-Where shall we meet?
-You are most welcome to come to my house, but please do not tell anyone where I live, do not bring a photographer or cameras with you and think of a name.
-A new name, for me. We cannot publish my real name. When I narrate my story, you will understand…
We are now sitting In Kazim’s living room in Nicosia. A small apartment with large windows, all wide open. ‘Always wide open’, he says. He politely asks me to make myself comfortable, while he offers me a refreshment. He reminds me that his real identity must not be published. He sits next to me, he looks at me: ‘So, where shall we start?’
Let’s start from the life you were forced to leave behind. Let’s start from your early years in Iraq. He unlocks his eyes from mine. ‘Iraq’. He turns his face towards the window. He looks at the sky. His lips form a smile. His eyes close for a few seconds. He steals a deep breath of fresh air from the window and he exhales a turbulent story. The story of a thousand journeys towards freedom. His ‘almost’ freedom….
I’ve spent days in boats crossing oceans between war and freedom, or rather an 'almost freedom' scenario. I was interrogated with a black cloth covering my head and I was jailed. I was manipulated by smugglers, since at some point there was no one else to take me out of my country. I travelled to many states seeking refuge, only with the clothes I was wearing and some money I managed to hide in my clothes. I have been chased crossing barbwires. I have been silent so that my accent did not give away where I was coming from. I have been left on a land without knowing where I was, by my smugglers.
None of the above fits the dreams and plans I had as a young boy. But here I am, an asylum seeker, one of the many 'orphans' of the international community. This is not what I have always been though...
When I finished my college specialization in Literature, and passed my state education exams, I was accepted to the city's High Institute of teaching in Bagdad where I continued my education. I had one of the best degree grades of my year, which enabled me to go and finish my studies in the University of Bagdad for free, I was happy. In UoB I studied Art Education and Theatre. From 1995 till 1999 I enjoyed four years of inspiring student life. At that time we did not have a 'real' war, but we had conflicts, whilst threads and economic development was going downwards. The shadow of the thread of war was now visible and of course we had the conflicts between religious sectors, which proved to be even worse than the war.
The first time I left my country was in 2003. I sought refuge to various countries, and many were the times that I had to go back to Iraq, putting myself in extreme danger. I first left and went to Syria. I could see the war coming. I was a member in a political party and a ‘thinker’, I expected that another war was bound to come sooner or later. If we waited to flee after the war had started, it would have been harder, or even impossible to get out. The religious people would take over--they leave no place and freedom for people who were not religious fanatics, nor for educated people. The 'thinkers' have always been considered dangerous. People who were struggling to change all the fanatic culture and change the world for the better were not accepted and were attacked and even killed. I would be one of those people to go down. I am a renegade according to them. So, you see, I could not have stayed there any longer, as it would have been very dangerous for me.
The first time I left to seek refuge it was a shocking experience for me. I felt that I was leaving behind everything that I had created or could have created. Above all I was leaving behind my family, my friends, my home, and my career. When I left I was just starting a career I had dreamed of, but which I could not develop. I was a singer of traditional music and, at that time I performed in a theatre team for children, whilst also having started a business, a tailor’s shop with a friend as a partner, which was going very well. I also started teaching Art in primary schools. I was making a good living. I was busy and creative, but I wasn’t safe or free anymore and things were getting worse.
The situation was climaxing. At some point they started killing by ID! If your name were a name that showed that you belong to the 'others', they would kill you. If you were absent from the Mosque they knew. If you were part of the the group they did not like--if, that is, you weren't a 'believer', then you were considered to be against them. I had to get out of the war zones, the violence, the isolation and the psychological violence. I wanted to save my life. I had already lost a lot of friends by the oppressors. One of my good friends was raped and killed because of his beliefs and his writings. It was a matter of survival. My mother begged me to leave, risking that she might never see me again.
So I left Iraq. I went by bus to Jordan but they did not allow me to enter Jordan, so I went back to Iraq. Then I went to Syria. I stayed in Syria for three years and worked as a tailor. But I could not stay in Syria permanently, because I had to renew my visa every six months, travelling between the Lebanese and Jordanian borders every six months, just for a few hours, just to cross the border, make my renewal and go back. It was hard to go across borders every six months, which led me into the thought of “let’s go back home to see if things are any better”. So I went back in 2005. I stayed no more than two months. The sectarian war was even more fierce now. They openly asked you to show your ID and by your name they would see from which sector you came from... I left again amid a very critical situation, having endured lots of threats and physical violence against me. I could not leave the country easily, because they were checking names at the borders.
After a lot of struggles which included days in the ocean in smuggler boats, jails and interrogations I managed to arrive in Cyprus. So in 2006, I sought refuge in the island, where I started an 'almost free' life. I got my asylum recognition by the reviewing authority of Cyprus. The Asylum Service rejected my petition to be recognised as an international refugee in Cyprus at first, but they granted me subsidiary protection, which meant that anytime they decided to send me back, I would have to return to the danger zone. I appealed for a review. The Reviewing Authority listened to my full story. The Asylum service, on the other hand, did not. They simply made basic questions. How could they thus possibly understand how much I had actually suffered?
After two years of being in Cyprus I was granted Asylum by the Reviewing Authority. It was a happy day. I felt secure; I felt that I had a second chance in life, and that nobody can ever make me feel scared of losing my life, ever again. Despite this, I still haven’t obtained the permanent residence paper. I have been here for seven years. I experienced many long years of uncertainty, until I finally received the asylum status. It was yet another personal life struggle.
Nevertheless, it was a fresh start. I decided to study Refrigerating and Air-conditioning in a college in Cyprus, to learn yet another skill that might enable me to find a job. I worked here for some years, but I am currently unemployed and surviving only on the money I have saved. I am presently looking for any kind of job.
I don’t feel that I am fully accepted in society here. I find it very difficult to integrate and be fully accepted. I don’t have any Cypriot friends.
Sometimes when I am alone, I ask myself “Why am I so alone?”. But what can I do? I go to the coffee shop and I sit there alone, which triggers off weird looks by people. A Cypriot does not accept an Arab as easily as a Russian, for example. I often detect arrogance and fear in the attitudes of the people around me. When I meet people who are friendly, I feel comfort and at least I feel that I am human being. I don’t ask for more. Just to feel that I am respected as a human being, accepted just as... another ordinary person.
I want the world to know that refugees and asylum seekers never choose to be refugees and asylum seekers. This means that they are humans facing real problems, which made them seek a safe life in another country. It is like someone who is drowning in the ocean, who would catch on to anything floating near in order to save his life.
Please do not turn your back on someone who’s drowning.