Iraqi refugee ‘doesn’t mind’ being featured on ‘Hot Migrants’ Instagram account

Zaid Khalid Mahmood, dubbed "Migrant Wolverine" by the controversial account, fled his home in Mosul following ISIL's takeover of the city in 2014. He is now living in a refugee camp in Belgium.
Iraqi Zaid Khalid Mahmood (right) is pictured with other refugees last August on the Macedonia side of the Macedonian-Greek border after having waited for ten hours to cross. The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) provided them with food and water at this point. Courtesy Zaid Khalid Mahmood
Iraqi Zaid Khalid Mahmood (right) is pictured with other refugees last August on the Macedonia side of the Macedonian-Greek border after having waited for ten hours to cross. The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) provided them with food and water at this point. Courtesy Zaid Khalid Mahmood
ABU DHABI // The internet has been left divided over one person’s unusual, some say offensive, attempt to draw attention to the continuing refugee crisis.

The Hot Migrants Instagram account posts screen grabs of “handsome men on their journey to Europe”, according to its bio. “Their countries might be falling apart but their sex appeal still goes strong.” The images are taken from news footage of refugees making the treacherous journey from Turkey to western Europe.

Two feature men holding small children, another a solemn-looking man on a ferry to mainland Greece from one of the Greek islands where he probably landed on a smuggler’s boat from Turkey.

Speaking to The National, the account’s creator, a “20-something living in Washington, DC” who wanted to remain anonymous, said the recent closure of the crossing on the Macedonian-Greek border to refugees had prompted them to launch the account.

“After following the [migrant crisis] story through last summer and now into the spring of the following year it seemed crazy that the issue still had no resolve from the EU in terms of a unified policy.”

“This [account] appeals to [people on Instagram’s] shallowness of judging people by their beauty, while [also] trying to humanise people who are being literally shut out,” they added.

The account has only been active for a week but it is already stirring up heated debate online. One Instagram user named aakwale said the project “strips people of their humanity”, while another user named dinapalestinaa accused it of “objectifying Arab males and exotifying them amidst their tragedies”.?

One person who has more mixed emotions about the project is Zaid Khalid Mahmood, a 26-year-old from the Iraqi city of Mosul who discovered that his picture had been posted on the Hot Migrants account after a friend spotted it.

“At first I thought that someone is trying to get famous by others’ suffering ... and also felt a bit flattered,” Zaid, whose picture was posted under the caption “Migrant Wolverine”, told The National.

“Didn’t know if [I was] insulted or flattered by the pic and the comment on it.”

The screen grab of Zaid was sourced from footage taken last August, after he had arrived in Athens by ferry from the Greek island of Lesbos. He travelled to Lesbos from Turkey in an inflatable raft that he volunteered to steer, with more than 50 others on board, after the people smugglers refused to do it.

Zaid was given a free place on the raft as a result and fortunately steered the vessel to its destination safely, but said he was “scared as hell”.

“I had a huge responsibility on my neck ... if you fail or [make] any mistake you have [the] lives of others” to think about, he said.

But despite the Hot Migrants account posting a picture of Zaid following such an ordeal, he said that, overall, he did not mind.

“The account didn’t say anything bad or racist or any sort of insult towards the people in those pictures,” he said. “But it depends on the person himself [because] it’s different from one to another and that’s just my opinion.”

Zaid worked as an English teacher in Mosul before ISIL took over the city on June 10, 2014. The same day, he and his parents, two brothers and a sister fled the city, fearing for their lives.

Within days Zaid was in Turkey where he stayed for just over a year working as an English teacher to save some money.

After making the arduous trip through Europe last August and September he eventually reached Belgium and for the past six months has been living in a refugee camp run by the Red Cross. Life is good there, he said. He is learning French, which he’s “doing well at”, and he has official permission to teach guitar in the camp.

But Zaid’s family is stuck in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and he is desperate to be granted asylum and legal residency in Belgium to help them also travel to Europe, or to support them financially in Iraq.

“It’s too expensive and too difficult for them to leave together [at the moment] ... [But] it’s not easy to live there even if it’s in Iraq due to the … whole struggle between Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites and the war between ISIL and the government,” he said.

Zaid said the second of the two interviews he must undergo as part of the asylum process is on March 30. He is not sure how long it will take to find out if he has been successful – other people have been waiting for six months and have still not heard anything, he said. But if he is eventually granted asylum, he will be able to work and study in Belgium and “start a new life”.

lmackenzie@thenational.ae

Published: March 12, 2016 04:00 AM

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