Mohamed and his family were heading to Finland, but they were arrested in Belgium. For most of asylum seekers there, the situation is tough and precarious. Another reason to fight for this 33 year old Iraqi dad.
Belgium is like a beautiful lady that would never even glance at you. She will never talk to you either. But you can’t stop staring at her anyway. Sometimes, I sit in the tramway and I try to prevent myself from sightseeing. Because if I do, maybe I would get attached to this femme fatale.
I wasn’t even supposed to meet Belgium. Initially, I, with my wife Maryam and our two young daughters, intended to go to Finland. But we were caught on July 15, 2015 in the airplane traveling from Athens, Greece to Charleroi in Belgium and from Charleroi to Helsinki.
We were immediately put in a cell in the airport. “We are not a supermarket,” I was told by a policeman after asking for a bit of milk to nurture my two babies. I understood the officer that was guarding us wasn’t very cooperative. “You are criminals,” he said. “Go back to Iraq, why would you come here?” I couldn’t prevent myself from asking him, “Sir, do you have a television or a radio?” I was very angry. Retrospectively, I understand that people in Belgium have very little information about what’s going on in Iraq. Maybe that isn’t something appealing for the media anymore. For that officer, trying to escape Iraq was like trying to escape Dubai: It was nonsense.
We were released after nine hours and given a document demanding we leave Belgium and the European Union within 24 hours.
Obviously, I was not going to buy a ticket back to Iraq. I called a half a dozen lawyers in order to figure out what to do. They all asked, “Did they take your fingerprints?” I figured out these fingerprints are the cornerstone of every asylum seeker in European Union.
Indeed, as soon as a European country has your fingerprints, you are under the thumb of the “Dublin Regulation”. Basically, it is a law that determines what EU country is responsible to examine asylums request. It stipulates that you cannot apply for asylum in more than one country within the EU. So, as soon as you are fingerprinted in a country, you’re under its jurisdiction. If you take a chance in another EU country, you will be expelled to the first country you arrived in.
Officially, the whole idea of this law is to prevent the “asylum seekers in orbit” effect, i.e. asylum seekers being transferred between countries while none are willing to give them asylum.
Many also see it as a way to prevent “asylum shopping,” which is the practice of applying for asylum in multiple European countries and thus multiply one’s chances to receive the refugee status. In my opinion, the terms “asylum shopping,” as well as the very concept, are extremely offensive. Because in the end, who is shopping? Are the migrants who are only trying to find a safe place to settle down? Or is it the government, categorizing and handpicking the migrants it accepts as long as those migrants are in line with the government’s own desires and political agenda?
There are appalling consequences to this radical system: Some people burn their fingerprint hoping to break the system, even if there is absolutely no point of doing that. You will get locked up until your wounds heal.
So, since we were fingerprinted in Belgium, we had to stay there. We found a hotel in Charleroi and we rested a little. After two days, I went to a police station to register myself and ask for asylum. In general, Iraqis from Baghdad receive asylum, as well as residency papers. The Belgian immigration authorities know how unsafe it is in Baghdad.
Busy doing nothing
Awaiting for our asylum request to be processed, we were dispatched to a center in the Walloon municipality of Florennes, where we could settle down for a while. But that place was hell. The rooms were awfully small. No kitchen. No window. It was painted with a dark-blue coating that was very dirty. You couldn’t set your eye on something without catching some cockroaches. It’s not that we were expecting much, but a clean place would have been something.
From then on, we waited. Our appointments with the authorities were postponed again and again. We spent a year and a half in Walloon.
In this situation, you have a lot of time to think about your former life. You think about very trivial things. But in your mind they are delicious. I missed my car, I missed my office. I missed the satisfaction of being important at work, I missed the selfish satisfaction of being successful.
I missed the restaurant I used to take my wife every week end, and the same Italian dish I used to order: a piece of red meat rolled with chicken meat with cheese and a mushroom sauce. The funny thing is, eating meat is not even something I support. There is no logic in making another creature suffer. But it’s like smoking. You know it’s wrong, yet you do it anyway.
My girls began to behave very strangely. They were always crying, shouting for attention. Since they were too young to go to school, they were at home all day, prancing around like caged lions.
And we were actually caged. Caged in an asylum seekers’ center. Waking up at 7am, rushing to the waiting line for breakfast, queuing for laundry on Wednesday, going to the economic block to get diapers for your kids every Monday, queuing again for lunch, queuing for dinner. We lived a busy caged life doing nothing.
After a year, I started to fix laptops for 23 euros in a week. An undeclared job that was at least a way to get some space.
We received a negative decision, three times. According to the Belgian administration Iraq is safe, so there was no reason for us to stay around.
Now, we exist in this limbo where there is no way to go back home and no way to become established in Belgium, I don’t have many choices. I can watch my kids grow up in this and do nothing, or I can fight back.
Taking it to the streets
With other Iraqis, and with the help of multiple activists and organizations in Belgium, I entirely commit myself to changing the situation. I can’t vote, I can’t change the European legislation. But I can change people’s minds. So I started organizing demonstrations. And each one is more and more successful. Hopefully, a time will come when the hundreds of supporters we have will be millions.
And hopefully, Belgium’s current Secretary of State for Asylum, Migration and Administrative Simplification, Theo Francken, will work with all his heart to help us get our lives back. Because just like me, he wants to keep his job, right?
And thanks to this dedicated Mr. Francken, one day I will apply for a PhD and become Dr. Mohammed Al Lami. I will get a lovely place to live and surround myself with kind Belgian countrymen and women. I will teach my wife how to ride a bike, and I will watch my kids become proper Iraqi-Belgian women. Or Belgian-Iraqi women. They will choose.
Read Life at war: to be born on the wrong side of tracks. [Mohamed’s fight 1/4]
Read They call it tourism, we call it survival. [Mohamed’s fight 2/4]
Read It might be trivial objects for you. For us, it’s life insurance. [Mohamed’s fight 3/4]