Leaving your country by force is undoubtedly a severely traumatizing experience, especially when the loss of close family members or friends is involved. Added to this, however, are the anxieties of facing the unknown, especially when you have to flee without documents, entrusting your hopes for a future to someone you don’t know, the smuggler, and the risk of being injured or even killed.
Testimonies of people on the move, including refugees, who survived against all odds show that this traumatic experience can leave indelible marks on the lives of the persons. Organizations like the Council of Europe and UNHCR, acknowledge the need to address through a constructive dialogue with all parties involved -such as governmental officers, and police officers - the humanitarian dimension of this phenomenon.
A dimension that is usually lost under the numerous titles of “illegal migration”, as the case of the two Iraqi families that reached the news back in December 2008, indicates. Fleeing persecution and insecurity in Iraq, they came to Cyprus to seek a safe life for their families.
While in the UN Buffer Zone they were injured by landmines.
The first accident beginning of December involved a family of five Iraqis; the man stepped on a landmine that blew off part of his right foot, while fragments from the explosion injured his four year old son, his wife and one other child.
Two weeks later another accident, again involving a family of three from Iraq, cost the right foot of the breadwinner of the family.
As it is always the case, behind the dry headlines and facts about people crossing irregularly from the north to the south, there are personal stories of tragedy, courage, and compassion.
“When the mine went off, at first I realized nothing – I thought that it was the police firing at us in order to arrest us; it was only after a while that I started feeling the pain and seeing the endless blood pouring from my foot which opened up completely” 35 year-old, Ali*,described his own horror as if he was describing a film he just saw. Ali, a Palestinian from Iraq was dumped by his smuggler somewhere in the buffer zone only to be collected later on by the police, which transferred him to the hospital. There the doctors had to amputate his leg.
“It could have been worse… I could be dead now” whispers and hugs his three year old boy who plays with his red car, his only toy;
Similarly, Mr. Said*, 52 from Iraq, had the courage to put a plastic bag around his injured leg until the time the smuggler transferred him and the family to the hospital (and then disappeared). Unlike Ali, Mr. Said’s right foot has been saved for now after having his heel operated.
Compassion allows hope.
Ali is already undergoing physiotherapy and he will (soon) be getting an artificial leg, while for Said his medical treatment for his injured heel is on going. All day and night he sits at the sofa with his leg up until he is able to walk again. “The doctors told me, it will take one year” he said.
Both families are thankful to the Government. Ministry of Health abiding by its legal obligations towards refugees covered the expenses for a special treatment at the private hospital in order to save the leg from amputation.
A Cypriot parliamentarian visited Said and his family once she heard the news. When the doctors decided to cut his leg because the particular treatment needed to save his leg was not available at the hospital, she intervened with the Government in order to transfer Mr Said to the private hospital.
Invaluable is also the help that they are receiving from two locals: a priest in Larnaca and a 65 year old man in Limassol who chose not to be named.
Father P, a Christian Orthodox priest brought up in Jerusalem, recalls that when he first met Said at the hospital he was very weak with low moral. “Now after the operation he has regained his self-confidence and he hopes again” said Father P, an Arab speaking priest who continues to visit the family.
“What they need from us is to show them love. They need to feel that they are welcomed that they have someone to share their fears, to feel they are not alone” says Father P who assists many Arab speaking people with translation as well; he translates for patients at the hospital, he escorts parents at Greek speaking schools who wish to find more about their kids progress and he is ready to assist in any other possible way.
For Father P, his assistance to someone in need regardless of his/her religion is something that should come out natural and an obligation that he owes to his fellow human beings. “In the same way I, a Christian, was welcomed and well treated by Muslim people in Jerusalem it’s now my turn, as a good Christian and a human being, to reciprocate”
For Mr. G, who visited Ali at the hospital when he heard the news, his sensitivity and eagerness to help in practical terms derives from the experience of his grandfather, who was a refugee from Minor Asia and sought refugee in Cyprus with his 6 children – among of whom was Mr. G’s mother.
“The day I heard about the incident coincided with the day my mother died; I felt like caring for a person in need which I thought as a gift for the soul of my mother” His attachment to the family did not remain there; despite the fact that he resides at another district, he visits the family and wants to find out how he can help more.
He thought to open an account to the bank where he will be depositing each month an amount of money. He recalls the “adoption of a refugee child” scheme which was taking place back in 1974 with the Cypriot refugees and he wants to do the same. His care does not stop in financial support. He even goes further and thinks about the empowerment of Ali, which will help him heel his indelible psychological wounds. He thinks of involving Ali in a vocational training, for jobs that can be delivered by a person with special needs, such as Ali.
Both families recall happier times back in Iraq.
“We had a very good life once in Iraq: job, house, car friends but we had to leave everything behind and go” says Said who decided to leave only when a car explosion targeting him killed instead his 16 year old daughter: “From that moment, I realized that Iraq is over for me and the rest of my family” says and burst into crying.
Similarly Ali recalls the good times back in Iraq, but the discrimination, constant threatening and killings of other Palestinians of Iraq by insurgent groups left him without any other option than to flee.
Paying the smuggler $20,000 was the only available escape route for the two families. Indeed, this is the reality for many refugees, not only Iraqis who in the absence of any legal means to seek refuge in another country resort to unscrupulous smugglers who have built a multi-billion dollar business by preying on the desires and desperation of many people who cannot cross borders in a regular manner.
For both Ali and Said the wish is the same: “good education for my kids, health and be able to live in peace” a dream common to all human beings but a reality to only some.
The solidarity that they have experienced so far in Cyprus allows them to hope for dignified life. Although medical assistance is the first necessary step of the rehabilitation process, psycho –social support, and reintegration assistance are equally indispensable in that regard.
Practical support from the society is of course to be welcomed and encouraged but it can only complement – not substitute- the governmental obligations. It is equally important for the Social Welfare Services to engage in to the rehabilitation and reintegration issue of theses two families.
The same applies to all other refugee cases with special needs.
*Names changed for protection reasons
UNHCR Representation in Cyprus, February 2009