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International volunteer David Smith-Ferri shares the harrowing experiences of two Iraqi refugees. In his work with Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Smith-Ferri witnesses the danger and fear that refugees face.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~

A Swollen River of Refugees
by David Smith-Ferri


 

Last month, as U.S. border patrol agents began rounding up Central American women and children denied asylum, a small group of international peace activists from Voices for Creative Nonviolence boarded a plane for Helsinki, Finland, to visit two longtime Iraqi friends who fled Baghdad last summer and somehow completed a perilous seven-week journey over land and sea to reach this northern seaport. Negotiating our way from the airport in Helsinki to Laajasalo, a small island and suburb where we were to stay with a Finnish journalist, we crossed a frozen and snow-covered Baltic Sea, as white flakes swirled in the streetlights and the temperature dropped to minus 25 degrees Celsius, a long, long way from Baghdad.

 

Our friends Mohammad and his teenage son, Omar, come from a small farming village where they grow Okra. Last autumn, like hundreds of thousands of others, they were part of the swollen river of refugees whose headwaters sprang from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where endless war has devastated society and local violence has left so many people at grave risk. The journey to Europe is not merely a long, exhausting trip. It is treacherous from the start.

 

While escaping their country of origin, people risk their lives traveling through contested parts of their country or over roads controlled by militias or warlords known to capture and kill people because of their ethnicity or religious sects. Risks, we can be sure, they wouldn’t undertake except out of desperation. All of this merely to enter Turkey. In Istanbul, where refugees must try to find a trustworthy smuggler, make a deal with one of his agents, and pay a hefty fee – held in a sort of escrow until a specific, agreed-upon part of the trip is completed – Turkish police patrol the streets and coffee houses looking for migrants. Iraqis are, particularly, at risk. If captured in Turkey and identified, they are imprisoned and eventually turned over to Iraqi authorities. And in the charged, sectarian atmosphere in Iraq, refugees shudder to think what might follow.

 

From Turkey, Mohammad and his son planned to travel by bus to a port town – “Well, it’s not really a town, just a place at the beach” – and launch a rubber dinghy onto the Aegean Sea at night. Their hope was to reach Farmakonisi, a tiny, largely uninhabited Greek island about six miles from the Turkish coast.

 

Leaving Istanbul is itself like crossing open seas. It involved a nine-hour bus trip. The first trick is getting on the bus without being captured by police, and then again eluding police while traveling out of the city. No small feat. This isn’t a tourist bus or a standard bus route where you gather with other passengers trying to blend in at a regular, authorized location. It’s an empty mini-bus into which 20 refugees cram themselves and


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