Thulfiqar Abdulkareem Abdulameer
Last year I was 27 years old, working as a journalist in my hometown Baghdad, where I had studied business administration. I wrote an article about the war, and how the militias were sending young, untrained guys to fight against ISIS who were well equipped with modern weapons. I wrote that it was like sending these young fighters to their deaths.
That article put my life in serious danger—the militias threatened me, and one of my friends told me there was a plan to kill me. I had to leave immediately, so he started helping me to run away. In the meantime, the militia planted a bomb in my friend’s car, seriously injuring him.
September 11, 2015, was my last day in my country. I fled without getting a chance to see my niece, who was born the day before. I left everything behind.
The violent journey through Europe
My only chance was to cross the sea with the other immigrants. It wasn’t easy to put my life in the hands of the greedy people smugglers. But I felt I had no other choice.
We set off from Izmir towards the island of Lesbos in a rubber boat with a capacity of 35. There were 50 of us. Kids and women were crying. It felt like the hardest two and a half hours of my whole life. Until finally it was over. A miracle.
A group of brave volunteers were waiting for us on the beach. We’d made it to Europe but our hardships weren’t over. We continued on foot for seven hours to the nearest camp. Thousands of people were there waiting for their papers, fearful of what was to come, and longing for what they’d left behind. It was miserable. We stayed there for three days, sleeping out in the open.
My memories of our journey onwards from Greece are that it was awful and hard. First to Macedonia, then on to Serbia. The Serbian army were treating people harshly, with no respect. People were sleeping on the ground, almost naked, in the freezing cold—some parents had burnt their clothes to keep their children warm. The queue to get travel documents took two days. After that we made it to Croatia, then Hungary. The soldiers there also acted unbearably. It must be easy sometimes to beat someone up just because of how they look.
From there I travelled through Austria to Germany. I had planned to stay in Germany, but there, people told me that asylum seekers in Finland were getting their decisions much more quickly. So I decided to carry on—to Denmark, through Sweden, and finally arriving in Tornio, northern Finland, on October 16, 2015.
Unhappy conditions at the Luona reception centre
The Finnish police welcomed us with respect and guided us through the bureaucratic procedures. We were driven by buses to Southern Finland.
We ended up in a reception centre in Espoo, run by the private company Luona. We were happy to wake up in what we then thought would be our final destination. I met a young Afghani guy called Abbas Jaafari and we made other friends. Abbas and I could hardly speak each other’s languages, but speaking English helped us form a really close bond, and we used to laugh so much together. He was a wonderful person.
Conditions in the reception centre turned out to be stressful and unhappy. A group of us, fifteen asylum seekers including Abbas, threw ourselves into volunteering, helping the other asylum seekers by translating. Essentially we worked in practice as the staff of the centre: cleaning the whole six floors of the building and the dining hall was our responsibility, as well as working in the kitchens. We’d work 12 hours a day, from 8.30 AM to 8.30 PM every day, even on holidays, with no rest.
In return, we got nothing, not even the respect of our supervisors. We encountered many difficulties, but we kept on working. A central motivation for us was that a supervisor at Forenom, the company in charge of the cleaning, had heard of us and expressed interest in our work. She promised to find us jobs and houses. We were made to attend a test and received a certificate for having completed it.
However, several weeks later, our reception centre’s manager surprised us by denying the promises made by Forenom. In a meeting between the supervisor from Forenom, asylum seekers living in the centre and our manager, the interpreter was told by our manager not to interpret the parts concerning promises of jobs and housing. She destroyed our dreams.
When the manager ended the contracts of several workers in the center, I realised that Luona had been exploiting us to make money, replacing their paid workforce with asylum seeker volunteers.
Abbas Jaafari’s tragic death
One day my friend Abbas had a strong headache. He tried to get some help or treatment from the nurse at the centre, but was told to drink hot water and sleep well.
Two days later, on January 2, 2016, Abbas collapsed with a stroke after trying to visit the office of the centre but not being admitted. There was a long delay before workers at the centre called an ambulance. The ambulance took time to arrive, then crucial time was wasted asking for unnecessary papers. Abbas was worthless to them.
Three days later he died in hospital. It was a devastating shock. Our dear friend was suddenly not there anymore. I and four others complained about the way the reception centre had treated Abbas before he died, as well as about the lack of nurses providing healthcare for the 500 people in the centre. We contacted journalists to publicise these events happening in the shadows, behind the wall of greedy companies.
Only Sam Kingsley from Yle News, Christoffer Grohan from Yle, Katri Merikallio from Suomen Kuvalehti and Enrique Tessieri from the blog Migrant Tales covered the situation. I called other media many times, but they did not care. I sent an email complaint to the Finnish Red Cross, but they forwarded it to the manager of our reception centre instead, making the situation even more complicated.
Soon after we made the complaint, we were given 24 hours’ notice and transferred to an isolated centre in Kangasala, close to Tampere. It was a clearly a punishment and an attempt to silence us. In Kangasala, racist neighbors attacked the reception centre and asylum seekers. It was a real low point, feeling isolated and so far from my home. I was filled with regret that I had followed the advice to carry on to Finland, and hadn’t just stayed in Germany. After a while I was able to move to Helsinki again, into a flat, this time along with some of my friends.
A new life
One day in March, I got a call saying my asylum decision was waiting. I couldn’t go and pick it up until the following morning. All day and night long, my head was filled with worries—what if they send me back to Iraq? I can’t go back, it’s too dangerous. The next morning finally came—I had been given asylum here in Finland.
So much has happened in those six months since I fled my country. There’s been so much travelling and so much waiting, and my life has been changed forever by the things I saw and the people I met. Now I can finally focus on trying to build a new life here.
Thulfiqar Abdulkareem Abdulameer is an Iraqi business administration student and journalist currently living in Finland.