During his 2015 political campaign in hope of securing the Republican nomination and eventually the White House, Donald Trump declared to the world emphatically and un-apologetically that Arab refugees escaping from the yolk of war and sectarian violence to European countries were petty criminals at best and rapists at worst.
In the wake of Trump's comment, the world, content to brand him as an obnoxious, silver-spooned racist, inclined to rouse supporters with nothing more than 'unsubstantiated beliefs', also seemed intent on proving the humanity of refugees with a surge in emotionally filled media and inclusive foreign 'policies', which opened the hearts and borders of many European people and countries to receive them. Many still oblivious to the legal and U.N. sanctioned process of doing so, instead, believing it to be just a simple case of letting refugees across an invisible line separating countries.
Balance then restored in the Trump war of perception, the West continued to 'punish' any narrative, espousing pejorative assumptions about refugees that would remove their (and the West's) halo of humanity until events on New Years Eve 2015 in several European cities, subsequently verified by a flood of personal social media reports, did the unthinkable: proving Trump right, and the leftist/progressive majority of the West, wrong.
Refugees were in large numbers attacking and violating women and girls in Europe.
Since then and with Trump's seemingly steadfast and unsympathetic rhetoric towards refugees being feted more and more by the media, the world now feels comfortable to (re) negotiate its once egalitarian stance too, with ferocious social media campaigns being mounted; the words 'rape' and 'refugee' being used simultaneously in hashtags to bolster anti-support for refugees, shock and fear in the West.
Petra In the Middle East
With the stereotype of the 'savage refugee' now well on its way to becoming an accepted social perception- Islamic extremism already a popular one, Petra: In the Middle East sat with Zaid and Hasan, two Iraqi refugees who escaped from their country's insurrection, to the small Turkish city of Çankırı , in an effort to understand the profile of a refugee.
It could have easily been a scene out of a movie:
Sitting in a Victorian style Marie-Antoinette blue armchair with his legs crossed, he elegantly held a lit cigarette between his index and middle finger, chop stick style, with the elbow of his cigarette holding hand, propped on the arms of the chair for support, as he slowly (but often) raised the smoke to his lips. Resting his other hand comfortably on his lap, the natural light from the window could not keep his uncanny resemblance to Latin singing sensation Marc Anthony, secret. His royal blue, turtle neck sweater and James Dean rolled hair adding intensity to his aesthetic.
In deep thought for some time, a state verified by his steady gaze just beyond the tips of his toes and a steady waft of smoke rising from the cigarette, he immediately lost his poise of sophisticated mystery when asked about the word 'refugee'.
"It is not even acceptable," he said vehemently, his gaze striking me dead in the eye.
Born into a merchant and military family of affluence and influence, 25 years ago, in the city of Mosul, Zaid explained that his family's change of identity to 'refugee' is almost too much to bear or fathom.
"My father hates this word," Zaid explained. "So much so that he refused to register his family as such during a short visit to Turkey a couple years ago. Refused."
An act that would have guaranteed Zaid's father, mother and two younger siblings a chance of living comfortably in Turkey... as refugees.
To do so would be to betray his family's strong lineage of "respectability" well established by generations of Zaid's forefathers in Iraq.
Now considered a man by his father, not because of his age but because of his completion of university studies, an achievement that is considered to be the real rite of passage for most Iraqis, Zaid could make the decision for himself to become a refugee in Turkey. And he did.
"It is not like Western culture. In our culture we have to obey our father's word," he explained.
"Only until you finish university can you now do your 'own thing'. I could not even smoke in front of my father until now. He is like my King and my mother is like my Queen," said Zaid of his parents who are now living in Kurdistan with his two younger siblings.
It was in this culture of absolute patriarchy that Zaid was eager to step into his manhood, which created events that would ultimately lead him to decide on the status of refugee, a decision that though taken consciously came with a feeling of having 'no choice'.
"After graduating from university in 2013 from the English Department, I looked into the private sector as my father was a merchant. I asked him for a small loan to start a business, which he told me not to do."
"By that time the 'Al-Qaeda' ideology had reached Mosul and so, anyone conducting business and making a profit at that time would be visited by the likes of ISIS who would demand a cut or in most cases all of the profits."
To refuse meant death, but to comply meant that the shadow government implemented by the US, would imprison you with the sentence of death, likely.
"I did not listen to my father," admitted Zaid.
"Soon, I was making a profit and of course, they came to me demanding money. I immediately fled Mosul with my father in an old car, not one of our other cars that would indicate wealth in order not to attract the attention of ISIS."
This was not the first time though Zaid had to flee Iraq since the start of the war in 2003.
In those early years as a child still in primary school, Zaid's family decided that he should spend time in Syria with his uncles when schools were closed indefinitely as a result of the war. Though it lasted a short while before having to return to Iraq for school, Zaid describes this respite as feeling like he was in Paris.
"At that time, all life in Iraq was about fear and about being very afraid. You never knew what was going to happen, if you could be arrested. We were under constant curfew between 2003 to the day I left."
"Before 2003, Mosul was not like that at all. People would be up all night on the streets into the early hours of the morning with friends and family. After the war everything changed.
"In Syria, I could be like my old self- no curfews, " Zaid recalled.
Dubai then Turkey
After fleeing Iraq on the heels of ISIS' demand, Zaid made his way to Dubai before ISIS "could collect any profits".
"I looked for any (legal) way to stay in Dubai and start over again, but I could not," explained Zaid.
Zaid's inability to start a new life in Dubai then, highlights the indifference of many wealthy Arabic nations, to the plight of their Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in Iraq, Syria and Libya.
Zaid suggests that one reason for their neglect could be attributed to the sectarian divide in Islam between Sunnis and Shias.
Iraq, true to its Middle Eastern heritage, boasted a blended nation with both Islamic sects- Sunni and Shia, strongly represented as well as Christian and Jewish communities co-existing peacefully before 2003.
"My best friend growing up was Christian and honestly before 2003 I never even knew about Sunni and Shia in Islam."
"It was only until 2005, that I really understood that there was a Sunni and a Shia. I remember asking my father, Am I Sunni or Shia, because I never knew until then."
"None of that mattered. It was the character of the person that determined if you would be friends or not," explained Zaid.
After failing to start afresh in Dubai, it was then that Zaid turned his eyes to Turkey.
"I then said that I would come to Turkey and think about what I should do after I learned about the U.N. in Turkey [and their efforts to send people affected by sectarian clashes and war in the Middle East to Europe and America]. And so I did. At four in the morning, I arrived in Turkey by plane two years ago, January."
About the same period of time that many like Zaid thought it would take for the U.N. to interview and offer them asylum in Europe or America. Many, who took this sanctioned route to freedom are still waiting for the U.N's interview, with some, many of whom professionals in law, medicine and business, so frustrated with the process, opting to return to their war torn countries than settle for inertia.
Ironically, it is his and others like him, value of character, integrity and liberal secular views that have seen them finishing last in the race to gaining entry into the West.
"I don't know where is the justice," said Zaid.
"Many people have come after me and got the interview with the U.N.. The most liberal people are stuck here in Turkey while fundamentalist people.. you know the ones who insist that women should be wearing burqas are now in America and Europe."
"I don't understand the justice."
While there have been people who waited on the U.N. and were granted asylum, many more have made it to the West, particularly Europe, by illegal means suggested Zaid. Most paying thousands of dollars to illegal smugglers to get into Europe. Those not able to afford the exorbitant price of freedom, left to settle for raft boats across the Mediterranean... still for a price, albeit much less (if not counting the risk of death).
Coming from comfortable means, Zaid pointed out that he and his father have had that option of paying to enter Europe, but to do so would be, again, to betray their respect for law and due process.
" I will only go the legal way, the way as a respected man," asserted Zaid.
"I am not a criminal, I am a human."
Those who give the word refugee a bad name
As for the refugees who have made it into Europe, engaging in criminal acts and spreading fear, Zaid acknowledges the West's negative perception of 'refugees' as 'just' if not a natural result, void of any hidden agendas.
"If people came to my country and created these problems, I would feel the same way too."
Perhaps, it is important to proffer that many had this 'criminal mind' before leaving their homelands. And that with many holding extremists views about non-Muslims as well as Muslims of different sects, the situation occurring in Europe was inevitable.
Turkey as a refuge
"I understand that some people don't like me because I am a 'refugee'- not because I am Zaid, just because I am a refugee," acknowledged Zaid.
Being on the receiving end of a lackluster reception from some Turkish people, he is quick to suggest that with Turkey's own precarious economic situation at the moment being felt by many Turkish people and with the influx of refugees seemingly benefiting from the government in the form of accommodation and allowances, Turkish people are rightly frustrated.
"Before, I did not know anything about Turkey, their customs and so I felt isolated because language is important in connecting with people and very few people speak English," revealed Zaid, whose English is fluent.
Despite this though, there have been many instances of warmth, generosity and hospitality offered to him by Turkish people, particularly the people of Çankırı, the city where he was sent to by the U.N until his interview date scheduled for November 6th 2017.
"I appreciate this country, Turkey, because it took care of me,"said Zaid.
"I have an Iraqi passport but I am not Iraqi anymore. We lost everything. I appreciate that the Turkish government opened their doors for us. Çankırı people...they were so generous and helpful."
November 6th 2017
Ironically, Zaid's birthday and the date for his U.N. interview too, which will hopefully determine if he is granted asylum and where, carries with it some trepidation as much as it does hope for a better future.
"I can be denied at any time by the U.N. after two years of just waiting, " fears Zaid.
A possibility that could see him starting all over again at square one.
Part II of 'Humans of the Middle East: The Truth About Refugees' continues in the next post with the story of Hasan. Subscribe for a chance to get an exclusive look at video of the interview. Don't forget to follow Petra: In the Middle East on Twitter and Medium @petrainthemiddl . Feel free to comment below or on Twitter as this issue deserves all the dialogue it should get.