‘Is this Miami?’: An Iraqi family’s Colombian odyssey

1 / 3
The Hussein family had planned to start again in the United States after fleeing the violence in their country but were cheated and abandoned by smugglers in the port of Buenaventura. Colombia has since granted them the status of refugees. (AFP )
2 / 3
Iraqi family, Hadi Hussein (bottom, R), Malak Hadi Hussein (R), Mohammad Hadi Hussein (L) and Alaa Hasan Ahmed (bottom, L) pose at the Ahlul Bayt Islamic Cultural House in Bogota, Colombia, on April 8, 2017. The Hussein family had planned to start again in the United States after fleeing the violence in their country but were cheated and abandoned by smugglers in the port of Buenaventura. Colombia has since granted them the status of refugees. (AFP)
3 / 3
Iraqi family Hadi Hussein (2ndL), Malak Hadi Hussein (R), Mohammad Hadi Hussein (2ndR)and Alaa Hasan Ahmed (L) talk at the Ahlul Bayt Islamic Cultural House in Bogota, Colombia. (AFP)
Updated 21 April 2017
0

‘Is this Miami?’: An Iraqi family’s Colombian odyssey

BOGOTA: After fleeing their home in war-torn Iraq, the Hadi family dreamed of getting a fresh start in the United States.
But after being cheated by people smugglers, they found themselves someplace altogether different: Colombia.
At the end of an arduous two-month journey that started in Turkey, the Hadis got off the ship that had carried them across the ocean, thinking they were in the US.
Following the Iraqi smuggler they had paid $30,000 to guide the five of them, they took a bus, spent the night in a shabby hotel — and only then realized something had gone awry.
“This is United States? This is Miami?” Malak Hadi asked at the reception desk the next morning.
“She said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘This is Colombia, this is Cali,’” the 22-year-old refugee recalled in halting English.
That’s when the family — Malak, her mother, father, sister and brother — discovered their guide had vanished.
That was a year and a half ago.
They were stranded in Cali, a city plagued by violent crime fed by the Colombian cocaine trade, the world’s largest.
With no money, speaking little English and no Spanish, they were stuck sleeping on the streets alongside homeless people and addicts.
Malak remembers being terrified.
“In my country when you hear about Colombia is just drugs, is just mafia, is nothing else,” she said.
After four days in Cali, they got in touch with the Colombian immigration authorities, who arranged a translator for them.
They decided to go to Medellin and then continue their journey north toward the US — like thousands of migrants who pass through Colombian on their way to seek the American dream.
But by chance their father met an Arabic speaker at a bus stop along the way, who told them about an Islamic cultural center in Bogota.
They changed course, headed to the capital and were welcomed at the Ahlul Bayt Islamic Cultural House.
“When we came inside the mosque, it was like a miracle for us,” said Malak.
She believes that turn of fortune is the only reason they aren’t sleeping on the streets today, she said.
Sitting on a prayer might, her green eyes wet with tears, she commented on the bitter irony of fleeing the war in Iraq, only to end up in a country torn by more than half a century of conflict between the army, leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug cartels.
Still, she said, it would be hard to get worse than life in Iraq, where the army is battling the jihadists of the Daesh group in a brutal war that has many civilians trapped in the middle.
“Life is impossible every day in my country,” she said.
“They just come and kill you, take the girls, the beautiful ones, and then kill the others.”
When the Hadis first fled their home on the outskirts of Baghdad, they went to Malaysia, hoping to make it to Australia.
They never managed.
So they set their sights on the United States. But the smugglers they paid to guide them robbed them blind, they say.
“They take the phones, they take the passports and they take the money we had... they take everything,” said Malak.
“Everything was so hard, but I also learn much stuff that make me grow up.”
Today, the family lives in a single rented room, and keeps its few belongings in plastic bags.
Colombia granted them refugee status eight months ago.
But they have struggled to find work without speaking Spanish. Malak, a nanny for a Palestinian family, and her sister, Rayim, who shapes eyebrows at a salon, are the family’s only breadwinners.
Their parents, Hussein and Alaa, would like to open a restaurant. A local charitable institute donated tables and chairs, but they have not managed to find the guarantor they would need to sign a lease.
Today, the family’s lingering dreams of leaving for somewhere else are mixed with a budding attachment to Colombia — and the suspicion that leaving would not change much, anyway.
“I like this country. I mean I love it, trust me, I love Colombians. I love the people here, they have a sweet heart,” said Malak. “But it’s hard for us to live here.”
Still, she said, “I don’t want to go to United States because I’m sure is the same.”


Turkey’s Erdogan faces resurgent opposition in twin election test

Updated 7 min 3 sec ago
0

Turkey’s Erdogan faces resurgent opposition in twin election test

ISTANBUL: Turks were voting Sunday in dual parliamentary and presidential polls seen as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s toughest election test, with the opposition revitalized and his popularity at risk from growing economic troubles.
Erdogan has overseen historic change in Turkey since his Islamic-rooted ruling party first came to power in 2002 after years of secular domination. But critics accuse the Turkish strongman, 64, of trampling on civil liberties and displaying autocratic behavior.
With all eyes on the transparency of the vote, polling stations opened at 0500 GMT and were due to close at 1400 GMT, with the first results expected late in the evening.
Over 56 million eligible voters are for the first time casting ballots simultaneously in the parliamentary and presidential elections, with Erdogan looking for a first round knockout and an overall majority for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
But both these goals are in doubt in the face of an energetic campaign by his rival from the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), Muharrem Ince, who has mobilized hundreds of thousands in mega rallies, and a strong opposition alliance in the legislative polls.
“I hope for the best for our nation,” said Ince as he cast his ballot in his native port town of Yalova south of Istanbul, vowing to spend the night at the headquarters of Turkey’s election authority in Ankara to ensure a fair count.
Erdogan remains the favorite to hold on to the presidency — even if he needs a second round on July 8 — but the outcome is likely to be much tighter than he expected when calling the snap polls one-and-a-half years ahead of schedule.
Analysts say the opposition’s performance is all the more troubling for the authorities given how the campaign has been slanted in favor of Erdogan, who has dominated media airtime.
“Even if the odds are on the incumbent’s side, the race is likely to be far tighter than many expected,” said Ilke Toygur, analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and adjunct professor at University Carlos III in Madrid.
Anthony Skinner, head of MENA at Verisk Maplecroft, added: “Ince’s wit, audacity, ability to poke holes through Erdogan’s narrative and connect with Turks beyond the traditional base of his secularist CHP has flustered Erdogan and his team.”
The stakes in this election are particularly high as the new president will be the first to enjoy enhanced powers under a new constitution agreed in an April 2017 referendum strongly backed by Erdogan.
The president had for the last two years ruled under a state of emergency imposed in the wake of the 2016 failed coup, with tens of thousands arrested in an unprecedented crackdown which cranked up tensions with the West.
Erdogan, whose mastery of political rhetoric is acknowledged even by critics, has won a dozen elections but is now fighting against the backdrop of increasing economic woes.
Inflation has zoomed well into double digits — with popular concern over sharp rises in staples like potatoes and onions — while the Turkish lira has lost some 25 percent in value against the US dollar this year.
“At each election, I come with hope. But this year I have a lot more faith, but we’ll see,” said voter Hulya Ozdemiral as she cast her ballot in Istanbul
The votes of Turkey’s Kurdish minority will be especially crucial in the parliamentary poll. If the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) wins seats by polling over the 10 percent minimum threshold, the AKP will struggle to keep its overall majority.
But in a situation labelled as blatant unfairness by activists, the HDP’s presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas has campaigned from a prison cell after his November 2016 arrest on charges of links to outlawed Kurdish militants.
After casting his ballot in his jail in the northwestern region of Edirne, Demirtas wrote on Twitter: “I wish that everyone uses their vote for the sake of the future and democracy of the country.”
The opposition has also alleged heavy bias in favor of Erdogan by state media, with news channel TRT Haber not showing a single second of Ince’s giant final Istanbul rally live.
Voting already closed last week for Turkish citizens resident abroad, with just under 1.5 million out of just over 3 million registered voters casting their ballot, a turnout of just under 49 percent.
Tens of thousands of Turkish citizens are responding to calls from the opposition to monitor the polls for a clean election and a delegation of observers from the OSCE will also be in place.
High security is in place across the country, with 38,480 police officers on duty in Istanbul alone. As is customary in Turkey on polling days, sales of alcohol in shops are also prohibited.