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Hero Or Profiteer?
The Iraqi Kurdish People Smuggler Who's Become A Celebrity

Alaa Latif
Some locals say they trust the Iraqi Kurdish people smuggler known as Riza Kewi more than their own government. Kewi says it's because he's honest. But not all his clients agree.
28.01.2016  |  Sulaymaniyah

Over the past summer a figure has emerged in Iraqi Kurdistan who locals say they trust more than they trust their politicians or other officials. His name is Riza Kewi and he is a people smuggler who helps those trying to immigrate to Europe as refugees; he boasts that he has helped over 8,000 people get to Europe and last summer he was commonly quoted saying things like this: "There is nothing for you in Iraqi Kurdistan.  Leave the country for the officials and come with me.  I will make sure you reach Europe". 

As a result Kewi has become something of a celebrity among the Iraqi Kurdish. There are many videos posted on social media, things like: a new message from Riza Kewi, listen to what Riza Kewi is telling the young people, watch Riza Kewi in action - and so forth and so on. The videos and messages are widely shared and have seen young Iraqis try to find Kewi the moment they get to Turkey.

And apparently it's not too hard to find Kewi - he is often in the cafes of the Aksaray neighbourhood in Istanbul, a hub for would-be migrants from the Middle East trying to get to Europe via Turkey.

When one does meet him, one finds out that his name is actually Rizkar, that he's originally from the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah and that his nickname is Kewi, which means he is from the mountains. One might also wonder why Kewi has such a good reputation among the people smugglers operating here; after all he is only one of many doing this kind of work.

"I am not just boasting," Kewi says during an interview conducted on a messaging app, Viber. "All the people who come to me refuse to leave without first taking a picture with me. That is because we treat them all with the utmost respect. They like our work and they talk about what we did for them afterwards. They know we won't take money without providing good service. They know we are not liars. We tell them honestly what the journey involves and what kinds of problems they may face. And I want to add that we have never forced anyone to leave their country, we only help them with what they want to do anyway," he notes.

Ask Kewi on his opinions on why people are leaving the country and he has his own theories, based on the experiences he's had with young Iraqi Kurds. "Many of them are confused, they don't know what to do," he suggests. "There are no jobs and the Kurdish region is suffering from a major financial crisis. One guy came to me and told me he only had US$4,000. He can't do anything with that in Iraq, so he wants to leave."

Kewi agrees that there are some people in his business who are far less scrupulous. "They lie about the size of the boats they use, they take money and just disappear. I have never done anything like this," he insists. "None of my passengers ever drowned in the middle of the sea. I have great concern for the lives of my clients and I wouldn't abandon them for an extra US$100."

Kewi says that everybody knows he has helped more than 8,000 people get to Europe and that he is not a rich man. "I have nothing other than my house in Sulaymaniyah," he says.

Kewi then describes his methods: he takes clients to his house first and shows them pictures of the boat that will take them to Europe. He uses real boats, like yachts, to take migrants to Europe, rather than rubber boats, and he says he always tries to use the safest routes.

"I charge everybody US$2,000 and only make about US$200 and US$300 in profit out of that," Kewi says. "The rest goes to the boat owners, drivers and any other expenses. Sometimes I buy the clients a meal too," he notes, before talking about how he makes sure that women and children and any person with disabilities is always specially catered for.

What you hear about Kewi inside Iraqi Kurdistan tends to support his claims. But once over the border not all of his customers are as satisfied as he thinks.

A young local man named Arya - he had to remain anonymous for security reasons - agreed to pay Kewi US$8,000 to travel to Europe on a yacht and then TO BULGARIA. There were only supposed to be 40 others with him on the boat, Kewi told him. However when Arya saw the boat, he thinks there were actually about double the number of passengers on quite a small vessel.

Afraid, Arya insisted on cancelling the deal. "They tried to convince me to get on the boat but I started to cry and then I was able to just run off," Arya says.

Another young Iraqi Kurdish man, Kirwan Anwar, says he had a very similar experience. However in his case he decided to carry on and eventually made his way to Germany via Bulgaria. He left Iraqi Kurdistan at the end of July 2015, stayed four days in Turkey, then crossed to Europe before making his way on foot to Germany.

"Kewi told us that the journey overland shouldn't take more than five hours," Anwar says. "But that was far from true. I think we walked for several days with no food and water or sleep. It’s hard to talk about this terrible journey even now. In my opinion the smugglers are just all sales people. None of them can really guarantee anything and none of them are trustworthy."

"All along the way we were passed on from one group of smugglers to another group of smugglers," Anwar adds. "Every time we got to another city we would meet new guides - from Afghanistan, from Bulgaria or Austria - who were members of some criminal gang and who carried guns and knives." Anwar adds that he believes some of them were using drugs too.

Certainly some of the less flattering stories, like these ones, about Kewi do make it back to Iraqi Kurdistan - most of the migrants remain in touch with friends and family via social media. But it doesn't seem to have tarnished the Kurdish people smuggler's celebrity.

Today people in Iraqi Kurdistan are even making jokes about his legendary prowess. For example, this one which refers to the fact that opposition party, the Change movement, has been banned from the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Erbil, in the latest political stoush. "This is a message from Riza Kewi," the joke goes, "if any Change Movement MPs want to return to Erbil, I can help them to do this for only US$3,000 and I can guarantee they will reach a certain point."

And another one: "With help from Riza Kewi half of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan will be in Greece, before the authorities [meaning the opposition parties and those in power] come to any kind of agreement!"

As for Kewi himself he has no desire to migrate any further from his home - he has a residence permit for Turkey and as he says, "I don't need to go to any other country". Unlike so many of his customers, Kewi is happy where he is.

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