After a narrow escape and a long journey, a refugee family finds safety

Wednesday 20, June 2012 BUDAPEST, June 20 (UNHCR) – It was almost six o’clock in the morning when Mohammad noticed the front lights of a car far away on the countryside road. He was exhausted having walked the whole night from Serbia to Hungary, braving the January cold and snow […]

Wednesday 20, June 2012

BUDAPEST, June 20 (UNHCR) – It was almost six o’clock in the morning when Mohammad noticed the front lights of a car far away on the countryside road. He was exhausted having walked the whole night from Serbia to Hungary, braving the January cold and snow with his wife, Sitara, nine months pregnant.

The vehicle stopped and Mohammad realized it was a police car.

“I told them my wife was pregnant, she already felt the contractions, and asked for their help,” recalled the 29-year-old refugee from Sri Lanka now living in Budapest.

One of the officers, a policewoman, called an ambulance. It arrived within five minutes and Sitara was taken to hospital. The policewoman left together with her, but Mohammad was not allowed to go.

First, Mohammad was taken to a police station to have his fingerprints taken and undergo other procedures. Then, he was transported to the Debrecen refugee centre, some 200 kilometres away, where he made an asylum claim and received an ID card valid for one year.

It was only the next day that Mohammad was allowed to travel back to his wife, Sitara, and their newborn daughter Iman.

The family’s epic journey started two months earlier, in November 2010, when Mohammad and Sitara fled Sri Lanka.

But his problems started before that, in 2007, when the Tamil Tigers captured Mohammad, also a Tamil, and ordered him to drive a truck to the capital city, Colombo.

“I told the guy I didn’t need problems so I wouldn’t take that truck. ‘If you don’t take it, you will not get out from here alive,’ he answered. I wanted to live, so I caved in. I took the vehicle,” Mohammad said.

His fate was sealed. Mohammad had no other choice but to leave Sri Lanka, where the Buddhist Sinhala majority and the Muslim Tamil minority had been at war for more than two decades. He was afraid the insurgents could come for him again, or the government side could learn of what he did and he would risk prison or even worse.

He fled to Kuwait with his wife.

The couple’s visas expired in 2009, just as the war was over in Sri Lanka. They returned home and Mohammad joined the sea food business of a friend. “I had a job, even my baby was coming after five yeas of being married; I was absolutely happy,” he said.

But it didn’t last long. One day in October 2010 Mohammad’s father-in-law was kidnapped in an unmarked white van. Hours later, another van came and took Mohammad too. His eyes blindfolded, he was driven to a flat and questioned. He was held without food or water in a completely dark room for three days.

When he became ill, Mohammad was taken to hospital where his wife and brother waited for him. He later learned that his brother had bribed a police officer who made his escape possible.

Mohammad felt there was no guarantee he wouldn’t be kidnapped or arrested again, so decided to leave Sri Lanka once more. Unable to return home to pick up his own documents, Mohammad received two “blue colour passports” from an agent, and flew with his wife to Iran. Sitara was in the seventh month of her pregnancy.

From Iran, the couple were smuggled to Turkey and then to Greece. They tried to apply for asylum there but the guards didn’t even let them enter the overcrowded immigration office. So Mohammad decided to go to Hungary where his wife’s brother had been living for three years. He called his agent again who arranged transport through the border to Macedonia, then to Serbia in a truck.

In Serbia, the couple eventually found a refugee camp but, again, they were not allowed in. The place was full. They had nowhere to sleep. It was January 2011 and snowing.

A Somali refugee they met on the street came to the rescue. He arranged a small hotel room for the now desperate couple and gave them a phone card. Mohammad called the agent and the couple was soon sitting in yet another truck, heading towards the Hungarian border…

The family – Mohammad, Sitara, Iman and the youngest, Zaid, who was born this January – have just moved into a flat in Budapest, after leaving the refugee centre in Bicske.

Mohammad, who had his own mobile phone shop back in Sri Lanka, has only one practical problem left: he has to find a job in Hungary. It won’t be easy.

Their other concerns however are much more distressing. “My wife’s father is still in prison, and we don’t have any information on him. And my brother, after having been arrested too, left Sri Lanka, just like me. Now I don’t know where he is, what happened to him. One side of my family and me, we are safe here, but the other side of my heart is broken.”

Ernő Simon in Budapest, Hungary

Video interview with Mohammad: http://www.unhcr-centraleurope.org/takeaction