Before several financial crises hit the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 2014, causing many businesses to fail, Shalaw Abdulstar owned a clothing shop for four years. According to him, “after the crises hit, I was barely making any money. I couldn’t pay the shop’s rent to continue my business, let alone other expenses. I had no choice but to close the shop and stay at home.”
Shalaw, 35, is from Erbil. He decided to emigrate to Europe with his brother in late 2017, and sold his car and other belongings to collect money for the journey.
Continuing, he said, “we first contacted a smuggler here in Erbil and went to Turkey. From there we went to Edirne, which is a city at the border between Turkey and Greece; we walked for eight hours non-stop before crossing the border into Greece. The most dangerous part was when we walked in between military camps; we could see the soldiers training. We had to bend down and walk through the dense forest to stay hidden.”
Adding, he said, “I regretted embarking on the journey the moment I crossed the Turkish border. I missed my family and my wife, and wished I had never made the decision to emigrate.”
After their perilous journey to Greece, the brothers still had to travel a long way to reach their intended destination — Germany.
“When we reached Greece, we wanted to go to Athens as some friends were waiting for us there. We went to a train station and found out that the tickets would cost us 120 euros, for both of us”, Shalaw recalled. “We checked all our pockets and only found 60 euros, so we started rifling through our belongings to find more money.”
“The agent at the ticket booth understood that we didn’t have the money. He asked us to give him what we had, and gave us the two tickets for 60 euros. Seeing how tired and hungry we looked, he gave us 10 euros back and pointed to a nearby market. It was an unbelievable moment; I don’t know what we would’ve done if not for his generosity.”
Shalaw and his brother stayed in Athens for four months. During that time, they made several attempts to cross the border into Italy and Germany.
“We tried every possible way, but we failed. The last time we tried; we hid in the axle of a truck”, Shalaw recalled. “The truck was supposed to go on a ferry to Italy, but just before getting into the boat, police dogs detected us. We ran away towards a mountain nearby; this had happened before. But this time, the police chased us down.”
Shalaw’s brother got nervous and jumped off a cliff to evade capture and broke his ankle in the fall. The police eventually caught up with him and took him to the hospital.
“I stayed on the mountain that night. In the morning, I went to the hospital and found my brother. The doctors had to put four platinum rods in his ankle”, Shalaw recounted. “It was devastating to see him like that.”
After Shalaw’s brother was released from the hospital, the pair went back to Athens and decided that they wanted to return home.
“I missed my family so much, especially after my brother’s incident. I felt their absence and I wanted to come home”, Shalaw said. “My wife was pregnant, and I wanted to be back home before the baby was born.”
Shalaw approached the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Athens and applied for voluntary return assistance. IOM took care of the brothers’ travel arrangements and they were able to go home on January 1, 2018.
“IOM treated us well, they gave us pocket money and provided us with accommodation. They also called in a doctor for my brother, to continue treating his ankle”, Shalaw explained.
After returning to Iraq, IOM conducted face-to-face counselling sessions with both brothers and provided them with in-kind assistance. Shalaw was able to re-open his clothing shop and enroll in a two-month vocational training to learn English, while his brother received assistance to open a market stall.
“I was in a very bad situation. I didn’t have any money left. IOM’s assistance helped me get back on my feet”, Shalaw said. “Our situation is so much better now; my brother’s ankle healed, and we are both happy that we decided to come back.”
When asked if he would consider leaving again, Shalaw said: “Never. May be only as a tourist. I learned the value of being among friends and family. People in Greece were very good to us, but I don’t want to live away from my family again.”
IOM’s assistance to Shalaw was funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), through the German Corporation for International Development (GIZ) and the German Center for Jobs, Migration and Reintegration in Iraq (GMAC).