giovedì, febbraio 16, 2017


For war refugees, sanctuary in the West isn’t always a happy ending

Richard Hall

For many thousands of people fleeing wars in their home countries, being granted asylum is a happy end to a sad story.
The chaos and heartache caused by US President Donald Trump’s short-lived immigration ban earlier this month showed just how important the right to resettle is for so many, and how it can change lives forever.
But for others, the promised land is not what they imagined. Even after all they go through to make it there, something draws them home again.
That was the case for Rani Khaled Yaqoub, a 26-year-old Christian mother of two from northern Iraq, who escaped ISIS to seek asylum in France. After about two years in Europe, she turned around and traveled all the way back.
“My friends found it weird, and asked why I would want to go back. They asked me to stay there [in France] in case my situation changes,” she says. “But this is about me and my kids. No one experienced what I went through there [in France].”
Yaqoub is not the only one who made such a choice. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) helped more than 12,000 people return to Iraq in 2016 after they had sought asylum abroad. In the first month of 2017, they assisted 500. The group believes many more are coming back on their own, without IOM assistance.
Yaqoub’s move may seem surprising, especially since for her, going back to Iraq didn’t mean a return all the way home. She settled in Erbil, where many of Iraq’s internally displaced have ended up, some 50 miles from the village where she spent most of her life.
Today, she lives in a two-room office on the fifth floor of a newly built shopping mall in Erbil with her sons, 2-year-old Ranel, and 3-year-old Rawad. The mall's lower floors are all hustle and bustle, with clothing stalls spilling out of shops into the narrow walkways. Yaqoub's floor has a dusty and unfinished feel — it is eerily quiet apart from the children who dash in the hallways, pausing occasionally to peer at shoppers in the atrium below.
She first arrived here in August 2014, after fleeing from her hometown of Qaraqosh, not far from Mosul. ISIS fighters were heading their way; some 100,000 Christians from the area escaped with her in the same direction.
“We were told [by Peshmerga fighters in the city] that ISIS approached the area, and no one can stay in the area. So, like everyone else, we packed our stuff and left,” she says. “We thought we would be back in a couple of days.”
ISIS captured the town and ransacked its churches. Not everyone managed to escape. Yaqoub’s husband, Mourad, was a policeman. He and his brother stayed behind in the town as its last line of defense. Later, they too were ordered to leave, but Mourad got caught up in clashes between ISIS and Kurdish forces along the road to Erbil. He was killed in the crossfire.
Yaqoub was seven months pregnant at the time. She had to face starting a new life as a single mother. But the takeover of her town and the death of her husband had traumatized her. She wanted to leave the strange shopping mall and her country behind.
After five months in Erbil, she left for France, where some of her husband’s family were already living. (French visa rules allow those who have successfully claimed asylum to bring over family members).
When she arrived in Marseille, on France’s southern coast, she claimed asylum as a refugee.
“I went with my brother-in-law. We lived together. We didn’t find a job of course, but we had rights. We had salaries, residency, passports, everything official,” she says.
This might have been the closing of a chapter for Yaqoub and her two boys. But she could never quite settle. It was the first time she had ever left Iraq, and she was torn between the safety and security of her new home and a yearning for her first.
Marseille is often described as Europe’s most ethnically diverse city. It has seen successive waves of immigration from Italy, Eastern Europe and North Africa. More than one-quarter of its 800,000 residents are Muslim. Marseille also bears the unfortunate title of France’s “capital of crime,” due to its high murder rate and gang problems. 
Yaqoub’s Iraqi Christian community is so small and unique, however, that it barely makes a footprint in Marseille. If she felt like a minority in Iraq, in Marseille she felt almost invisible.
“There were Arabs from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, but we did not have any contact with them. We were too different,” she says.
And the French people she met were — she searches for the right word — “a little cold.”
There were small things that she just couldn’t get used to, like ready-to-eat food: “If we don’t prepare the food with our own hands, we cannot [eat] it.”
Then there were the bigger things. Iraqi communities are generally tightly knit. Generations of families tend to stay in one place, so everyone knows everyone else. This is especially true in the Christian communities of northern Iraq, which have been brought closer together by their perceived precariousness in a country that has long suffered from Islamist extremism.
“We socialize here [in Iraq]. One can count on the other, we have each other. If you don’t have family, you have your neighbors. If you don’t have a brother, you have a friend. Over there [in Marseille], you feel estranged. You don’t interact with the others, that’s the nature of things there,” Yaqoub says.
She was studying psychology in Qaraqosh. In Marseille, she couldn’t find work. She tried to learn French, but found it very difficult.
“The language is what determines your relationship with someone, isn’t that true? If we can’t speak, how can we interact with others?” she asks.
Her desire to go back home grew every day.
“I missed my country first, and secondly my house,” she says.
But more than that, she didn’t see Marseille as a place for her children to grow up.
“My children and I can live better here [in Iraq]. It’s difficult there. I needed help all the time there. You cannot count on anyone,” she says.
Yaqoub borrowed the money to cover the flights, and against the advice of her friends and family, returned to Erbil — back to the shopping mall.
Her experience is not as rare as one might imagine. The IOM, which assists migrants who wish to return to their own country, conducted research in late 2015 on the reasons why Iraqis were going back home.
They interviewed dozens of returnees, and found that the image they had of life in Europe had been idealized. The main reasons refugees came back, they found, had to do with the time it takes to process an asylum request — during which an applicant can’t work — and cultural differences. Some were forced to return because they were the main breadwinner for a family and could not find work abroad.
Yaqoub’s prospects here are not much better in Erbil than they were in Marseille. Her only means of support comes from the local charities that deliver food to the families living in the mall once a month.
“Honestly, this is hard, you cannot easily find a job. It’s the same for everyone. Whenever I hear about a position, I apply. But nothing has happened yet.”
But despite all the advice she received to stay in Marseille, Yaqoub thinks she made the right choice to come back.
“I’m back to square one,” she says, “but my cousins are across the hall, and my old neighbors too. I’m happier here.”

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