The Trail From ISIS To Nowhere

One Student Refugee's Story

Sh!t You Should Know | Connor DiGregorio | February 1, 2016

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What is your name?

“Raafat Al Ramli.”


What city in Iraq are you from?



How long have you been in Turkey?

“Nine months.”


What are you going to do in the United States?

“I am going to finish my degree in electrical engineering at University of North Texas.”


Do you have any friends or relatives in the U.S.?

Yes, in Fort Worth, Texas.”


I am sorry but we are going to deny your application. Thank for your time. That is all.


That was the entirety of Raafat Al Ramli’s 5 minute interview last April at the American embassy in Ankara, Turkey for his application for a student visa. This was the moment he knew things weren’t going to change for him. He would not be going to America. For now, he was still a stateless refugee.

A week after that interview, I sat with Raafat in an Istanbul cafe as he told me about his story. His father had been a good family friend of ours during his visits to the United States. Up until now, I had only met his son, Raafat, through Skype and Facebook chat. So it was a happy occasion as we smoked hookah and watched the sun set over the Mediterranean that evening.


A few years ago, Raafat was a normal college student (well, at least as normal as one can be while living under the still-shaky conditions of Mosul, Iraq post 9/11). See, “normal” for Raafat meant living with 7 members of his extended family in a house the size of a large Coral Gables living room. Violence and bombings by various terrorist groups in the region were no longer isolated incidents, or even out of the ordinary. In fact, Raafat told me it had become routine to see dead bodies lying on the streets hours before being taken to the proper facilities. It was dangerous, of course, but fear and insecurity were nothing new to Raafat; he had lived his whole life under the oppressive government of Saddam Hussein. Still, he went to the University of Mosul to study engineering, with the hope of pursuing the same path as his father, who works for the Iraqi Oil Ministry.

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Mosul, Iraq during US Occupation

This all changed as the Iraqi military fled and the terrorist collective that would come to be known as ISIS took hold of the city. Their first task was to vehemently expunge all traces of Western values and traditions. This meant killing all those who had a connection with Americans, namely the U.S. Army. This was an immediate problem for Raafat, as his uncle worked closely with American troops as a translator (and was gunned down by terrorists a year earlier because of it). The concern that ISIS might learn his last name and relation became more pressing than the fact that they had shut down almost all parts of the university, threatening to kill all of the “Western-influenced” professors. Add in the fact that ISIS was running a “join us or be killed” campaign to all military-aged men, and you can see how Raafat came to the conclusion that it was time to leave his home. After a few bribes to soldiers at checkpoints around the city under that dark of night, he managed to escape Mosul.

He headed north on his own to Ankara, Turkey where he stayed with a family friend while he figured out a new life course. He was determined to get his degree, so he decided he would apply to school. Unfortunately, this new country was no place for school, since he did not understand Turkish and had absolutely no money. So Raafat decided to apply to schools in Texas, where he hoped for a scholarship and could live at a family friend’s place a few minutes away. However, this task proved to be just as arduous as escaping ISIS.

He couldn’t slip out in the middle of the night like he did before. He first had to apply and get accepted by the university, then pass a language test proving his English skills. This took a tedious couple of months, but he eventually got accepted into the University of North Texas with financial assistance. Hooray?! . . . Nope. That was the easy part. Before he could take a flight over and start transfer student orientation, he had to obtain his visa from the United States government.

After dozens of forms and emails to the U.S. embassy over the course of 2 months, Raafat was finally granted an interview with someone from the U.S. State Department. He still felt grateful as some of his friends had been told their interview would not come for almost another year. He is one of the lucky ones with an acceptance into an American university. Raafat’s close friends will probably never get their interviews, because they are applying for asylum as refugees – something that’s nearly impossible to attain these days. Raafat understands the difficulty of the refugee effort as he depressingly sends me articles of U.S. presidential candidates and governors demanding the halt of all refugees from the region.

Flash forward to his April 31st interview: as he arrives at the embassy, he is nervous but prepared. He is ready to explain the impossible circumstances from which he came and the desire to finish his college degree for a chance to start his life over again. The state official asked Raafat to come in and proceeds to speak to him through a glass window with holes like you would see at a prison’s visiting hours. She alerts him that the interview will no longer be conducted in Arabic, which had been previously agreed upon. She asks Raafat the questions you saw above, and bluntly tells him that he would not be allowed to enter the United States despite his college admission letter.

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Raafat, now 24

Raafat’s fate was now in limbo. His aspirations of embarking on the American Dream were crushed. But he could not imagine returning to life in violent, ISIS-controlled Iraq, and he had no way of supporting himself in Turkey. He felt left with only one choice. So he borrowed $5,000 and, along with his cousin, ventured on the popular refugee trail through Europe.

The first step in the journey would be the riskiest and most expensive – he had to cross the Mediterranean. He had been able to locate a group of men who smuggled refugees across the sea for a living. Raafat and his cousin paid the smugglers $1000 each and made their way to a secluded beach in Izmir, Turkey on the west coast where their illegal journey would begin. There, men with weapons made them throw their bags away, which contained everything they had to their names and shouted at them to be quiet and do exactly as they said. They huddled with groups of other frightened refugees, some who had been sleeping there for two days already, and traded their respective stories.

The boats that would take them finally arrived after dark. Smuggling always took place at night to avoid detection. Raafat recalls this episode as the scariest part of the whole journey. He calls it “the plastic boat” because it is tiny and cheaply made and feels even flimsier because it is filled to three times its capacity. Raafat and his cousin, wearing half-deflated life vests, are herded into one of the four boats and set out across the 25-mile ride to the closest island. On the way, they witness two of the other boats ahead of them rounded up by the Turkish Coast Guard and taken back to shore.

“Often the refugees arrive carrying nothing but horror stories. Unfortunately, there is little waiting for them on the other side. If they are lucky, a handful of volunteers will meet them on the beach with a bottle of water.”

Raafat’s plastic boat is one of the lucky ones and finally arrives onto a Greek beach. However, he must then immediately make a 20-mile hike to a station where he can register as a refugee and pass through the country without getting deported.

imageThe plastic boat Raafat, his cousin, and other refugees traveled on

He then takes a ferry to mainland Greece. From there he and his cousin hop from bus to train to bus through 8 more countries. They travel through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Sweden, and finally end in Finland. They sleep on busses and in tents at refugee camps and sometimes at friends’ places along the way. Raafat describes the journey as fairly easy compared to some stories he hears from fellow refugees or from the news. He heard a few harsh words from soldiers in Hungary, but that was really all.

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It is roughly the same distance from Miami, FL to Anchorage, AK

Raafat and his cousin then make it to a refugee camp in a remote rural town in Finland where they’re surrounded by immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and Somalia. He is staying there now for the time being where he shares a small house with 7 other refugees. He gets a monthly stipend to buy food and takes classes in Finnish everyday. He even has a job volunteering with the Red Cross helping the new refugees settle in. He says the Red Cross was the most helpful group along the whole trek with volunteers at many of the stops he made.



Raafat’s Living Quarters in Greece

This is how he keeps busy as he patiently waits for a meeting with the Finnish government to be granted asylum or some kind of citizenship allowing him to work. He says life is a little confining and boring at the camp. He really wishes to finish his degree and start a making a life of his own. But he acknowledges it is better than the chaos in Iraq so he is content.

However, this brief contentment turned to defeat when devastating news hit Raafat a few days ago. Finland just announced that it will forcibly remove 20,000 refugees. This is two-thirds of all the new refugees in the country so it looks like that meeting might not take place. Raafat has no idea what will happen in the coming days; his future continues to be uncertain. He was expelled from one continent only to be told shunned by another. The governments of Europe are telling him go to home, to which he says, “I have none.”

To find out how you can help refugees like Raafat, visit: