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From Baghdad to Bogota: the forgotten refugees in Colombia

…and why just telling their story is no longer enough


The Hadi Family (AFP)

When I first stumbled upon a story about the Hadis, an Iraqi refugee family who had thought they were heading towards the United States but were tricked and left in Colombia to fend for themselves, I started Googling. Their story had already been covered by small media channels all over the world – ‘Is this Miami?’: An Iraqi family’s Colombian odyssey’, translated into various different languages. After reading a reference to the Islamic Cultural Centre in Bogota, I emailed and asked for a contact number for the family, as I wanted to learn more about their story. They got back to me quickly with a number, and I dialled it.

When Riyam Hadi picked up, I could hear the tension in her voice straightaway.

“Do you want to talk to me or to someone else in my family?” she asked abruptly. I told her that I’d read a story online about a refugee family living in Bogota, and I just wanted to know more and see if I could help in any way.

“Look, I’m tired,” she said. “I’ve been in Colombia for one year seven months. I’ve told this story a hundred times. Everyone wants to know our story but no-one wants to help us. Look online. You can read our story there.” Feeling guilty I apologised, explained that I wasn’t a journalist and that I just thought that I might be able to help in some way. But even as the words left my mouth, I knew they were meaningless. What could I do? And why did I think, after all they had been through, that I’d be the one to make a difference to this family? It was well-intentioned, but it was Western arrogance nonetheless. I shook my head at myself as I thanked her for talking to me, and we hung up.

Maybe I was being too hard on myself. After all, it has always been in my nature to look for a solution when there’s a problem. To fight against injustice. To try to help those who can’t help themselves. But here I was stuck. I wasn’t an influential figure in Colombian politics. I couldn’t force the government to provide more support for refugees when it was already struggling to support nearly six million internally displaced Colombians. The only thing I could do was follow Riyam’s advice; look online, learn as much about the family and their situation as I could, and then re-tell their story to others, raising awareness of the plight of refugees in Colombia.

Here goes.

Originally from Aziziyah, a town 75km south-east of Baghdad, the Hadi family left Iraq in 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis. They had dreamed of starting a new life in the United States after their country had been left devastated by war. But after an arduous two-month journey, they unexpectedly found themselves in Colombia.

People smugglers had led the family to believe that they were on their way to the US. When they reached land, they were taken off the boat, put onto a bus and taken to a shabby city hotel. They had no choice but to put their trust in the man to whom they had paid $30,000 to get them to safety, and who had accompanied them up to this point.

“This is United States? This is Miami?” Malak Hadi, the younger daughter, asked at the hotel reception desk. “No,” was the reply. “This is Colombia. This is Cali.”

They looked around for the man who had brought them there, but he was nowhere to be found. The family – parents Hussein and Alaa Hasan, and their three grown-up children, Malak, Mohammad and Riyam – later discovered that they had in fact disembarked in Buenaventura on Colombia’s Pacific coast. The family knew little about Colombia except for what they had seen in the media. To them, Colombia meant drugs, war and Pablo Escobar. They could not help but note the irony of having left their war-torn country, only to arrive in a country which had been plagued by civil war for more than half a century.

Malak Hadi (Photo: Daniela Benedetti)

The family felt they’d had no choice but to flee Iraq. “Life is impossible every day in my country… children, young people, too many people dying,” Malak said in an interview, referring to the war between the Iraqi army and ISIS. “[Daesh] just come and kill you, take the girls, the beautiful ones, and then kill the others.”

After a few days in Cali and not knowing a word of Spanish, the Hadi family decided to go to Medellin, where they planned to continue their journey north, like thousands of other migrants who pass through Colombia in search of safety and the American Dream.

But coincidentally, the father, Hussein, met someone who spoke Arabic at a bus-stop along the way, who gave him the address of the Ahlul Bayt Islamic Cultural Centre in Bogota, where they finally received help.

“When we came inside the Mosque, it was like a miracle for us,” explains Malak, 22. She was convinced that without their help, they would be sleeping on the streets today.

Colombia… the US… what’s the difference?

The people smugglers had left the Hadi family with nothing; no phones, no passports, no money. “Everything was so hard,” says Malak, “but I’ve learned a lot of stuff that has made me grow up.”

Today the family of five lives in a studio apartment in Bogota with a bathroom and a single cupboard. The few possessions they have are kept in plastic bags. The family has mixed feelings about staying in Colombia.

“I like this country. I mean I love it, trust me, I love Colombians. I love the people here, they have a sweet heart,” says Malak. “But for my family, nothing has changed. To live here is so hard for us.”

Riyam Hadi (Photo: Daniela Benedetti)

In contrast, her sister Riyam, 24, feels completely disillusioned. “I hope we can leave Colombia,” she told me on the phone. “We are in one room, no-one ever called us to ask if we are ok or if we need something. We have nothing and no-one helps us.”

Although the Colombian government granted the whole family refugee status eight months ago, it hasn’t been easy for them to find stable jobs because they don’t speak Spanish. Only Malak and Riyam have been able to find jobs to support the family. Malak works as a nanny and Riyam in a beauty salon.

Their parents, Hussein and Alaa Hasan, would like to open a restaurant. They’ve received donations of tables, chairs and even a grill from a local NGO. But the inflexibility of Colombian bureaucracy means that they cannot sign a lease for a restaurant as they do not have a guarantor.

A familiar story

Their situation echoed that of Syrian refugee Almotaz Khedrou, whom I had met at his restaurant in Suba, Bogota, just a couple of weeks earlier. He too had fled war and ended up in Colombia. The difference was that he had the support of his Colombian wife and in-laws. Like the Hadi family, an NGO, Caritas Colombia, helped him to buy a food cart, and he was able to start selling Arabic food on the street. As one of his in-laws was able to act as a guarantor, he was eventually able to open a small restaurant, Al-Banun, and he no longer had to work on the street.

Almotaz Khedrou, a Syrian refugee in Colombia, outside his restaurant Al-Banun.

Almotaz Khedrou, a Syrian refugee in Colombia, outside his restaurant Al-Banun.

He told me he had received very little support from the Colombian government. “They gave me $600,000 pesos a month, but that’s nothing here if you have to pay rent and support a family. Luckily we could stay with my mother-in-law.” Almotaz dreams of opening a larger restaurant in a more commercial area, but the rents are high and he only has one guarantor. “The owners ask for two guarantors and two months’ rent in advance. I tried to ask the bank for a loan, but they require a two-year credit history, and I’ve only been in Colombia for 18 months.” He asked me if I had any good, honest contacts who could help him, either by acting as guarantors or by helping him find new, suitable premises for his restaurant. I said I’d put the word out.

As a foreigner in Bogota myself, I have hit the unyielding brick wall of Colombian bureaucracy more than once. Often, Colombian staff don’t know how to deal with foreigners or exceptional cases, because the system hasn’t been set up to deal with them. The answer is either “Sorry, there’s nothing I can do” or “You need to go to [another office on the other side of the city]” where you may or may not get what you need.

But I am privileged. I have a Colombian partner to help me, I speak Spanish, I have enough money to live on, and I can fly home to the UK if I want to. Refugees usually don’t have any of these things, and with very little help available to them in Colombia, they face huge impediments when it comes to trying to integrate into society and rebuild their lives.

What would make their lives easier?

Most European countries offer asylum-seekers and refugees support in the form of accommodation, language classes, access to free healthcare and a weekly allowance to help them with their living costs. With this in mind, here are a few things that, in an ideal world, the Colombian government could do to help refugees get settled in Colombia:

  • Offer free Spanish classes for non-Spanish-speaking refugees;
  • The government could act as a guarantor for those wanting to rent an apartment, start a business or apply for a small loan;
  • Refugees should not be required to provide a credit history when applying for small-loans. The government could either guarantee the repayment of these loans, or could provide refugees with small, non-repayable start-up grants;
  • Refugees with savings could be given the option of opening a CDT (i.e. leaving a deposit) instead of providing guarantors.

I make these suggestions knowing that it will be a long time before the government has refugees on their policy radar. In a country where corruption and impunity is an ongoing problem, where el vivo vive del bobo (‘the smart ones take advantage of the dumb ones’) and where around 12% of the population has been displaced by civil war, it is clear why refugees in Colombia aren’t a priority.

Could the expat community in Bogota work together and find a way to better support vulnerable refugees living in Bogota?

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