Every day, television screens and social media feeds are inundated by horrifying images of ordinary people risking their lives to cross the seas to Europe. Thousands die while desperately trying to escape poverty, deprivation and what seems to be an endless war. And for those that survive the life threatening journey, new perils await as they’re often faced with racist attacks and the constant threat of imminent deportation.
Amidst this massive human catastrophe, in November of 2015, Reuters reported the death of seven people in a helicopter crash in eastern Slovakia. A spokesman for the Slovak interior ministry at the time stated that, “The Mi-2 helicopter with Ukrainian markings was flying at a low altitude in very bad weather conditions as if it was trying to avoid being detected.”
I came to know about this accident because one of the people on board the helicopter was Ali Abed, a 25 year old Iraqi young man, who had recently graduated from Ternopil State Medical University in western Ukraine. He was also a good friend of mine.
Ali and I met in Tenopil, where I was studying pharmacy at the same university, and we kept in touch when I returned to Baghdad, while he stayed to complete his degree. Like thousands of others, he also wanted to forge a better future away from his troubled homeland, and so he also engaged on this journey of death.
I found about his death in the same way that we find out about the deaths of thousands, scrolling by on a Facebook newsfeed. It was a post of his picture, smiling, just as I remembered seeing him last, but this time, his picture was part of a stream of condolences and commemorations.
Disadvantaged and underprivileged youth like Ali, fleeing war-torn countries, die every day, but their names are never mentioned nor are their stories known to the world. This is Ali’s story.
Shortly after graduation, Ali and a group of his friends tried to cross into countries of the European Union through its eastern borders and travel to Belgium by car, where they would seek asylum. But heavy security on the roads at the time brought an early end to their trip.
He returned to Baghdad, with a medical degree in hand, but his stay there would be short lived as well. The lack of opportunities and numerous dangerous obstacles facing doctors in Iraq often force ambitious junior doctors to recede and escape the lawless country, and that’s exactly what Ali did. He moved back to Ukraine, armed only with a plan to reach Germany this time, and seek out a better life for himself.
After returning to Ukraine, Ali would tell his friends that he hooked up with a local smuggler, who would get him across the border by helicopter in November.
“He wasn’t feeling good about it. He was skeptical, unsure if it was the best way to cross from Ukraine into the EU,” said Hussein, Ali’s roommate and best friend, as he sent me pictures of them together over Facebook Messenger.
“They kept him in a small apartment in a rural town. Ali said it was timeworn and dingy, and that it reminded him of Chernobyl,” he added.
On the 11th of November, at around 2 in the morning, Ali texted Hussein saying a car would take him to the helicopter, and take off within an hour. The journey was supposed to take up to twelve hours, and his family and friends waited to hear from him.
They never did.
“He disappeared for four days and we went crazy,” said Hussein, explaining how even other friends who were supposed to welcome Ali in Germany hadn’t seen him either.
Later one of the Ukraine based smugglers called to inform them of the accident. The helicopter crashed, and most of its passengers were killed. Hussein was in shock. He told me how he had to gather his strength and contact Ali’s family in Baghdad to tell them what happened.
Iraqi stories these days rarely have happy endings, yet Ali’s loved ones hoped he would still be alive, and that he was one of the few survivors of the crash. But their hopes were disastrously dashed a few days later, when his uncle, a German citizen, arrived in Slovakia and identified Ali’s body.
“He was more than a brother to me, we were friends since the first day of college, we remained tight for the next six-years,” said Omar Kareem, another close friend of Ali’s.
Ali’s friends were in agony as they grieved for their friend. His family is yet to recover from the trauma of their son’s tragic death.
“He was such a loving person. He had a huge family, but he kept in touch with everyone and spoke to each one of them almost every day,” said Hussein, praising his beloved late friend.
Ali’s death was not an accident. He was murdered by all those that have played a part in the destruction of Iraq. His demise was an inevitable outcome for any young Iraqi that grew up during genocidal sanctions, and two US-led wars. They either died at home, or perished on the open seas. For us, the ones that survived, we remain steadfast in our commitment to build a different Iraq for future generations.
I want to think that Ali is in a better place now, a place with no concrete walls and barbed wire fencing, with no heartless guards at the gates turning him away because of the color of his passport.
Ali would have celebrated his 27th birthday this month.
Rest in power Allawi.