An Iraqi family's Colombian odyssey
BOGOTA - After fleeing their home in war-torn Iraq, the Hadi family dreamed of getting a fresh start in the United States.
But after being cheated by people smugglers, they found themselves someplace altogether different: Colombia.
At the end of an arduous two-month journey that started in Turkey, the Hadis got off the ship that had carried them across the ocean, thinking they were in the US.
Following the Iraqi smuggler they had paid $30,000 to guide the five of them, they took a bus, spent the night in a shabby hotel -- and only then realized something had gone awry.
"This is United States? This is Miami?" Malak Hadi asked at the reception desk the next morning.
"She said, 'No.' She said, 'This is Colombia, this is Cali,'" the 22-year-old refugee recalled in halting English.
That's when the family -- Malak, her mother, father, sister and brother -- discovered their guide had vanished.
That was a year and a half ago.
They were stranded in Cali, a city plagued by violent crime fed by the Colombian cocaine trade, the world's largest.
With no money, speaking little English and no Spanish, they were stuck sleeping on the streets alongside homeless people and addicts.
Malak remembers being terrified.
"In my country when you hear about Colombia is just drugs, is just mafia, is nothing else," she said.
- One war to another -
After four days in Cali, they got in touch with the Colombian immigration authorities, who arranged a translator for them.
They decided to go to Medellin and then continue their journey north toward the US -- like thousands of migrants who pass through Colombian on their way to seek the American dream.
But by chance their father met an Arabic speaker at a bus stop along the way, who told them about an Islamic cultural center in Bogota.
They changed course, headed to the capital and were welcomed at the Ahlul Bayt Islamic Cultural House.
"When we came inside the mosque, it was like a miracle for us," said Malak.
She believes that turn of fortune is the only reason they aren't sleeping on the streets today, she said.
Sitting on a prayer might, her green eyes wet with tears, she commented on the bitter irony of fleeing the war in Iraq, only to end up in a country torn by more than half a century of conflict between the army, leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug cartels.
Still, she said, it would be hard to get worse than life in Iraq, where the army is battling the jihadists of the Islamic State group in a brutal war that has many civilians trapped in the middle.
"Life is impossible every day in my country," she said.
"They just come and kill you, take the girls, the beautiful ones, and then kill the others."
- US 'the same' -
When the Hadis first fled their home on the outskirts of Baghdad, they went to Malaysia, hoping to make it to Australia.
They never managed.
So they set their sights on the United States. But the smugglers they paid to guide them robbed them blind, they say.
"They take the phones, they take the passports and they take the money we had... they take everything," said Malak.
"Everything was so hard, but I also learn much stuff that make me grow up."
Today, the family lives in a single rented room, and keeps its few belongings in plastic bags.
Colombia granted them refugee status eight months ago.
But they have struggled to find work without speaking Spanish. Malak, a nanny for a Palestinian family, and her sister, Rayim, who shapes eyebrows at a salon, are the family's only breadwinners.
Their parents, Hussein and Alaa, would like to open a restaurant. A local charitable institute donated tables and chairs, but they have not managed to find the guarantor they would need to sign a lease.
Today, the family's lingering dreams of leaving for somewhere else are mixed with a budding attachment to Colombia -- and the suspicion that leaving would not change much, anyway.
"I like this country. I mean I love it, trust me, I love Colombians. I love the people here, they have a sweet heart," said Malak. "But it's hard for us to live here."
Still, she said, "I don't want to go to United States because I'm sure is the same."