First Published: 2017-04-21

An Iraqi family's Colombian odyssey
Hadi family dreamed of fresh start in US after fleeing their home in Iraq, but end up in Colombia after being tricked by people smugglers.
Middle East Online

Malak Hadi Hussein from Iraq talks during interview in Bogota, Colombia

BOGOTA - After fleeing their home in war-torn Iraq, the Hadi family dreamed of getting a fresh start in the United States.

But after being cheated by people smugglers, they found themselves someplace altogether different: Colombia.

At the end of an arduous two-month journey that started in Turkey, the Hadis got off the ship that had carried them across the ocean, thinking they were in the US.

Following the Iraqi smuggler they had paid $30,000 to guide the five of them, they took a bus, spent the night in a shabby hotel -- and only then realized something had gone awry.

"This is United States? This is Miami?" Malak Hadi asked at the reception desk the next morning.

"She said, 'No.' She said, 'This is Colombia, this is Cali,'" the 22-year-old refugee recalled in halting English.

That's when the family -- Malak, her mother, father, sister and brother -- discovered their guide had vanished.

That was a year and a half ago.

They were stranded in Cali, a city plagued by violent crime fed by the Colombian cocaine trade, the world's largest.

With no money, speaking little English and no Spanish, they were stuck sleeping on the streets alongside homeless people and addicts.

Malak remembers being terrified.

"In my country when you hear about Colombia is just drugs, is just mafia, is nothing else," she said.

- One war to another -

After four days in Cali, they got in touch with the Colombian immigration authorities, who arranged a translator for them.

They decided to go to Medellin and then continue their journey north toward the US -- like thousands of migrants who pass through Colombian on their way to seek the American dream.

But by chance their father met an Arabic speaker at a bus stop along the way, who told them about an Islamic cultural center in Bogota.

They changed course, headed to the capital and were welcomed at the Ahlul Bayt Islamic Cultural House.

"When we came inside the mosque, it was like a miracle for us," said Malak.

She believes that turn of fortune is the only reason they aren't sleeping on the streets today, she said.

Sitting on a prayer might, her green eyes wet with tears, she commented on the bitter irony of fleeing the war in Iraq, only to end up in a country torn by more than half a century of conflict between the army, leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug cartels.

Still, she said, it would be hard to get worse than life in Iraq, where the army is battling the jihadists of the Islamic State group in a brutal war that has many civilians trapped in the middle.

"Life is impossible every day in my country," she said.

"They just come and kill you, take the girls, the beautiful ones, and then kill the others."

- US 'the same' -

When the Hadis first fled their home on the outskirts of Baghdad, they went to Malaysia, hoping to make it to Australia.

They never managed.

So they set their sights on the United States. But the smugglers they paid to guide them robbed them blind, they say.

"They take the phones, they take the passports and they take the money we had... they take everything," said Malak.

"Everything was so hard, but I also learn much stuff that make me grow up."

Today, the family lives in a single rented room, and keeps its few belongings in plastic bags.

Colombia granted them refugee status eight months ago.

But they have struggled to find work without speaking Spanish. Malak, a nanny for a Palestinian family, and her sister, Rayim, who shapes eyebrows at a salon, are the family's only breadwinners.

Their parents, Hussein and Alaa, would like to open a restaurant. A local charitable institute donated tables and chairs, but they have not managed to find the guarantor they would need to sign a lease.

Today, the family's lingering dreams of leaving for somewhere else are mixed with a budding attachment to Colombia -- and the suspicion that leaving would not change much, anyway.

"I like this country. I mean I love it, trust me, I love Colombians. I love the people here, they have a sweet heart," said Malak. "But it's hard for us to live here."

Still, she said, "I don't want to go to United States because I'm sure is the same."

 

Trump-Saudi ties helps pave way for new Saudi crown prince

Iraq PM says IS admitting defeat in Mosul

US increases its role in Syria's civil war

Turkish President accused of influencing courts

Red Sea coral reefs take the heat of climate change

Makeshift clinic saves lives near Syria’s Raqa

Egyptian fuel helps restart Gaza power station

Rights groups say Morocco protest leader 'severely beaten' during arrest

5 killed in Mogadishu car bomb attack

UN experts urge Egypt to halt executions after 'flawed trials'

Qatar emir congratulates newly-appointed Saudi crown prince

Kushner hails 'productive' Palestine-Israel talks

Macron says removing Assad no longer priority in Syria

Turkey sends first aid ship to isolated ally Qatar

Egypt delivers fuel to ease Gaza electricity shortage

Saudi Arabia named after ruling dynasty

Turkey detains catering boss after army food poisoning

Israel says will unleash 'unimaginable power' in future Lebanon war

Brussels nail bomber identified as Moroccan

Saudi stock market bullish on new heir

Lebanon's Salame to be new UN Libya envoy

New Saudi heir is king's agent of change

Mohammed bin Salman named Saudi crown prince

Algeria leader drops Panama Papers libel suit vs Le Monde

Morocco detains three as Rif protests continue

Israel starts work on new settlements amid Trump 'peace' push

At least 10 dead in Mogadishu suicide attack

Iraq forces advance in Mosul Old City

Yemen cholera death toll passes 1,100

Iran-made drone shot down by US plane in Syria

Raqa’s own battle to liberate hometown from IS rule

Saudi, Iraq hail 'qualitative leap' in relations

French journalist killed in Mosul

Iran protests against Tillerson 'transition' comments

Saudi foils ‘terrorist act’ in territorial waters

Ex-Barclays CEO charged with fraud over Qatar funding

London mosque terror attack suspect named in media

Iran avenges Tehran attack by targeting jihadists in Syria

Israel begins reducing power supplies to Gaza

Emirati minister warns Qatar isolation could ‘last years’

Russia freezes US military hotline after downing of Syrian plane

Turkish troops arrive in Qatar for joint training

Saudi seizes weapons from captured boat in oil field

Iraq authorities tell IS to 'surrender or die' in Mosul

UN says record 65.6 million people displaced worldwide