He was looking for safety and she was looking for freedom. Two dreams, Ahmed, 32, and his wife, Alia, 31, risked everything to achieve them. They began their migration journey in 2015 to settle in the Netherlands recently after they obtained refugee status, along with their five-year-old child.
In the fall of 2015, Ahmed and Alia and their fourth-month-old baby, Adam, fled Iraq to join nearly a million immigrants who headed to European coasts in search of a better life.
They almost died at sea, and felt a loss of their dignity on the Balkan road, and lived in hiding, and suffered from the long wait for the right to asylum in the Netherlands, until the day came when they had their own home in the Netherlands.
The endeavors of Ahmed and Alia – who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons – were successful when, in August 2019, Alia received a phone call informing her of her refugee status in the Netherlands. The lawyer who assists her in her procedures assures that as part of this process, her husband and son will have automatic asylum.
From that moment the life of the young family changed. “It was a moment of joy stronger than the joy in our marriage,” she said.
In the following weeks, the family obtained residence permits and travel permits and were no longer illegal. They now have the right to a home, to earn money and to have a normal life.
“Finally we got everything we wanted … a normal life like any other family in the Netherlands,” Ahmed said.
I saw death
After their engagement in 2014, Ahmed Alia invited one day to dinner at a restaurant in Baghdad, and suddenly a bomb exploded and killed customers around them, wounding Alia’s face, which still bore scars. “On that day, I saw death. If we had sat at another table, we would not have survived,” Ahmed said.
In Baghdad, they were living the ordinary lives of a young, middle-class couple. He runs a high-end clothing store, is the daughter of a university professor, and they are close to their families and have a group of friends.
Adam’s birth in 2015 triggered the procedures for the journey to the West, so Ahmed sold his shop and a property he had inherited.
Today, Alia, Ahmed and Adam live in a small 3-room brown-tiled house with a garden in the tree-lined town of Dueven near the border with Germany.
“We have succeeded,” smiling Ahmed, as he drinks coffee with milk under the rays of the autumn sun that seeps through the large living room windows.
And because they enjoy refugee status, they receive a monthly allowance of 1,400 euros, and they have obtained a loan of 3,500 euros from the municipality of Dueven to repair their home. They now pay rent, social security, insurance and electricity fees. They take Dutch lessons.
Their son will soon be five years old, and he speaks fluent Dutch, Arabic and English. He says he is “half Iraqi, half Dutch.” Every morning, he rides his bike to school.
The principal of the school he goes to says his childhood was not traditional, but he is doing well. “Adam is a child like any other. He wants to play outside and build friendships,” she said.
A journey of agony
With their arrival in Greece by sea, the family’s suffering began from crossing the Serbian-Hungarian border to entering the European Union. In the fall of 2015, Hungary erected barbed wire there to contain the steady flow of migrants from the Balkans. If they are caught, they will be placed in a detention center.
Therefore, Alia and Ahmed had to put their fate in the hands of a smuggler who took them during the night with others to the middle of a field where they had to escape from the refugee thieves and the Hungarian police alike.
This group, which was advancing silently and including women and children, narrowly escaped from an ambush, as men disguised as police were preparing to attack them. Some immigrants used tree branches to defend themselves, while others dispersed. The attackers finally vanished into the dark.
Their first steps in the Europe they were dreaming of, made them weak. In Budapest, hotels do not agree to rent a room to the immigrants, causing them to sleep on the street with their baby, and within a week their savings had evaporated.
Arrival in the Netherlands
Arriving in the Netherlands was a source of comfort, considering that they had relatives there, but they were surprised not to be welcomed, and this was the beginning of a 4-year displacement journey during which they moved from one camp to another and from one region to another, and they were lost in a maze of endless administrative procedures.
Their lives hang on a thread of hope for asylum, without which they cannot work, rent a house, or plan for the future. Their request was rejected twice, and they appealed both times, to no avail. They reached rock bottom. They lived in hiding for a year without documents, forced to beg for an overnight stay at their acquaintances with the feeling that they had lost their dignity.
“It’s a beautiful green country,” Ahmed loves the Netherlands and the humid climate the country enjoys. Sitting in his garden in the rain, he said.
Little by little, the spouses became accustomed to the systems of life in the country. They started buying their necessities from a “reasonable supermarket” in the neighborhood where they live, but they bring bread and Arabic spices from the neighboring town of Arnhem.
Despite the Covid-19 epidemic and the accompanying isolation, the couple forged ties with the parents of the children who attend their son’s school.
Ahmed, astonished by his new life in this country, who received in 2015 about 58,880 asylum applications according to the Dutch Immigration and Nationality Service, sometimes raises questions: Was it worth putting myself at risk to reach this exile in Europe?
For her part, Alia has become a dynamic, confident woman. She is no longer that woman who doubted her choice to leave and who was afraid and hiding behind her husband on the migration journey.
At times, homesickness gets over her. When she talks about her family in Iraq, tears stream from her eyes. Today, however, she has “no longer any regrets” leaving.
This does not prevent her from clinging to her Iraqi roots and her desire to pass it on to her son by telling him stories about her mother country in Arabic, and she said, “He will grow up here, but he has to know where he came from.”