Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))

Ahram Weekly

In a river of refugees

David Smith-Ferri reports on the lives of Iraqi refugees trying to make new homes for themselves in Finland

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world
Al-Ahram Weekly

Last month, as US border patrol agents began rounding up Central American women and children denied asylum, a small group of international peace activists from Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a civil society group, boarded a plane for Helsinki, Finland, to visit two long-time Iraqi friends who had fled Baghdad last summer and somehow completed a perilous seven-week journey over land and sea to reach this northern seaport.

Negotiating our way from the airport in Helsinki to Laajasalo, a small island and suburb where we were to stay with a Finnish journalist, we crossed a freezing and snow-covered Baltic Sea, as white flakes swirled in the streetlights and the temperature dropped to minus 25 degrees Celsius, a long, long way from Baghdad.

Our friends Mohamed and his teenage son Omar come from a small farming village where they grow okra. Last autumn, like hundreds of thousands of others, they were part of the swollen river of refugees whose headwaters sprang from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where endless war has devastated society and local violence has left so many people at grave risk. The journey to Europe is not merely a long, exhausting trip. It is treacherous from the start.

To begin with, while leaving their country of origin, people risk their lives travelling through contested parts of their country or over roads controlled by militias and warlords known to capture and kill people of their ethnicity or religious sect. Risks, we can be sure, they wouldn’t undertake except out of desperation and all of this merely to enter Turkey.

In Istanbul, where the refugees must try to find a trustworthy smuggler, make a deal with one of his agents, and pay a hefty fee — held in a sort of escrow account until a specific, agreed-upon part of the trip is completed — Turkish police patrol the streets and coffee houses looking for migrants. Iraqis are particularly at risk. If captured in Turkey and identified, they are imprisoned and eventually turned over to the Iraqi authorities. And in the charged, sectarian atmosphere in Iraq, the refugees shudder to think what might then follow.

From Turkey, Mohamed and his son planned to travel by bus to a port town — “It’s not really a town, just a place at the beach” — and launch a rubber dinghy onto the Aegean Sea at night. Their hope was to reach Farmakonisi, a tiny, largely uninhabited Greek island just five and three-quarter miles from the Turkish coast.

Leaving Istanbul is itself like crossing the open sea. It involves a nine-hour bus trip. The first trick is getting on the bus without being captured by police, and then again eluding the police while travelling out of the city. This is no small feat. This isn’t a tourist bus or a standard bus route where you gather with other passengers trying to blend in at a regular, authorised location. This is an empty mini-bus into which 20 refugees cram themselves and their luggage all at once. It is not an easy thing to hide.

“The bus will wait two minutes. No more,” Mohamed told us. Of course, people are anxious and on edge. He described three failed attempts to successfully leave Istanbul. In one attempt, the smuggler’s agent assigned a meeting place but then changed it four times over the next couple of hours, until the group, which included women and young children, were left crouching in the dark at the edge of a wood and looking down a dirt path to a street corner where at a specified time the bus was supposed to appear.

According to the agent’s directions, a phone call would alert the refugees that the bus was approaching the appointed pickup spot. In the meantime, they should organise themselves into four sub-groups of 20 people, the first sub-group dashing out when the first bus appeared. By this point, however, and despite the best efforts of Mohamed and other group leaders, such discipline was beyond them. Sleep-deprived, frightened and hungry, too many people ran out, and the mini-bus fled without boarding anyone, forcing the smuggler’s agent to reschedule the attempt for another day and leaving the refugees with nothing to show for their efforts but an unfulfilled promise.

In another attempt, the refugees successfully boarded, only to be spotted by police as they left the city. Two of the four buses were stopped. In the third bus, Mohamed and Omar watched as their driver swerved recklessly around the police and drove breakneck down the road. “He has to do this,” Mohamed explained. “For him it is life or death because it is a 20-year prison sentence if you are caught.” In the end, this attempt also failed when the group was rounded up by police after being delivered to the beach.

Mohamed describes what happened: “After a long wait, some tourists came down the side of the hill and saw women and children lying in the woods, and we were afraid they would tell the police. We could see police boats on the water, and hear their sirens.

“Eventually a Turkish man came and questioned us. We told him the truth. He said ‘Okay, don’t worry,’ and brought us water and some biscuits. Another Turkish man came and said everyone should gather in one place. This was suspicious. Then suddenly the police opened fire, and we heard the sound of bullets.

Some young people ran towards the sea and started swimming, and some ran away into the woods. The police said they would keep us until everyone was there. The young people were captured and we were taken back to Istanbul and held in jail for questioning. They held us for six days, but then accepted that the Iraqis in our group were Syrians and let us go.”

After this, Mohamed and his son spent two weeks in Istanbul, resting, thinking, planning and gathering their strength for another attempt. “Almost every day in the coffee shops we hear stories about people drowning [trying to cross the Aegean Sea], but we try to ignore this because we don’t want our motivation to weaken. This is why I waited two weeks to make the crossing. Some people only wait a couple of days, but I am very careful, questioning the smuggler, asking his agent questions and so on. Where is the crossing? Where do we land? I saw that there were more women and children than men refugees, and this made me strong. They inspired me. If they can face death, I can too,” he said.

Finally, on the fourth attempt, they succeeded. As Mohamed said, “This time, we left during the day, and the police were right there. So we believe bribes were paid.” A night-time sea crossing was set, and Mohamed, a mechanical engineer by training, agreed to pilot it. The trip was harrowing, with the boat overloaded and the passengers frantic, Turkish police on the water, and navigation a literal shot in the dark. “I never drove a boat before ... My son and I can’t swim. I believed we would die, but I thought that if I was going to face death, then I would face it carefully ... Thank God we made it.”

On Thursday, January 21, at least 43 refugees, including 17 children, died when their boats capsized while trying to cross the Aegean Sea. One of the boats was headed to Farmakonisi.

It is 225 miles as the crow flies across the sea from Farmakonisi to Athens. Before reaching the Greek capital, Mohamed and Omar had to travel to other small Greek Aegean islands, waiting on one for almost a week with little food. “Every day more refugees landed ... the good thing was that I was able to beg some food for Omar, a bit of bread, a few dates ... he was losing strength,” Mohamed said.

The travel time by air from Athens to Helsinki is about six and a quarter hours, including a Munich layover. For Mohamed and Omar and those they met travelling overland, the trip took weeks, with the borders opening and closing like jaws before and behind them.

As a young man in Iraq, Mohamed had few chances to use his professional training. Following on the heels of the eight-year war with Iran (a conflict in which the US participated in a number of ways, including by providing weapons to both sides), Iraq’s economy collapsed under the weight of international economic sanctions. In 1993, Mohamed began working for a French NGO working to provide medical relief to Baghdad’s malnourished children, a job that brought him a good deal of unwanted attention from the country’s intelligence services.

It was his work as a journalist for the foreign media that brought the death threats that forced Mohamed and his family to flee their Baghdad home and go into hiding. Continued threats, the murder of his brother by a Shia militia member, and the kidnapping and murder of his father forced him and Omar to flee their country. Omar’s mother and his six younger siblings remain in Iraq, waiting for the chance to be reunited with Mohamed and Omar in Finland.

One evening towards the end of our visit, Mohamed and I walked from the bus stop to our apartment. The snow danced lazily in the air. Without pausing, speaking thoughts that carried him from Baghdad to Finland, Mohamed said, “I came here because of my children. If I stay in Iraq, they will kill me. And what will happen to them in such a society?”

In the silence that followed, his words rose into the air and joined the dance.

The writer is a member of the Voices for Creative Nonviolence group and the author of Where Days Are Stones: Afghanistan and Gaza Poems.

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