In order to give people outside Chios the possibility to understand how it is to be in a refugee camp on the island, A Drop in the Ocean will present an alternative Christmas calendar this year. Each day until Christmas, we will post 24 amazing stories about the people we are so blessed to spend our everyday with.
December 23rd: Ali Ahmed
Written by Diana Valdecantos and photos by Nickie Mariager-Lam
Imagine you are sailing in the middle of the Aegean Sea with the moon and stars as the sole guiding light when your boat stops. The engine is not working, water is beginning to flood the boat, everyone panics and shouts and you can see land. What do you do? Ali Ahmed had no time to think. He had minutes to make a life changing decision. Should he wait to be rescued and maybe be sent back to Turkey, or fight for his life and dream in the cold and inhospitable Mediterranean?
This 21 years old Iraqi considered himself a pretty good swimmer and Europe seemed so close that it was worth a try. So after a couple of minutes of hesitation and considering his limited options, he simply jumped into the water. It was harder than expected and eye distance is not always a good advisor. For more than an hour, Ali Ahmed battled for his survival against freezing and rough waves. Adrenaline can be a powerful energy and when you wish something so deeply, sometimes you can surprise yourself. In his mind there was only one word: Europe.
A couple of moments his lack of strength almost ended this young man story. He had to stop and rest in order to be able to continue. The last days of November however, were cold in Greece. Even more so in the midnight waters. He could become hypothermic at any point, but he convinced himself that he had to swim tireless and continue onwards.
And he made it. He arrived at a tiny uninhabited island exhausted, frozen but happy and thankful to be alive. He could have saved the effort, though, the boat he jumped from arrived at the same island some time later.
Ali Ahmed didn’t travel on a dinghy. He describes the boat he came with as a yacht. A trip he started together with other 15 people in the type of ship smugglers offer to those who have connections or pay good money. Even though he paid 2.000 euros for a seat in this first class boat, the engine failed and he almost lost his life. It seems the Aegean route from Turkey is a lottery ticket no matter how hard you try to reduce your chances of becoming one of the thousands killed on their way to Europe. In is heads or tails the moment you step into the boat and travel across the gigantic and silent cemetery.
Ali Ahmed got inside the boat again. This time, at 11 in the morning, completely soaked and with no strength left. When the yacht was just a hundred metres from Chios, he jumped again into the sea and walked his way to Greece. It was the 28th of November.
This Iraqi was born in Kut to a wealthy family. Son of an engineer and a teacher, all his parents wanted for him was a college degree. He went to school and had a reasonably good life with his brother and sister. Nevertheless, he didn’t feel comfortable as a student. He wanted something more at this stage and when he turned 17, he dropped out of high school in order to seek out his fortune and make his own way.
Unfortunately, Kut was not what it had once been. The Militia was getting stronger and the attacks and bombs quickly began to come daily. Checkpoints, bombings, curfews and a constant fear for his life and that of his family were all that was on offer. “There were times when we couldn’t leave the house for days. Police officers telephoned my parents when we were allowed to go out and when we were forced to stay”, he remembers. It was too much for a teenager full of dreams and an uncertain future. Ali Ahmed felt Kut was too claustrophobic and dangerous and he decided to move.
With some savings, he set out to Baghdad to meet a friend who offered to share his house while he looked for a job. And he did. He worked as a builder, as an electrician and as anything he could find before he started his own telephone shop.
Although he made good money and even bought his own car, the Alasaib Militia was still present in his day-to-day. “I got used to being scared and fearing for my life. I became accustomed to guns, bombs, dismembered body parts scattered in the street after the attacks. Blood and death everywhere, everyday”, he remembers.
One day, a bomb went off outside his store. As he went out to see, his heart sunk to the pit of his stomach: It was his car that had been blown up: he was being targeted. “They called my father back in Kut and blackmailed him. They asked for a significant amount of money in order to let me live. He answered them that he didn’t have that kind of money and that I was a strong man that would fight back”, he explains.
He went to the police, talked with a judge and reported everything, but the Iraqi Government couldn’t and still can’t control this violent group and recommended him to move out of Baghdad instead.
With his life in danger and some money in his pocket he flew to Ankara in order to try to ask for asylum in Europe. He was surprised he was denied the opportunity to try after all he left behind. A smuggler seemed the only way to enter the European Union and he paid 2.000 euros.
Before getting in the yacht he jumped from, he had tried to get to Greece eight times with no luck. He was intercepted by Turkish officers and registered in the police station every time. Until the 28th of November.
Almost a month later, life is still frustrating for this young Iraqi. He was not aware of the conditions on Chios before he arrived, and he ended up sleeping in a park for ten days until a woman explained the situation to him: There were many dangers in a city that had, only days before, experienced a fascist attack against Souda camp.
Ali Ahmed has just started his asylum process and seems pretty convinced he will get it. He wants to go to Germany where his uncle and cousin own a restaurant. He feels out of place in Chios. “I don’t need to be given food or clothes. I have money and have a plan. I just need to get out of Greece and make my way to Germany. I want to work. I want to live and have a future”.