Thanet man Aram Rawf describes fleeing to Kent after refusing to be a suicide bomber

The first sighting of Kent’s Arm Rauf occurred when he was dumped on the side of the highway by people smugglers.

After riding in the back of a truck for the previous seven days, the then 17-year-old didn’t even know what country he was in. It was until he was taken to the police station in Dover, where he learned that he was there. The nation that boasts Manchester United.

At this point, the young man was crushed and injured. He was forced to flee northern Iraq after being tortured by Islamic extremists who tried to recruit him as a suicide bomber.

His father was the first person to try to convince the schoolboy to blow himself up. Aram said no, and continued in the face of daily beatings while imprisoned in an underground chamber.

Only after his sister hatched a plot to help him did he manage to escape. But now the former asylum seeker, who lives in Broadstairs, fears his brother has been killed, after not hearing from her for 16 years.

“I was in the room for two months and didn’t see the light of day,” Aram recalled.

“Every day they beat me, cut me off and tortured me because they wanted me to accept and agree to do what they wanted.

“I believed that if I was beaten to death then I would be the only person who would die – but I will not kill innocent people.”

In his first year in the UK, Mr Rawf is pictured here in Dalby Square
In his first year in the UK, Mr Rawf is pictured here in Dalby Square

Speaking to me inside the Margate train station cafe, Aram, clean-shaven and wearing a black jacket, recalled his father’s attempts to get him to join the extremists.

It was in the spring of 1999. The boy came home from school to find his father waiting for him at the family home in the Kurdish area of ​​Sulaymaniyah.

The young man was told: “I need to take you to someone’s office – they need to talk to you for a bit.”

Little did he know that the call would mark the beginning of a horrific eight-week ordeal.

“I didn’t know what they could want from me,” continues Aram.

“The people there had these long beards and said, ‘Do you believe in God? God is great.’

“They told me what they wanted me to do. I refused, I refused to engage, so they put me in an underground prison.”

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Prime Minister Eram Rauf photographed today at the age of 40 in Margate, the first place he made a home in Britain
Prime Minister Eram Rauf photographed today at the age of 40 in Margate, the first place he made a home in Britain

Now 40, Aram still doesn’t know why his father took him there. Did he believe in the mission of the extremists or were they threatening him himself?

But during Aram’s imprisonment, his older sister made arrangements to buy his freedom.

“After two months she had the opportunity to visit me. She stated that the next time I was asked if I would be a suicide bomber and I agreed then I would be fine,” he says.

“I thought it was strange but I could see there was more she couldn’t tell me.

“The next day, when they asked – like every day – ‘Do you want to continue getting beaten or will you do what we ask?’ I said ‘yes, I can’t take it anymore’.

“By then I had so many injuries, I was weak and my skin was pale from lack of sunlight. I was covered in burns because they put out cigarettes on my body so I said I can’t take it, I accept.

“They took me to the hospital because I was so weak. I was there for seven days and from there my sister visited me again. She arranged for someone to take me out of Iraq.”

Aram, 17, at Margate Adult Education Center shortly after arriving in the UK
Aram, 17, at Margate Adult Education Center shortly after arriving in the UK

It was a journey he was forced to undertake without his sister, and with little idea where he was going. They just told him to find security.

The boy was kicked out of the hospital and got into a car with tinted windows. They traveled to Iran, before entering Turkey illegally.

While there he was put in the back of a truck. Seven days later, he was ejected from the truck and left to wander along an unknown highway.

“The cars went like rockets,” he recalled.

“I didn’t know what country I was in; I didn’t know where I was and I couldn’t speak English. I walked to the side of the highway, and in a short time I was picked up by the police.”

Prime Minister Rauf won his seat as a Labor councillor.  Photo: Aram Rauf
Prime Minister Rauf won his seat as a Labor councillor. Photo: Aram Rauf

The boy arrived fluent in three languages ​​- Kurdish, Persian and Arabic – but no English.

This meant he had no idea what was going on until a translator was called to speak to him by immigration officers.

“The translator told me: ‘You’re in England’. But I didn’t know what England meant. So he said ‘You’re in the United Kingdom, in Great Britain’, and I said: ‘Oh, that’s where Manchester United comes from.'”

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After undergoing treatment at the Ministry of the Interior, he received the same treatment as an adult.

He was put into accommodation in Margate and told to drive there himself after being given an alternative and a map.

Aram says he was instructed to catch a nearby bus that took him directly to the town, because the authorities “no longer cared that I was an unaccompanied minor.”

Mr Rawf's work as a councilor has meant that he is well known in the local area
Mr Rawf’s work as a councilor has meant that he is well known in the local area

“I had no money, I had no clothes to change, I had nothing,” he recalled.

“That night I ate the first hot food I had eaten in eight or nine days. I was quite happy to eat that meal and tried not to worry about where I would buy my next meal.”

In the weeks that followed, Aram tried to settle into his new life and started going to college to learn English. But he remembers how he struggled.

He would wrap himself in a blanket as he washed his only set of clothes. For months, the refugee was also content with cold food, as he lived without access to a kitchen.

After graduating and volunteering at a refugee charity in Kent, he secured a job as a translator at the Port of Dover in 2002.

In 2003 Aram worked as a translator in the port of Dover
In 2003 Aram worked as a translator in the port of Dover

But three years later, he was called in for an interview with immigration officials in Croydon. He was then informed that his offer to stay in the UK had been rejected.

Unless he successfully appeals the decision, he will have to return to Iraq.

“The rejection letter gave two points,” he says.

“First, by then I had done so much volunteer work in the community and was so involved that they said I was the right person to go back to Iraq to rebuild my country. It felt like I was being punished for being good.

“The second point was that I didn’t start a family here. I put in an appeal. I only had 15 days to put it together, but in that time I had 3,000 letters sent to the Home Office in support of me and over 5,000 signatures.

“12 members of parliament, including Jeremy Corbyn, got involved. They tried to get the Ministry of the Interior to cancel their decision, but two days after the appeal I received the refusal.”

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Eram Rauf, who was elected in 2019, raised many important issues as a council member, including the continued prevalence of racism
Eram Rauf, who was elected in 2019, raised many important issues as a council member, including the continued prevalence of racism

For the next 12 months Aram lived in constant fear of deportation.

Every week he had to go into a reporting center in Folkestone. However, on one of these visits in 2006, he was arrested.

Several members of his family are missing, presumably dead in Iraq. Despite this, Aram was told that he was being sent back.

A huge public outcry and publicity campaign eventually forced a government U-turn. He was finally granted leave to remain in 2009, before becoming a British citizen two years later.

“Every night between 2006 and 2009, if I heard a car pull up outside my house I thought it was immigration coming to pick me up,” he winces.

“Luckily it didn’t happen but it was so hard to live like that. They didn’t let me work or claim anything during that time.

“One of my neighbors even reported me to immigration, telling them I was here illegally. The police came and handcuffed me, even before they checked and found out I was known to them.

“When people say the immigration system is broken, it’s wrong because we never had one.

“We need to have a proper system and a safe route to make sure that the dealers don’t make money. This will ensure that people can get here properly and get proper care.”

Aram speaks at a vigil for refugees in Ramsgate.  Photo: Tony Flashman
Aram speaks at a vigil for refugees in Ramsgate. Photo: Tony Flashman

Aram, who now works for a mental health community interest company in Margate, stood to become a Thanet councilor in 2019. He won, representing the county’s Beacon ward.

But it is still not safe for him to return to Iraq. The graves of his parents have been discovered, but all of his siblings are unknown.

The politician – who was the first asylum seeker to join St John Ambulance – managed to keep in touch with his older sister until 2006. But he has not heard from her since and fears her role in his escape has put her in danger.

“The United Nations did say that she might not have succeeded, but they told me not to give up hope,” he says.

“I hope my sister is still out there and she just changed her name.”

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