‘From when I was a little child I liked building things’ says Omar in his clear yet foreign english accent. This time our conversation is not as instant, not as improvised, today our conversation is about him, Omar, the refugee, the volunteer, or as some others would say, the immigrant. It all began in Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq where Omar was raised and studied in the University of Baghdad. Holding a baccalaureate in Civil Engineering he found employment in his father’s asphalt/ bridge-construction factory. ‘I used to work as a team ‘mastro’ there, I was helping out the workers etc.’, he adds, with the tone of his voice remaining as humble as it has always been, with no bitterness, or hate or arrogance about how his life used to be and how things eventually turned out.
We decide to skip to skip about a decade between the time he started working in his family’s factory up until 2003 as up until then, life was as he characteristically describes it, ‘normal’. A trip down memory lane will remind us of the fall of the Iraqi dictator, ‘a dictator but a good dictator’ according to Omar, Saddam Husseyin and the American invasion of Iraq. Due to his degree and his fluency in english Omar was invited to join the American Army Civil Engineering Team who despite being made up of American soldiers, had as its main purpose to create infrastructure in various areas of Iraq. This is how 6 years went by for Omar, building bridges, constructing roads, narrowing existing gaps of his country. In 2009, under the Obama administration, American troops withdraw from Iraq meaning that Omar’s project has to come to an end. Omar decides to move to Dubai where he works for another construction company up until 2013. While in Dubai, Omar volunteered in the construction team of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Currently, Zaatari is the biggest is one of the world’s largest refugee camps, hosting approximately 80 000 refugees ( which makes up for the size of Larnaca and Paphos combined), most of them being of Syrian origin.
In July of 2013, Omar returns to Iraq, to visit his family. ‘It was 9th of July’, he says, ‘I was sitting in my living room and I saw two men with their heads covered, jumping over the fence in my yard’, he pauses for a while and then continues, ‘I realized that they were bad people, terrorists, but I wasn’t sure if they would attack me or a neighbour so I jumped from the roof’, this time the pause lasts for longer, only for him to continue and tell me that 5 minutes later there was an explosion. ‘I didn’t know if that was my house or someone else’s house, all that I knew was that I had to run. Next day, my father called and asked if I was ok, I told him that I was fine but I didn’t know whether my house was destroyed or not.’ What had truly happened on that night was that Omar’s house was set on fire by members of a terrorist organisation who believed that along with destroying the house they had also killed Omar. ‘The next morning, my picture was uploaded on their website with a description i Arabic saying that another American agent was killed’. It was at this moment that Omar had to make a deal with his father that was about to shape the rest of his life. ‘If I stay, there’s rules for them. If they are looking for you and don’t manage to find you, then they will start attacking your father, your mother, your siblings which is very bad’ he says, ‘I had already lost my house, so I decided to leave Iraq and make them believe that I am dead’. Within a night, like thousands of other Iraqis Omar became a political refugee,with his life being in danger in his own country, in his own city, in his own house.
The next day, Omar left for Turkeys, as he validly argues, ‘countries believe that all Iraqis are terrorists, out of dozens of countries I applied, Germany, Sweden, USA, only Turkey and Jordan gave me a visa’. With Jordan being full of Iraqis Omar chose Turkey as his family was quite well known and he didn’t want to risk being recognised by other Iraqis in Jordan. So another year passed in Turkey, and Omar kept doing what he was used to. But to what cost? ‘My family is very big, like Omonia team you know?’ he jokes and we both laugh, ‘I have five brothers and 3 sisters, so in total we are 11. The only ones who know about what really happened on the 9th of July are my parents and just one of my brothers, the rest of my siblings think that I died on that night’. In short, Omar has not contacted his siblings and has not seen his entire family for the last three years, ‘my brother got married last month and I wasn’t able to even call and congratulate him’, he says. In August 2014, Omar’s turkish visa expires, meaning that he had to check out and re-apply for another one. Having nowhere else to go, Omar ends up in the northern part of Cyprus, where he is permitted for a 15 day visa. In the meantime however, Omar did not manage to renew his visa for Turkey, in an effort to renew his visa in Cyprus, he was cold by the police that if he remained in Cyprus for the next days, he would be detained and sent back to Iraq. ‘I am 32 and I have never been to jail once in my life’, says Omar, ‘I came out of the police station into a coffee shop, then the owner of the coffee shop, a Turkish Cypriot, started talking to me, so I told him the whole story and that I had to come up with a solution. It was morning, so the man told me that if I didn’t find a solution until the evening I should go to him, he had something in mind which was risky but better than being sent back to Iraq and putting my family at risk.’ The day passed and Omar found no way out so he returned back to the coffeeshop. ‘I was really worried, I told him that there was no other solution than that of going back to my country and putting my family at risk, which is very serious’, says Omar as his voice tone becomes more intense. He told me exactly this: Omar, tonight I will call a Greek Cypriot friend of mine, you can give him some money and he can take you to the other side, there you can apply for asylum as a political refugee, no one will hurt you, and nobody will send you back to Iraq’. So this happened; a Turkish Cypriot coffee shop owner calls his Greek Cypriot friend, who came over and took Omar. For the price of 500 euros, Omar found himself in a completely different yet similar world within just 40 minutes of driving.
In the next morning, Omar went straight to the immigration office where he applied for political asylum. It was September of 2014 and he was given a waitlist status one which he was about to hold for the next 2 years. And it is at this point where Omar’s tremendous record on volunteerism begins. ‘I couldn’t just sit all day and do nothing, so I decided to go to the Red Cross, where I asked if there was anything I could do to help them’, first it was Red Cross, where he prepared relief packages for other refugees, then it was the Koffinou Refugee Center where he was one of the very few people in Cyprus who are fluent in both Arabic and English and thus volunteered as a translator whilst helping in numerous other different ways. Yet, it hasn’t been as easy, ‘I feel very grateful to the republic of Cyprus for all it has been offering refugees like me, it has offered us safety and a relatively normal life, however some laws against us should change. I am a civil engineer, I would like to work and offer back what I received but I am not allowed to even clean toilets or streets. During the first 6 months you are not allowed to work whilst after those 6 months you are allowed to work only in farms outside the city. But I would like to work even if that implies that I will be cleaning toilets’. Omar was able to make a living and rent a small flat out of the money his father was sending to him, which were basically the rent of 3 other apartments besides the house that was set on fire that he owned. However, about 6 months ago due to money laundry accusations Western Union was shut down in Iraq, thus Omar eventually ran out of cash. ‘I went through days where I couldn’t afford to buy anything to it, I had no money to spend and I would just sit at home doing nothing. I don’t like borrowing money from people so I had to sell my laptop and some gifts given to me by my mother in order to survive’, he says, yet there is a silver lining in almost any kind of misfortune.
After a 3 years long procedure, Omar has managed to obtain an a Special Immigration Visa. This means that he will be able to move permanently to the US get a job and build his future from the beginning. A single article is not enough to elaborate on the dozens of themes that are been touched through Omar’s story, being the refugee crisis, the treatment of refugees in Cyprus, the importance of volunteerism or even the Cyprus problem. Yet what is important to keep from this story is Omar’s refusal to give up, the fact that despite finding himself going from the very high to the very bottom he insisted on helping other, on giving out love and positivity. If he after all managed then we can all manage, if he managed to be the civil engineer of his life and build his own road of hope then there surely must be a road of hope for us, waiting to be built, waiting to be walked. Let’s take each other’s hand and walk through it.