After fleeing Mosul in 2015, Yousif Alneamy embarked on an expedition to Europe in search for better opportunities. A life under the Islamic State (ISIS) could not be the only way. Yousif eventually ended up in the Netherlands, but not after countless difficulties including the perilous boat journey to Greece. His eventual return to Mosul gave birth to the city’s first startup and technology entrepreneur.
Yousif’s story covers a plethora of recently debated topics. From European policies towards Iraqi refugees, the dehumanisation and lack of opportunities for refugees living in the West, and the dire need for grassroots initiatives that allow displaced persons to live with dignity.
ISIS Occupied Mosul
“Mosul was captured by ISIS in 2014 and the one thing I would often submerge myself in was the internet. It was my free zone where I learned programming whilst also helping my father with his business.
In 2015, the internet was cut off and our days were spent just waiting for liberation. I was young and I felt like my time was being wasted. I graduated at the top of my class from Mosul University and I studied really hard for it. There had to be a bigger purpose than just waiting for ISIS to leave. If I stayed in Mosul and ISIS ended up staying here for 10 years, I would not be the same person and I didn’t want that to happen.”
“Once I decided, it took me 6 months to leave Mosul. it was very difficult to find someone trustworthy that will get you out. I couldn’t even tell my family about my plans because it was a dangerous trip and they would have feared for my safety.”
“When I found a reliable smuggler, I borrowed money from my family and left in September 2015. An old phone, money and the clothing on my back was all I had as we drove to Syria. It helped to cover myself in dirt so that I wouldn’t arouse suspicion whilst going through ISIS checkpoints. I was dropped off at a gas station where another smuggler picked me up and took me to Raqqa. I stayed the night in a village house that was full of other people seeking refuge. There were many Iraqis there and I heard a lot of stories. In particular, one couple was with their eight-month-old daughter and it had taken them 40 days to get here from Mosul. It only took me one day.
That night we slept on the roof of the house with at least 25 other people. We were up at 6am to make our way to the Turkish border. This was the most difficult side to enter Turkey from and it was a scary drive. The smugglers would sell us to other smugglers en route since we were perceived as rich Iraqis. They constantly needed payment every time we were sold and at this rate, I wasn’t going to have any money left by the time I got to Europe. It was dark so I managed to avoid paying by hiding behind trees and then reuniting with the group once the smugglers left. From 8pm we started walking through the hills and we finally entered Turkey at 4am.”
Arrival to Turkey
“Upon entering Turkey, a Syrian man with a shotgun approached us and asked us to pay to take us to the bus station. An Iraqi would pay $150 and a Syrian would pay 7000 Syrian lira (around $5 at the time). I pretended to be Syrian and mixed with their group so that I could save money, but they caught me. I only had $100 notes and I didn’t want to risk them seeing my money, so I told them I was going to Turkey for work and pretended I was poor. My dirty clothes helped with this story and I ended up just paying $50. The money was borrowed from a friend to pay back once I had change. When I got to the bus station, that’s when I called my family and sent them a selfie of me in Turkey.
I bought some clothes and went to Gaziantep to spend the night. Since leaving Mosul, I was in a different country each day and I hadn’t slept properly. I spent a total of 11 days in Turkey and it was difficult. One time I was about to get in a boat from Didim to Greece, but the police came and busted us. We were 200 people waiting for boats but the smugglers only brought one and then left us with it to avoid capture. I had paid the smuggler $1200 but I got my money back.”
The Boat to Greece
“From that failed boat attempt, I befriended an Iraqi and went with him to Istanbul. It was now October and we were lucky to have found another boat. The smugglers checked if it would rain before we traveled, but I told him to just put me on the boat regardless. I didn’t care if it would rain or snow. It felt like the trip would never happen if I didn’t go now and I just wanted to get into Greece. There were around 50 of us in the boat. We pumped the boat before getting on it, which gave us some energy for the long journey ahead.”
“When we got into the sea, I was really happy because I finally made it. I took off my shirt so I was ready if we needed to swim; I didn’t want anything to weigh me down. The girls on the boat were asking me to help them if anything happened, but I made it clear that I would prioritise the small children. We all had life jackets but they would only last for 2-3 hours in the water. The tide was towards Greece so I was hopeful. It took us 6 hours to reach there.”
“The boat was full of people from all different nationalities. In the beginning it was nice – people were taking selfies and behaving childishly, but then 20 mins later they were crying. The tide became very strong and water was getting into the boat. We were only two Iraqis in the boat and we were shouting at people to stay in the boat and keep even distribution to avoid capsizing. A lot of people didn’t know how to swim and were scared.”
We Were Human
“We were surrounded by seven other boats all doing the same thing and it was like we were a fleet going to war. Every time we moved forward, I was happy and I tried to pretend I was on holiday to keep my motivation high. It was hard but not as hard as leaving Mosul and getting into Turkey. The sea was less scary than ISIS.
We reached a Greek island and were greeted by NGOs and UN staff. We then walked for six hours to get to a bus that took us to a camp. I stayed one night in the camp and received a paper saying I had one month to leave Greece.
I left Greece and traveled to Belgrade where I met an Arab guy who lived and worked there as a doctor. He arranged a taxi driver who didn’t overcharge us and the driver took us to the border of Croatia. From there, the Croatian army put us on busses.
This is where it became different. We were human. People started to care about us. We were nothing before that; we were cheated and stolen from.”
Arrival to the Netherlands
“It was easier to travel from Croatia and within two days I was in Holland. It was 5th of October 2015 when I arrived in Amsterdam. I chose to come here because it was the capital and one of my friends lived here. After he gave me advice about speaking to the police, I bought a ticket to the Nationality and Immigration service of Holland. I met a Moroccan girl working there who advised me to turn myself in to the police.
I went to the police thinking the worst. When I told them I was a refugee, they put me in a room, took my details, and gave me a train ticket to Ter Apel; the biggest refugee camp in Holland. All refugees must go here to get registered.”
“I was in Ter Apel for two days and I was lucky because some people were there for weeks on end. It took eight months in total for me to get an interview with the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND). During these eight months I improved my English, developed mobile applications, applied for universities, and got accepted for a master’s at Leiden. I didn’t have a single paper on me but I was persistent and applied for a course. They obviously needed my bachelor’s certificate but I explained that bringing certificates is the last thing a refugee thinks about when leaving their country. There was a lot of back and forth with professors and staff but eventually they accepted me.
My course was meant to start in September 2016 because I wasn’t able to get an interview with IND. I was depressed during this time because I worried about my family in Mosul and kept hearing about people I knew being killed. Even my university was bombed. I would avidly go to the camp gym but I soon stopped gyming and eating and lost lots of weight.
I felt like a second class citizen as a refugee in the Netherlands, so I saw the master’s as a way for me to build my reputation. However, I didn’t get the chance to study because I wasn’t able to get a permit to work or study in Holland.”
Hack Your Future
“After all of this, I joined as a student in Hack Your Future (HYF). I knew how to code but I was more into mobile app development at that time. This way I was able to learn more about web development. I would get homework on Sunday and finish it on Monday, then focus on reading and studying English. What I liked the most about HYF were the trainers who were working professionals from big companies like Booking.com. Talking to people with experience really fuelled my passion for coding. I was with them for six months and finished in March 2017.
In February 2017, I finally started my pre-master’s program at Leiden university. I spoke to multiple Leiden staff and wrote a message that although I didn’t have the correct paperwork, it shouldn’t stop me from being able to study and that this was the best thing for me. I did Software Engineering in Mosul and I applied for Computer Science.
Whilst studying, I received bad news from my lawyer. The law towards Iraqis had changed and Iraq was now considered a safe country. This meant that I couldn’t qualify for asylum and they were expecting me to move to Baghdad. Displaced Iraqis coming from ISIS-controlled areas cannot move to different cities without a sponsor or permit; depending on which part of Iraq you’re moving to. So this wasn’t an option for me.”
Return to Iraq
“My lawyer suggested I appeal, but I saw Iraqis waiting for 12 years whilst living in camps and I couldn’t imagine this for myself. I ended up going back to Mosul in April 2017. I had a job offer at Mosul University since graduating at the top of my class and I didn’t want to miss the chance. If anything were to happen to me, I should be with my family. Unfortunately, I had to leave the Netherlands in the middle of my pre-master’s at Leiden.”
“You would think the story would end there but unfortunately not. When I landed in Erbil I was taken to a Kurdish prison. It was so overcrowded that I could barely enter the room and people were stacked on top of each other. My family pushed for the procedures to move faster to get me out of jail quickly. I was in prison for 18 days, but people had been there for a year or more.
Once out of jail, I stayed in Erbil for a day because I needed a good rest. I then started my job in Kirkuk because Mosul University had relocated due to the war. At the time, Kirkuk was under Kurdish authority. I worked there till July 2017. After the summer holidays ended, I was back in Mosul because the original university campus had re-opened.
Being back in Mosul after such a long time was strange yet joyful because I was meeting my family again. Luckily, they were unharmed. Although I had faced a lot of difficulties during my time away, it was not as much as what they had went through.”
Life of an Entrepreneur
“Whilst working in Kirkuk, I had a plan to start my own business. I gave myself a year and if that failed, I would go back to Europe and work there. I had an idea of making an Android app marketplace and whilst working on that, my friend Abdul Rahman called me to launch an e-commerce website. So we joined forces and planned for Dakakenna. We launched our startup in August 2018 and it has been one year.
Dakakenna is an e-commerce platform that delivers goods to residents in Mosul. From electronics to school books, we work with local merchants to provide items to customers at reasonable prices. This solves a huge issue of mobility in Mosul as a lot of the roads have been destroyed and it is difficult to get around and do simple daily tasks.
I didn’t want to just work as a company employee. I wanted to make something useful using the latest technologies. My year as Co-founder of Dakakenna has been challenging but necessary. I have the chance to experience and learn new things. I deal with Iraqi merchants who have been trading for over 30 years. Dakakenna is a new idea for them, so I spend a lot of time teaching merchants how to think and make a difference with low costs.
If you ask people here how to launch a business, they’ll always say they need lots of money. That’s not true. I get a lot of joy from managing Dakakenna because I am my own boss and the first startup and technology entrepreneur in Mosul.”