To Dream the Impossible Dream – A Christian’s Witness of His Journey Towards Freedom
Omar arrived in Hungary in 2015. He spent two years here; then he left in pursuit of his dream to get to the United States. He spoke to S4C about his conversion, his trip through Europe and the experiences he had in Hungary, among other things.
[ S4C changed the names and other essential details to protect the identity of the interviewee.]
Would you please introduce yourself?
I am from Iraq, from Kurdistan. My family consists of my parents and my sisters, they still live in Iraq. I am 35, I studied engineering. I was born into a Muslim family; you know Kurds are all Muslims, Sunnis. More than seven years ago I converted to Christianity while still in Iraq. I wanted to practice my newly found religion, but in my region, there was no chance to go to church. In general, in Iraq it is dangerous to be a Christian— we are second-class citizens there. In the Muslim world they have a terrible opinion about Christianity; they do not accept us as believers. The word for Christians is “unbeliever” in Arabic. Christians are considered like persons who have a wrong ideology about God, they say that the Christian faith is not a real faith in God.
How is it possible to get to know Christianity living in such an environment? How did it happen that you converted?
I did not know anything about Christianity beforehand, there are no churches and priests over there so my only source was TV: Christian channels from Lebanon, from Egypt, American channels like EWTN etc.
When did you decide to get out from Iraq and come to Europe?
I did not want to come to Europe; I wanted to go to the United States. So in 2012, I tried to go to the US. I first went to Iran, and there I applied for a visa to Afghanistan. It took ten days to get that and then I went to Kabul. I applied for a US visa there. I was interviewed at the US embassy in Kabul but they rejected my request to get a Visa. I was directed to the UN HCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). I stayed there for five months; I filed my request for letting me go to the US as a refugee. At the UN HCR they did not give me an answer for five months, nothing whatsoever. So I had to go back to Iraq.
What happened after that? When did you leave your home again?
I left Iraq for Turkey in 2013 where I stayed almost two years in Istanbul. I registered at the UN HCR and I did two interviews in Turkey with them. They asked me which country I wanted to go to. At that time the options were: Canada, the US and Australia. I chose the US, but after the two interviews there were no further answers to my repeated questions and requests. I asked them several times why there was such a delay in answering me; they did not answer that question either. It was a long time with no answers.
Did you have a chance to practice Christianity during this period?
Yes, I did. I went to church in Istambul.
What is the situation of Christians in Turkey?
It is illegal there for a Muslim to be baptised, I think. At least that was my impression. For sure they do not like it if a Muslim converts.
When and how did you decide that you go to Europe?
I met so many people from many nations in Istambul who left for Europe that I decided to go as well. My intention always was to find my way legally to the US, and this seemed to be the most viable.
As I said, many people started to go to Europe because it seemed easier than waiting. Again, the UN HCR did not answer our requests, and we had no idea about our possibilities. We did not know what their answer would be, or when, or would there be a way to get out of here ever…so finally I also decided to come to Europe.
I went to a border city; I stayed three weeks there. I met a guy, he worked in that city and also wanted to go to Europe, but he did not know how. I told him what I found out in the internet, that there was a relatively safe way to a Greek island, and from there one can get on a ferry boat to Athens, and from Athens, you can get to the EU through Hungary. We went to a shop where we bought a small inflatable boat for 400 dollars.
There were many people, families on the shore. It is situated inside a national park, guarded by the police. People who wanted to get down to the shore first had to enter the park, and sometimes the guards did not allow the people to smuggle their boats down to the shore. So to trick them out we joined a family pretending we were tourists who just wanted to swim and go canoeing on the water. Then we separated from the family and hid between the trees, waiting for nightfall. We stayed in the trees for three hours until it got dark and then we went to the sea.
It took us three and a half hours to cross the sea to the island. Then we walked–we saw many people walking from Afganistan, Syria, Iraq. They all paid for smugglers; we did not. We registered at a police station where they took us to a refugee camp. We stayed there for three nights, and they took our fingerprints. We then went on a ship to Athens. It was a big ship, and we bought a fifty euro ticket per head.
How much money did you have? How could you save money for the trip; did you have a good salary in Turkey?
All the money that I could keep from my salary was approximately four hundred US dollars. And I spent all of that before I arrived in Belgrade.
So, after arriving in Athens, we took a train from the terminal to a place close to the border. It cost only seven euro. But unfortunately, we could not buy the ticket from there to a further destination because the papers that we got did not entitle us to buy that bus ticket—we just could not buy it, police told us. We started to walk; we went thirty kilometres, then smugglers stopped and offered us places on their bus. We accepted that, and they took us to the border for fifteen dollars.
Then we bought a train ticket together with around one thousand other refugees; all standing on the train. We arrived at midnight to the Serbian border. We used the GPS of other immigrants entering Serbia illegally. It was close to Kosovo. We could hear the muezzins in Kosovo; I was sure that was not Serbia, so we changed direction. There was a canal, we crossed it and arrived at the highway and started walking. For a time we walked with a group of Africans, then they took a taxi. We came to a village, where there was a teenager with a car. He asked us what we wanted, and he promised us to take us to the terminal if we paid. But we did not have too much money by that time. I had forty euros; my friend had forty-five. We paid thirty euros for the drive. He took us to the terminal of another city. All we had then was twenty-five euros and we needed to take a bus to Belgrade. The ticket was twenty euro per head so we could not pay it. There was a small boy, ten years old. He gave us fifteen euros, and that is how we could pay the bus. I do not know exactly why he helped us, but I still feel very thankful for what he has done for us. I have his number; I want to thank him someday.
We slept two nights in a park; this is still July of 2015. We bought a train ticket to the Hungarian border. I had an Iphone 5; I sold that in Belgrade. I bought it in Turkey for four hundred, I sold it for 100. I had a passport until I reached Serbia. At the border I tore it apart because we were told it was not good to have a passport — everyone told this to us. I made a photo of my passport and saved it on the memory card of my phone.
I entered Hungary through a cornfield in the summer of 2015. At the border a police car came but by that time I was alone. I waited at a bus stop. A guy called the police, they came and took me to their office building. I was the first one but after that many people came from Somalia, Kongo, Nigeria, Afganistan, Pakistan. The police took our fingerprints; they registered us. They moved us to another place. They had a Persian translator.
How did Hungarian officials treat you? Have you experienced harsh treatment or aggressive behaviour?
Not at all. The Police were kind to us. When they got to know I was a Christian they told me they could separate me from Muslims if I was in threat or danger. I did not ask for that, because they did not know I was Christian, I would always avoid talking about that.
Why do you think so many people told lies about their identity, why they did not want to register or give fingerprints?
I do not know why so many people did not tell the truth about themselves, I can only guess, but I think they did so mostly because they came from countries where there is no real danger. For example, there was a guy from Tunisia, he said he was from Iraq so that he could get papers. Some are criminals. I saw many people selling drugs in the camps. Many of the people come here only because they like the European lifestyle. Poor people stay. Those who come with smugglers are not the poor, they are at least middle class and also some rich. The poor people remain.
What is your opinion about the fence put up on the Hungarian border?
I think the safer the better. An open border is not right, it is better if people come legally. It is more reasonable than just letting people in without any distinction.
What about countries in your region? As far as I am concerned, they do not take refugees. Is that true?
In my region, it is only Turkey that takes refugees. In Jordan, there is a closed camp but they cannot go to the city. Even in Turkey, they do not give them residential papers. I entered with an authorised visa but most of the people who work there work more than twelve hours, and often they are not paid. The manager escapes with your salary. It also happened to me; the police would not help. The government lets them work illegally, it takes advantage of them. They are the motor of the growing Turkish economy now. But what you earn, you spend on accommodation and food mostly. Refugees are trapped in Turkey.
How was your life in Hungary?
When they took our fingerprint upon entering the country, they gave us a ticket and sent us to the camp. There I registered and stayed for three months. I had my first immigration office interview. I worked there inside the camp as a barber charging five hundred forints (approximately 2 US dollars) per haircut. There was a small market there where people tried to make their living. They closed the camp later. Then I was moved to another camp, it was a container camp in an agricultural area. I went through the immigration process – then I decided to move forward and left Hungary.
What are your plans? To stay in Europe or do you still want to get to the US?
I still would like to go to the US.