What It's Like to 'Go Travelling' When You're from a Country Everyone Fears

For young Iraqis, the process of just trying to get visas adds another dimension to the concept of "#wanderlust".

by Ahmed Twaij
09 October 2016, 12:00am

Just a young lad who really loves his travelling and that (Photo by Unsplash via)

By now, it's an inarguable, middle-class rite of passage. "Going travelling" has become one of those things that you're supposed to tick off an imagined bucket list by the time you hit your thirties. And with travel pic hashtagging, travel's becoming a sort of social media battleground.

But it isn't always that easy to get involved. Take the average young person living in Iraq, for example. Despite being in one of the world's most conflict-ridden areas, their country's seen internet access reach even the most distant of marshlands. The sorts of hashtags more often dropped by lifestyle bloggers paid to post – #wanderlust, #instatravel, #travelgram – leave Iraqis to live vicariously through each photo of a coconut on a pristine white beach. This is the post 9/11 world, after all.

"I would just love to see what the world has to offer and to experience the freedom of travel," says Zahraa Ghandour, a young media presenter based in Baghdad, "but when I think about the time, money and effort that I've lost on failed visas, I'm not sure I'll have ever a chance to travel freely."

For any twentysomething, the appeal to travel is largely understandable; the freedom, the chance to see new cultures beyond stereotypes in mass media and the lure of partying with like-minded people can feel like a dream. Now, multiply that with a desire to escape a nagging awareness of constant war and devastation and you can start to see where "wanderlust" goes beyond a hashtag for some young Iraqis.

When the country you're from is currently perceived as unstable, it tightens the constraints placed on just where you can go. According to the global Visa Restrictions Index, the Iraqi passport is ranked third-lowest in the world, providing visa-free or visa on-arrival entry to just 30 countries. Sarah Collinson, a research associate at the Overseas Development Institute writes that the concept of a visa is "inherent in the very nature of sovereignty".

But John Torpey, a sociology professor at the City University of New York, expands on the idea of visas as being "the 'first line of defense' against the entry of undesirables". The very notion of jumping through hoops for visa restrictions depending on where you're from is inherently racist – you're presumed "undesirable" until proven otherwise. Basically, a lot of people are tarred with the same brush.

Ghandour finds herself torn. "I love my country. I never think about leaving it permanently, but I need to see the world," she says. Many of her friends have already fled Iraq as refugees – almost the only way for young Iraqis to leave the country. "I am not happy here," she continues, "and as much as I went to help others, I need a break for myself to be able to appreciate life."

Zahraa Ghandour, probs checking the 'Gram (Photo by the author)

She says that she's previously spent thousands of US dollars on flights and hotels only to have them go to waste when her visa was rejected. She's also missed out on prominent international courses due to failed visa applications. "I have no interest in applying for asylum on arriving in a country," she continues, "so I have to follow travellers on Instagram to give me a taste of the world outside of Iraq."

As a British citizen, I have the privilege of traveling with relative ease, thanks to the strange power held by my passport. The British empire's obviously officially died, but the frameworks of parts of its legacy haven't been quite dismantled.

When I think about the time, money and effort that I've lost on failed visas, I'm not sure I'll have ever a chance to travel freely — Zahraa Ghandour, from Iraq

It's a point that award-winning Iraqi filmmaker Mohanad Hayal furiously makes, retelling the story of how he missed out on a visa to Australia. He says he'd been invited to take part in workshops to develop his next screenplay, among a group of prestigious international filmmakers, but was denied entry to the country. "How many of the 2,000 Australian soldiers needed a visa when they invaded my country in 2003?" he asks, speaking to me. Already grappling with his own obstacles, such as the lack of electricity while scriptwriting back home in Iraq, Hayal describes how the struggle to enter the international film scene was reinforced by travel restrictions. "I feel like I'm being treated as a terror threat, not as a filmmaker," he says. "This is bullshit man. How can I be fucking creative and share it with the world if they don't let me travel? I feel so trapped."

Travel within Iraq can be tricky too, on top of the simmering security threats caused by ISIS. Sectarian divides have made it difficult for groups to travel across the various rifts. Dilshad Yousif, an Iraqi photographer of Kurdish descent, was born in Baghdad and only speaks Arabic. He was denied entry into Erbil, the capital of Kurdish Iraq. "They kept me in Erbil airport for three hours, only to send me back to Baghdad," he says. "Why? Because they saw me as a traitor for not being able to speak Kurdish."

To call it complicated feels like an understatement. The generation that's grown up in the shadow of war since 2003 is one that's finding it harder to escape, even when just temporarily. In a country where sectarianism is rife, imagine the benefits to multiculturalism if young people got to experience new worlds through travel. For many, travel can start with as simple a process as booking a flight online – but for Iraqis, this rite is rarely even a consideration let alone an option.


More on VICE:

How To Go Travelling Without Being a Dick

When Tourism Turns Into Narcissism

What Would the World Be Like if We'd Never Invaded Iraq?

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