Threatened in Iraq, Mohamed Al Lami and his family left a beautiful house and a prosperous job in Baghdad to begin an extremely rough journey toward Europe. This story is not a complaint, rather it’s a reminder: what would you do tomorrow to save your own family?
On the April 13, 2015, we fled to Turkey. We flew from Baghdad to Ankara, and we stayed one year in a small village near the capital. It was a place named Kuri Küla. I choose this village because staying in the capital was too expensive. I found a small apartment. My wife gave birth there. We had a second, beautiful daughter: Leen.
After that, I started to seek asylum from the United Nations (UNHCR). Getting an asylum could be summed up with one word: waiting. First, you have to queue for hours to put your name on a file. Next to you, hundreds of people from multiple countries are going through the same process. Once your name has been give to the authorities, you get a piece of paper that grants you an appointment for registration. Then you wait again: one, two, three months. Years. My appointment was for 2022.
And every single day, you have to eat, drink, raise your kids, make them feel like life is going fine, hide your anxiety, and accept that being a migrant puts you in a position in which people will always try to take advantage of you. Many people see the migrant crisis as a business opportunity, especially regarding rent prices. My rent was 300 Turkish Lira but for migrants, it could bump up to 600, 700. And you will have to give a ridiculously high deposit and sign a one-year contract. You might have to leave after a few months, and the landlord will not give you any money back. But what can you do?
As a migrant in Turkey, I was not allowed to have a proper job. We couldn’t have bank cards either. And if I wanted to get my Iraqi money, the only choice I had was to go back in Iraq and get some in person. Maybe someone can do it for you once, but not twice. And I had many many expenses. Vaccinations, food, things for the babies. With about 230 Turkish Lira ($100 US), I had enough to pay for one and a half bottles of milk for the babies. The thing is, in Turkey, they encourage natural breastfeeding. Since my wife couldn’t breastfeed anymore, I had to buy those formulas. So I worked, but it was undeclared. I cleaned dishes for the most part but the pay was very low. I was insulted so many times. But when you are illegally moonlighting, when you have no proper work contract, the only solution you have is to smile or leave.
The situation wasn’t sustainable. We were barely surviving. We were struggling every day for nothing but pain and anxiety. The only solution we found was to go to Europe. And for this, we had to cross the sea. Not an easy decision to take when you personally know people that drown trying to do so. When you want to cross the sea, you have multiple choices. For 800 euros, you can embark on a an inflatable boat. For 1200 euros, you get a fast jet boat trip. We paid 2000 euros each to cross on a yacht, which was the safest way.
We left our Kuri Küla apartment to reach Izmir by the sea. We stayed in a hotel for weeks, waiting to be smuggled out of the country. At that time, there was a smugglers’ war: they were facing a very hard time with the police. The sea weather was awful, and thus a boat trip had been disastrous. So, not a good time for the smugglers’ reputation. Our smuggler, the one that was supposed to help us go away, also had his own problems with rivalries. To sum it up, we arrive at the worst possible time.
We stayed in that hotel in Izmir so long that the owners, a lovely Turkish couple, one time joked, “When you got here, your daughter couldn’t even walk. Now she runs everywhere.” This couple had really become our friends. Every night, we would kiss them goodbye, just in case we had to leave for Europe during the night. And every night, they would say, “We hope we don’t see you guys in the morning!”
In the hotel, there was also this old lady from the Netherlands. She stayed a long time as well, so I tried to befriend her. But she didn’t seem very keen on becoming friends with somebody that was obviously a migrant. One time she told me, “If you go to Netherlands, please don’t go to Amsterdam. There are too many refugees there. Just pick another city.”
One night, the smuggler came to us and said, “Tonight is the night. Leave everything behind. Only a backpack and no life jacket, you will never need it.” We took a bus and drove for three hours on abandoned roads free of houses.
The bus finally stopped, we walked for fifteen minutes. There was no moon. No light. I couldn’t see my hands. The road was full of holes and stones. I wouldn’t call this a nice walk by the sea. I could hear the sound of waves lapping though.
We got to a wild beach, full of sharp stones. The smuggler we knew, and some of his peers were there. “The yacht we are heading at is offshore,” they said. We were given small inflatable boats, made for two people. The smuggler asked people to go five by five in these boats. Somebody threw a big rope from the yacht, and we were supposed to drag ourselves.
My family and I embarked in one of these, and started to pull ourselves along the rope. We were the first ones to try this dangerous adventure. I was carrying one kid, Maryam was carrying the other one. A minute or two of us dragging together along the rope and it broke.
So there we were at the mercy of these ghastly waves. As far as we were concerned, we couldn’t do much but pray. For several minutes we wait for somebody to come and rescue us. But none of the 55 people standing on the coast moved. We couldn’t even shout in order to get someone save us: doing so would have put everyone at risk of being spotted by the Turkish authorities.
We had no choice then, so we tried to reach the coast again. It was very hard because the stormy water kept pulling us back from the coast. I was exhausted and the sea was making a fool of me. Around the lifeboat were sharp and slippery rocks you have to walk on in order to reach the beach. I was carrying my baby in my arms. There is no doubt that if I fell even one time, it would have killed her. But I couldn’t leave her in the little boat, it was even more risky. My wife wouldn’t have been able to keep both of the kids’ heads above water if it capsized.
In the end, I couldn’t tell how, I managed to get on these perilous rocks and get everyone back to the beach. I wore some Nike sneakers at that time. I still have them. They’re my lucky shoes.
Back on the beach, my wife yelled at people, “You look at a family with babies facing an awfully dangerous situation and you do nothing? Shame on you all!” But you know what? I think nobody heard her. People were shocked, desperate, absorbed by prayers maybe.
After a while, the smugglers finally managed to take everybody to the yacht via another smaller, motorized boat. We all embarked on a 12 meters, 3 floors yacht. This boat could have belonged to some starlet. The smuggler needed to burnish his image, so he had pulled out all the stops!
But beyond the luxurious frame, I am not sure I would call this experience a fancy cruise. We were 55 people in one small room with all the windows closed and the lights off. There was no air and it was very hot. The boat captain, a Turkish man, was drunk. Nobody in its right mind would do something like this in a sober state. If he was caught in the act, he would have been sentenced to death.
The sea was very wild between Turkey and Greece. We knew that the boat could flip easily. My younger girl slept the whole time. However, Shams the elder one, was terrified. The boat was lifting off from the water and hitting the wave. She couldn’t prevent herself from screaming.
Fortunately, the trip was pretty fast. It took us two and a half hours to reach the Greek coast. But physically, the most difficult part was going to be getting out of the boat.
When we reached the coast in Greece, smugglers just told us to go: “That’s Greece, jump now.” Usually, people just swim up to the beach. But some of us couldn’t. The sea was very choppy. And how were we supposed to swim with a 40 day old baby and her 4 years older sister anyway?
Quickly, the captain got impatient, not to say mad. He began to push people off the boat. He was yelling in Turkish “Chabuk! Chabuk!” meaning “Faster! Faster”.
Some smugglers managed to give people the same inflatable boats I dealt with earlier. But people were still supposed to jump from the yacht to the tiny boat. My wife took Shams and jumped. Everybody left.
At some point, I was the only one left on the boat. I had my tiny 40 day old baby girl in my arms – she never really left me during the whole trip. The captain was out of patience. He started the engine and began his way back to Turkey.
At some point I just told myself, “Mohamed, right now your wife and kid are alone on a Greek beach. If you do nothing, you lose them.” So I spotted a remaining inflatable boat, ran, closed my eyes, and jumped. It was a two second-ten meters jump and probably the biggest adrenaline shot of my life. I landed in the middle of the boat, right on my back, so my daughter didn’t get hurt.
When I reached to beach. I noticed my wife was sitting there, apart from the group. She was crying. She said, “The boat was leaving. I thought I had lost you.”
The beach we had arrived at was located on a Island called Kalymnos, close to the Turkish city of Bodrum. It’s not a very popular island for refugees like Lesbos, it is more of a touristic one. So coastguards don’t check the whole coast everyday. It was 3 in the morning. We were surrounded by mountains, so we were blocked and couldn’t do much more than wait. Some strong migrants – mostly men – managed to climb the mountains. As far as my family and twenty others were concerned, we were just waiting, again, for something to happen. My youngest daughter was so wet. A kind, tall woman gave us a blanket to wrap her in. We also made a big fire.
I spent the night trying to call the Greek authorities to have them pick us up. I finally managed to speak with them. I even gave them my GPS location. But nothing happened. We didn’t eat anything. Kids were very thirsty. With a bunch of people, we searched the beach area looking for some water and food. And we found some in a small shack! In it, there was a lot of water with an indication, “drinking water.” I couldn’t believe it. We found some food as well, but it was hot outside and partially deteriorated. I still wonder how these provisions got there.
The person who saved us the day after was a fisherman. That man was coming to the beach everyday to take migrants on his boat from the beach to a place they could ask for asylum. He took us to a small fishing port, where we stopped for a well deserved lunch. Then, we took a bus to the police station. At the station, three hundred people were waiting. Some other migrants, mostly Syrians, also arrived at this island the same day. Kalymnos’s inhabitants were very kind in general. They offered food and clothes; they really wanted to help but they also were very poor. The economic crisis didn’t spare them, so they couldn’t do much for us. But I won’t forget the humanity I found there. I won’t forget that hot, sunny day, when my younger daughter was wearing only diapers and looked quite fragile. Every minute, a Greek stopped me to ask if she needed milk or food.
The funny thing is, most of the migrants there did not speak English, so I became a partner of choice for the authorities of the island. To deal with people as efficiently as possible, they needed somebody to translate from Arabic to English. That ability of mine drove them to treat my family and I as special guests. Nevertheless, I spent so much time helping them to deal with other migrants, we missed the boat that was supposed to take us to Athens. The officers were embarrassed, the next boat wasn’t to come to Kalymnos before a few days. We decide to fly to Athens instead.
We got to Athens in the afternoon. It was very difficult to find a hotel there. We ended up in a disgusting prostitution hotel, in a neighborhood called Omonoia. Some old women were standing in front of it, obviously soliciting. They were four rooms in the hotel. Three were dedicated to sexual intercourse, one was supposed to stay clean. We stayed there for five days.
At that time, we had two choices: leave Athens by airplane or leave Athens on our feet. Walking meant harassment, robbery, police, and days and days of physical exhaustion. To figure out our possibilities, I communicated with a smuggler I found on a Facebook page. He stared at me and my family. “Well, you speak English. Your girls have light hair. Let’s try something,” and he sold me fake Italian residents cards. So we became Maria, Brenda, Antonio and Angelica.
Early the next morning, we left for the International airport of Athens. We passed all the checkpoints smoothly. In that case, it was pure luck: most of people try five or six times. In the airplane, there was a Syrian family. Obviously they were migrants as well. I was very nervous. The little girl they had with them was running in the airplane, and soon the flight attendant suspected something. The girl’s mother was wearing a hijab, they didn’t look comfortable: with the migration crisis, who they were was obvious. Soon, the plane landed at Charleroi, Belgium, and the attendant called security. I was still sitting in the plane when I saw these two policemen on the tarmac, walking in our direction.
They asked for our ID. I spoke English with them, explaining I was a tourist. But you can’t be lucky every time: the officer was Italian! After a few routine questions, he figured out I was lying. I told him we were coming from Iraq and looking for refuge. I saw a light in his eye. He took a few selfies with our ID: I was his first catch ever and that selfie was a trophy.
We were arrested there. To top it off, we didn’t even plan to stay in Belgium. We were heading to Finland. Finland is cold, dark and far away, but in terms of education, it would have been a very good place for our kids.
A story written with the help of Laiss Barkouk