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Home NATIONALA tale of an Iraqi refugee in Finland
Mon, 21 Dec, 2015 02:01:38 AM
An exclusive interview with Finland Times
FTimes Report by Adicus Garton, Dec 21

Osamah Lith al-Taie had his first warm introduction to the Finnish culture when Shiite militants firebombed his neighbourhood with Molotov cocktails, setting a dozen homes ablaze. This was 2014.

Osamah, the 31-year-old father of three from Aladamia, a neighbourhood in Baghdad, Iraq, is an asylum seeker in Rovaniemi.

When asked why he left Iraq, he says in broken English:

“I have problems with some people, Shiia. I had a fight with one of those guys. I don’t like [fighting], but this man, he speaks about my mother, about my wife, my father. I don’t know that this guy has many guys with him. If I know this, maybe I don’t fight. Maybe I am afraid. Because, he has guns. I don’t have [guns]. I have my family. I have children. But he don’t. He don’t care about anything.”

Osamah first met the militant when he came to the restaurant where he worked, pretending to be a Sunni named Omar, asking questions about the restaurant workers’ religious affiliations. This man, a member of a Shiite militia, came back to the restaurant after the fight with armed militants, asking where he lived. The restaurant owner, though, called Osamah and told not to come back to work.  But Osamah was unable to turn to the authorities.

“The Iraqi army, the police – they are afraid of militias… Now we have many militias in Iraq.” Osamah then rattles off a long list of armed militant groups in Iraq. “[The militias] go to the army and say, ‘Give us guns.’” According to Osamah, because the militias are Shiite, the guns are given freely. “If you are Sunni, and you go to ask, ‘I need a gun,’ you go to [jail].” According to Osamah, Sunnis who seek out weapons are suspected of being Islamists. “If you are Sunni, in Iraq, [you must be an] Islamist. You are Shiia? Hey, you’re a good guy.”

“These guys, they want to kill me because I got in a fight with [one of their own].”

After losing his job, Osamah was despondent. “I go to [prayers]. I’m crying. I don’t have work. My family needs money. What can I do? And some people come to ask me, ‘Can you come with me? I’ll give you money.’” Osamah suspects these people were recruiters for an Islamist terrorist organisation like ISIS. “I’m afraid of them. Maybe they’re al-Qaeda. May be Daesh.” Both al-Qaeda and Daesh, the Arabic name for ISIS, are militant Sunni organisations.

According to Osamah, he had to walk a fine line with these recruiters. “If I [say no], maybe he’ll kill me. It’s easy, just a pop.” He mimes shooting me in the head. “No one cares if I’m dead. You think the police care if I die?” He laughs.

“My father says, ‘My son, you must leave this city. You have problems with the Sunni. Problems with the Shiia.’” Osamah’s father sold his car to give him money to leave Iraq. At this point, though, the leader of the Shiia militia came to know Osamah’s address. His father warned him that there were many strangers wandering the neighbourhood and standing at corners. One in particular seemed to be watching Osamah’s home.

In an almost absurdist escape, Osamah hid in a large box, while his father brought a car around. Osamah’s father asked the stranger watching his home to help him lift Osamah into the car so he could escape Baghdad.

“My father goes to the airport. I have a passport, so I go to Turkey.” In Sakarya, Osamah met an Iraqi friend and fellow refugee making a plan to flee to Europe. “We meet a man from Syria. We ask him to go to Europe, and he says it’s easy. ‘You have money?’” This human smuggler took $7,000 from Osamah, promising him he’ll get to Europe.

Osamah demanded to come to Finland. “My father says when you go to Europe, go to Finland.” His father told him that he has the best chance for a resident permit in Finland, because of its sparse population, unlike “France, Germany, Spain, like those.” Osamah’s father also believes opportunities are more abundant here. “In Finland, if I have work, [I’ll have] good money.” His father stressed that Osamah has responsibilities to his family.

He has additional motivations for wanting to live in Finland. “In this country, [there are] good schools for children. Good teachers. I don’t need my children [to grow up to be] bad boys or, like, Islamists. Maybe in the future, he [could be] a doctor, a lawyer, maybe he’ll work in media.”

“I don’t care about myself much. I care about my family more.” Osamah married a widow with two sons, and has a 19-month-old son in Iraq. His stepsons are Becker, 13, and Karar, 11. “Both those boys are Christians, not Muslims, but I love them [as if they were my own] children.”

Osamah’s journey from Turkey into Europe started in Bodrum, a popular coastal city for launching refugee boats. Then the Syrian human smuggler moved them to Izmir inside a large delivery truck, along with 65 other refugees. Izmir was “like the Sahara. Hot, and I can see the ocean, but it’s far.”

Osamah stands up and becomes very animated at this point, acting out his emotions and the actions of his own self and other refugees.

As human traffickers take advantage of Izmir’s proximity to the sea, coast guards patrol the coast. “I’m afraid… of the Turkey coast guards. If they see me, they will take me back to Iraq.” At 7 o’clock in the morning, the Syrian smuggler brought them to the water, and they crowded into a motorized rubber raft. There were 37 people in the boat, including two children. There was a coast guard or naval ship waiting offshore. The Syrian told them not to worry.

“'I give them money.' That’s the system. Every[body] who works in the [navy or coast guard] takes the money.” Osama waves his hands. “‘Go, go, go.’ And we think that guy from Syria, he’s the boss. But no, a guy from Turkey is the boss. He has many [people smugglers].”

After crossing the maritime border between Turkey and Greece, “I see Greece. But it’s far. A ship comes, a big ship from the [Greek navy or coast guard].” The Greek ship sent down a ladder and the refugees climbed onto the ship. “One guy, he give me a [cigarette]. Because I’m....” Osamah shivers, though whether he’s cold, afraid or both, he doesn’t say. “He said, ‘Don’t be afraid. I’m from Greece. I’ll help you.' He’s speaking English. Not much people speak English. Just me and another guy… So I translate. Some people need the bathroom. Some people need food, because, for two days, we don’t eat.”

The Greek ship took them to Likos on the island of Crete. “In this city, many people come to help. One woman has a big box, and she gives every[body],” he mimes a toothbrush and toothpaste. “The next woman has food. Sandwiches.” When I ask if these women are from the Red Cross, he says they “just like helping refugees.” The refugees were also given donated clothes so they could change out of their wet clothes. Osamah and the refugees spent “one day in the camp, and one day in the police station.” He mimes prison cell bars. “They ask, ‘Who is from Iraq?’” He mimes silence. “‘Who is from Syria?’ Yeah, me, me, me! Because if I say I’m from Iraq, I [will spend] one month in Greece, and then back to Iraq. But if I say I’m from Syria … I’m free.” The Greek authorities gave him some paperwork he could not understand and sent him out of the police station. “Go. Enjoy.”

From Likos, the refugees were transferred to Athens. There, Osamah met another cog in the human smuggling machine operating across the Mediterranean. “He asks me, ‘Where do you want to go? What country? Do you want to fly there? Give me more money.’

“I said, ‘I gave that [Syrian] $7,000.’

‘“Give me €1,000 more.’”

Osamah stands up. “I have money. I have in my pocket €2,000. My father gave me much money. This money is for eating, sleeping, but I say I don’t have money. If you say ‘I have money,’ he will take you some place with nobody [around]…” Osamah points an imaginary gun at an imaginary refugee, “... and say, ‘Give me that money. I’ll send you to Europe, but give me that money.’”

Osamah had heard stories about smugglers killing refugees for refusing to hand over their money. He kept his cash in a homemade pocket he had sewn in his underwear. The smuggler patted him down, but he didn’t find the secret pocket. “I just have €20 in my pocket.”

As bad as smugglers killing him and stealing his money might be, Osamah knew it could be worse. “[If] I go to Europe with my family, my children and my wife, [those smugglers] take my wife, take my children.” He mimes his hands being tied behind his back. “And … fuck, you know?” Osamah doesn’t know the English word for rape. “If we say no, they kill me. Kill children. I see this in Greece. In Athens.”

“It’s a beautiful city, but I don’t want to stay in Greece.”

After two weeks in Athens, Osamah was loaded into the back of another delivery truck, to be smuggled through Eastern Europe. The plan was to continue through Denmark and into Sweden. “[The smuggler] says when I go to Sweden… I need to walk [to Finland].” The plan hit a snag, however, when their truck broke down in Hungary. The driver locked the refugees in the truck and fled.

In Hungary, the authorities put all the refugees, about 35 in total, from the back of the truck into a small room with no windows. Once a day, they were permitted to use the toilet. "One day, one bottle of water for [everyone].” He mimes sipping a bottle. “[There are] children, too. Women.” According to Osamah, they were each given one ham sandwich per day. “But they know I’m Muslim. I don’t eat pork. [So I eat] just the bread.” He doesn’t eat all the bread, though, saving some for the children. “Not just me. Many people do that.”

Osamah stands and mimes being hit with a stick. “They hit me here,” he points to his back. “And here,” his legs. “Not just me. Many people. They don’t even say, ‘Go, go, go.’” He mimes herding a crowd of refugees with a stick. “And they don’t care. Women. Children.”

In Hungary, the authorities wanted to register Osamah as a refugee. “But I say, ‘No. I want to go to Europe.’

‘“You’re in Europe.’

“‘Yeah, I’m in Europe. But I don’t like this country. I want to go to the next country.’”

Despite his protestations, he was fingerprinted in Hungary. Then he was given another stack of paperwork he couldn’t understand, and the authorities said, “‘Go. Enjoy.’ Like in Greece.”

In Budapest, he contacts the Greek smuggler to coordinate the rest of his travels. “He sends one guy from… Yugoslavia… or Czech. I don’t remember. A nice car. BMW. Many, many [cars].” The driver, in what was becoming a depressing refrain, demanded money. This time, the cost was €500. “I think, yes, in this car, maybe the police won’t think I’m a refugee. This car, it’s a 2015, like a sports car. Five guys in one car.”

Once the driver crossed the Austrian border, however, he kicked the refugees out of the car and told them to call the Greek smuggler. “We call that guy, and he sends a big… truck, and we go to Sweden. Two days.” When they arrived in Sweden, the truck took them to the border crossing at Haparanda. “He give us a ticket. To go by bus. I think, if I go to Helsinki, I can stay in Helsinki.” When asked how he traveled to Helsinki, “Bus, train, car, anything. Some people have a map.”

“Two hours, I walked [around Helsinki], because I need to find police.” Someone in a Kurdish market gave Osamah the police station address and sends him via taxi to be registered as a refugee.

Despite arriving in July, the police were already well-versed in registering refugees, as they didn’t ask many questions beyond, “Are you from Iraq? Are you a refugee? Are you staying in Finland or moving onto, for example, Norway?” Once Osamah surrendered himself to the authorities, the process was pleasantly smooth. He lied to the police about being fingerprinted in Hungary, and the Finnish authorities took his fingerprints and full handprints. They gave him a map to the refugee camp and a photo ID.

At the camp, he was given a key to his room, where another Iraqi was staying. “But he asks me more questions. Like the police. I’m afraid. I think to myself, maybe that guy’s the police, or maybe he’s a bad guy. Or maybe the police send that guy to ask me questions. He asks more questions. If I don’t answer, he asks more. ‘Why you don’t answer my questions? Tell me, tell me!’” The Red Cross placed him in another room with an Albanian, but, shaken by the journey, the Albanian’s snoring, loud voice and strange customs, Osamah asked for a different room.

Before they shuffled him into yet another room, his breakfast the next morning was interrupted by the news that he was being moved. “‘Come. Come. Show me your papers. You are going to Rovaniemi. It’s a good city.’” It’s hard to imagine a sympathetic Red Cross worker saying this without laughing, but Osamah is told, “Many people live in this city.’ And she says, ‘And in Rovaniemi, many people like refugees.’” Both Osamah and I share a laugh.

Because Osama arrived on the first wave of the refugee storm, he was given an apartment on Sudentie, where many refugees are deposited upon arriving in Rovaniemi. His apartment, shared by three other male refugees of varying ages and nationalities, has two bedrooms, a bathroom without a laundry machine or shower curtain, and a furnished kitchen. The Red Cross supplied him with a bed and bedding, one small Ikea table per bedroom, a kitchen chair, one plate and coffee cup, one set of utensils, and a cloth wardrobe (also from Ikea).

Virtually everything else in his small apartment has been donated to him by charities or his newfound friends.

“[When I came to Rovaniemi], I need friends. I don’t have friends. That [Iraqi] guy who came with me to Europe, he went… I don’t know where. Some people are in Germany, some people in Belgium. When I come to Finland, [only a few] people come to Finland. But the next month and the next month, many [refugees] come to Finland.” Osamah came to Finland on early July, a few months before the heaviest flow of refugees in late September.

In his words, because there aren’t many refugees who share his experiences, Osamah had trouble befriending his roommates and other refugees. “When I go home, I don’t speak much with those guys.” Two of his roommates are brothers. “That guy, he’s not married. His family [is] in Germany. He has… much money. He don’t care about social [benefits].” These brothers do not shop at the flea markets “like me. Everything they buy is new, new, new. They have money.” About his other roommate, Osamah says, “he has a different life. Not like me. He has a girlfriend from Russia.” Osamah doesn’t feel he can talk to his roommates about his experiences or his feelings. “Sometimes I go to the bathroom. I lock [the door]. I open up the shower. But I don’t shower, I just cry.” He doesn’t want his roommates to hear him crying.

The interview stops for a minute or so as Osamah has to wipe his eyes and think about what he wants to say next. “I need my children,” he says. “Those guys don’t have family. They don’t feel what I feel.”

Although the benefits that Osamah receives are “not enough,” he is not bitter. “I think… they don’t need to give me [this money], but I think this country care about me.” Osamah is not content to stay at home, merely existing. “I need to do something in this country. What [can] I do?”

Osamah went to a church to find friends. “I ask them if [they] need help. For free. I don’t need money.” The church took Osamah’s information and passed it onto the social welfare office. “After two days, [the office] send me a post. Come.” The social worker asked, “‘Why you go to church? Asking to help?’

“‘I need to do something. I can’t just eat, sleep, eat, sleep…’”

He grabs his middle. “I need to do something. This is not my body. In Iraq, yes, I am fat, but I am strong. Here, I don’t feel strong.”

The welfare office told him to contact them, not the church. “‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘I don’t know this system.’ And she send for me to help. I show you this picture.” On his phone, he shows me images of him and a mixed crew of Finns and foreigners working to clear out the ski jump at Ounasvaara. “We do this. But it’s a hard job. It’s cold… two hours. Shit.”

About the current perception of refugees in Finland, Osamah says, “Some people, not all people, but some people need to know that not all refugees are [bad] … and I think, if I do something good, now, in this city, some people know me… One day, this old man have many bags. I see he’s going to a car. But it’s hard. I say, ‘Let me help.’ He say, ‘Ei.’” Finnish for no. “I say, ‘Yes, you need help. Don’t say ei.” Osamah laughs. “He say thank you, thank you.”

About the Finnish language, Osamah says, “It’s hard. But I download a programme… maybe it’s good. I don’t know… You know why it’s hard? Because in my country, we don’t [hear] on TV this language. I know English. If you say a word in English, maybe I don’t know what [this word means], but I listen this word in movies, in songs.” He shows me an app that claims learning Finnish is fun and easy. We are grateful for the laughs that follow. “That programme lies.” But he has learned some Finnish words, from his church friends and others. Osamah visits the city library twice a week for language lessons. “But I don’t understand much. English is [easier] than Finnish.” When Osamah first came to Finland, he was surprised that Finns had their own language. He thought they all spoke English. “But I know I need to speak Finnish, write Finnish, everything in the Finnish language.”

Osamah explains his many previous jobs in Iraq, with the help of Google Translate and hand gestures. He was a cook, painter, auto mechanic’s assistant, taxi driver for two years, electrician’s assistant, bathroom re-modeller and a butcher. He was not formally educated in any particular field or specialty. After a short discussion about the Finnish work life, stressing Finns’ expectations of education, I ask him what he wants to do in Finland. “You know, I enjoy driving. Maybe I can go to the driving school.”

I asked him about his wishes for the future. “First, I need my family. I don’t care about resident permit, but I need this because I need my family. When I go to the police and I say I want my family, they say first you need your resident permit… I need to see my children. I want my children in school. And I need work. I need just to live in peace.” On the possibility of Osamah’s wife working, he says, “If she wants. I’ll ask her.” She is currently unemployed because of their youngest son. “In my country, it’s different. If she needs work, it’s hard. Some people think… if she needs work… In Arabic countries, some people have small heads. In Finland, if my wife needs to work, that’s the system here. She’s [an adult.] She knows what she needs to do. In my country, it’s different. Life is different.”

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