Monday 5, January 2015
DEBRECEN, Hungary, January 5 (UNHCR) — When Yusuf* and Omar* met in a smuggler’s van on the outskirts of Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, in October, they thought they were finally on the right track to safety in Western Europe. The smugglers were rude but at least appeared determined to get the two Iraqi men to their destination.
They were desperate for a safe haven after they fled extremists in their homeland to – of all places – a war zone in Ukraine. But their optimism quickly evaporated when their van was stopped by the border police in Hungary.
“We should not have come through Hungary at all, but we didn’t really know what was happening,” says Omar, 24 and a recently qualified dentist. “The smugglers took our mobile phones, and threatened those who asked questions with electro-shock weapons.”
They applied for asylum in Hungary. While waiting for their cases to be processed, they live in a state-run reception centre in Debrecen, in eastern Hungary, along with people from Syria, Afghanistan and Kosovo, some of the record number of asylum-seekers who have come to this country in 2014.
Yusuf, 42, acknowledges that fleeing to Ukraine, with conflict raging for most of this year, was a desperate measure. The allure of that country was that both of them had valid visas because they were former university students in Kharkiv.
Yusuf had studied business at university there, and Omar had just graduated from medical school with a degree in dentistry. He was on a temporary visit home to Iraq when militants overran his home area in June.
Both men knew Kharkiv could only be a temporary shelter because of its proximity to the conflict that has already forced more than half a million people to find safety elsewhere in the country, while hundreds of thousands have fled to Russia.
’I love Ukraine,” says Omar. “It has given me an education, friends and sweet memories. But it was simply not safe. Kharkiv is just two hours’ drive from the fighting — and things can change rapidly.”
Yusuf chimes in: “I was very sad, I have always wanted a wife from Ukraine, but there was no question about it. I had to pack and run again.”
It was their second dramatic escape during 2014. When militants captured Mosul, their hometown and Iraq’s second largest city in June 2014, life became hell for hundreds of thusands of people.
“If I had stayed there, I surely would have died,” says Omar. “It doesn’t matter that I don’t belong to any religious minority.” Intimidation of Mosul’s residents began, he says, started with an extremely violent internet campaign that showed the mass execution of Iraqi soldiers and students.
Yusuf agrees: “No one is safe there. If you fall out of line, they are after you and no one can save you.” After gunmen threatened him twice in his own house, he took his family to Turkey, which hosts more than 1.5 million people from Syria and Iraq. He left his family behind in a small town in central Turkey when he left for Ukraine.
“I grew up under Saddam Hussein; I can’t survive another dictatorship,” says Yusuf.
Omar says his father, a wealthy local leader, was brutally killed right after extremists entered the city. The rest of the family found shelter close to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan which has become home to more than 300,000 displaced Iraqis in 2014.
He was still a dental student in Ukraine when his mother called to tell him of his father’s death. “I died a little bit that day too,” says Omar bowing his head. “At first I was paralyzed. Then I remembered how badly my father wanted me to finish my studies, so I pulled myself together and passed the last exams. I did this for him.”
Even though risked their lives more than once to try to build a brighter future, the new friends, brought together by circumstance and adversity, now find it hard to look ahead.
“We were born and grew up in war. We simply forgot what happiness means,” says Omar. “If you want to know more about happiness, please ask here someone from another nation.”
by Balint Linder in Debrecen, Hungary
*Names changed for protection reasons