowed as some parts of the world ease into reopened societies and plan summer vacations.

Social media campaigns by initiatives such as Family is Not Tourism and various offshoot groups, such as the Dutch-centric “Families van buiten de EU, wij missen jullie!” (Families outside the EU, we miss you!), paint a vivid picture of their ongoing struggles.

Photos and videos show smiling babies and toddlers who have yet to meet grandparents. New mothers describe the trauma of giving birth alone, while their partners care for siblings in the absence of eager grandparents who might otherwise help out. Single parents share the challenges of balancing childcare, jobs and school closures without a support system of family.

“It’s incredibly difficult to feel like the entire global society is completely oblivious to the agony we are going through,” Holmgaard says.

‘I would have to be dead or literally dying’

Lorraine Blauw, a mother of 8-year-old twins who’s originally from South Africa and has lived in the Netherlands for three years, is another outspoken critic of the country’s border restrictions. She and Morales run outreach efforts for the “Wij missen jullie!” initiative.

Since December, Blauw’s family has muddled through her two emergency vein surgeries, with another soon to come. Blauw has pleaded repeatedly with Dutch officials to allow entry for her mother — who lives in South Africa and has a five-year EU visa that Blauw says is not currently being honored — to help with her recovery to no avail.

“The answers I have been getting from the government are pathetic,” Blauw says. “They told me that to allow my mother in, I would have to be dead or literally dying within two to three weeks.”

Tineke de Jong, a Netherlands-born single mother who lives in Oslo, Norway, can relate. The January death of her children’s paternal grandfather from Covid-19 in Italy was the only reason they were allowed to connect in person with family members on that side in more than a year. The experience held a sobering message she says her children, 4 and 8 years old, have picked up on.

“That’s sad to have kids be confronted with that, that you’ll only be able to see your grandparents when they’re dead,” says de Jong, who hasn’t seen her own mother and father since December 2019. Her parents aren’t currently allowed into Norway and visiting them in the Netherlands would require lengthy hotel quarantines for de Jong and her children.

Perhaps even more difficult for parents like de Jong are their children’s interactions with peers — like watching friends get picked up from school by their grandparents, while theirs still aren’t allowed to visit.

“It’s not that all kids can’t see their grandparents — it’s just them,” de Jong says. “And that’s horrible. How do you explain that to a kid, that you can’t see your grandparents because they’re a different nationality?”

‘Not at all how I’d hoped to be a parent’

Some recent developments may offer glimmers of hope for families in the EU struggling with prolonged separations.

In the Netherlands, the issue of the country’s strict entry ban is finally making its way into the political sphere, with several politicians demanding answers from the Ministry of Justice and Security. The concept of Digital Green Certificates, a type of vaccine passport to enable less restricted travel within EU countries, which is now regulated with a color-coded system, is gaining traction, and that could eventually pave the way for relaxed restrictions with its external borders.

In addition to the news about vaccinated Americans being allowed into the EU this summer, France and Greece also recently announced their own plans to allow non-EU individuals to enter, with necessary testing and vaccine protocols.

Even so, such developments don’t negate the distinct sense of grief many feel over the bonding time lost among children and grandparents and other loved ones.

“We’re the only repository of memories for our daughter,” explains Lindsey Silva, who lives in Mannheim, Germany, with her husband and 18-month-old daughter. “What makes me so sad is that now as an adult, I can see an aunt or an uncle, and those people can tell me stories about when you were a baby, you always did this. We don’t have that.”

Silva is from Texas; her husband is Brazilian. The couple hopes to see Silva’s parents this summer, either in Germany or the United States, depending on which family members are vaccinated when. But traveling to Brazil is currently out of the question until the country can get its spiking cases better under control.

Sometimes, Silva says, it’s hard not to dwell on the fact that their daughter, their first child, has spent just one month of her life among relatives — Silva’s parents, who traveled to Germany in late November 2019 for their grandchild’s birth.

“Sometimes I get really emotional about it,” she says. “This is not at all how I’d hoped to be a parent.

‘Loss and shock’

Indeed, the mental health impacts of prolonged family separation can take a devastating toll.

“Everyone has been going through loss and difficulty, but this is an added thing for transnational people, suddenly finding themselves in a situation where what they took for granted before — your family and friends have always been just a flight away — is now gone,” says Irene Skovgaard-Smith, a social anthropologist with the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, who is conducting research on transnational individuals and their well-being during the pandemic.

“This is a very fundamental change, [and] there’s a feeling of loss and shock that this particular carpet could be pulled out from under our feet.”

As a resource for other struggling families, Blauw has shared her contact info on the “Wij missen jullie!” public Facebook page. Every day, she says, she receives four to five calls or texts from parents and grandparents desperate to see their loved ones.

Especially difficult, she says, is hearing from single parents who are virtually alone in a country they weren’t born in, drowning in the relentless demands of work and childcare with no family support during a pandemic.

“The stories that I’ve heard will literally be with me forever.”

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