BAGHDAD — Uday Abed's determination to get to the United States has already cost him $22,000 and three days in jail on the other side of the world — but that hasn't put him off.
His quest began last September when, he says, a group of men wearing police uniforms pounced on him and a group of friends as they returned to his apartment one evening. The men pushed him and his friends to the ground, put boots on their heads, asked them if they were insurgents and then stole their possessions.
"I think they were trying to scare me into leaving," he said. "Everyone in Iraq is in danger, especially Christians because we have no one to protect us."
So he decided to leave the country — and not to go to neighboring Syria or Jordan, where an estimated 2 million Iraqis already had taken refuge.
He resolved to get to America, and he knew of only one way: Pay a smuggler.
Through a friend who had made it to Sweden after paying $14,000, Abed established contact with a British-Iraqi man in Syria who said he could smuggle Abed to the United States for $22,000. Abed sold his family's two cars, took out his savings, borrowed from his parents and went to Syria with the money.
At a cafe in Damascus, he handed the cash to the smuggler in return for an airline ticket to Caracas, Venezuela, and a promise that the system was fail-safe.
Once he reached Caracas, the smuggler told Abed, he would find that the Venezuelan Immigration officers had been bribed to let him through without a visa. He would be taken to a house in the city. There he would be issued a ticket for Los Angeles and a forged Cypriot passport, complete with valid Venezuelan and U.S. visas.
Once he reached the United States, he was to confess and claim political asylum.
It all went exactly as the smuggler had planned — until Abed was about to board the plane to Los Angeles. Ahead of him in line, a policeman was pulling aside passengers and asking them questions. The ones who had been set aside looked Iraqi, and when Abed reached the front of the line, he also was asked to step aside.
The smuggler hadn't prepared him for such an eventuality, and Abed quickly confessed that he was an Iraqi and that his Cypriot passport was forged. "I think someone had tipped off the police," he said.
Altogether, eight other Iraqi men and a family of four were pulled off the Los Angeles flight. Before being deported back to Iraq, Abed spent three days in jail in Caracas with the other Iraqi men. They all had stories of fear, of kidnapping ordeals and murdered relatives. And they all had paid the same man in Syria $22,000 in return for a promise to get them to America.
Now back in Baghdad, Abed wants a refund. He has tried to find the smuggler, without success. "I want my money back. And I want to hear from him, why did we get caught?" Abed said. "He was so confident."
Though he is bitter, he is not deterred. He is saving his money for a new attempt and has been trying to find another smuggler, so far without success.
"Would I do the same again? Yes, of course," he said. "It's been five years they're telling us things are getting better, and still there's no electricity, no water and no stability. The war is over, but the violence is still there, the hatred and the revenge."