Raúl Iriarte’s country has been at war for more than 40 years, and the only way for him to escape the violence was to flee.
Growing up in Medellín, Colombia, Iriarte had known only a country at war, with several different factions of guerrilla soldiers constantly fighting the government and one another and even holding sway over some areas.
Iriarte’s father worked for the Colombian government, making him and his family a target of the anti-government guerrillas who frequently threatened violence. Worse, guerillas who demanded a tax from the entire town invaded and occupied Iriarte’s grandparents’ profitable farmland.
After his 18th birthday in 2005, Iriarte was about to be drafted into the Colombian military to fight a war he did not believe in. “All of the factions are equally bad, even the government one,” he said.
The only way to avoid military service in Colombia, which is mandatory for all young men, is to pay a large fee. With Iriarte’s family in turmoil at the time, no one could afford it. Not believing in the violence around him, Iriarte failed to report to the army and thereby made himself a fugitive.“It was only a matter of time before they came to get me to send me to jail,” he said.
Iriarte’s only option was to flee the country as soon as possible. He considered crossing the border to Ecuador but decided to use his United States visa, which he had from spending a year living in Boston while his father worked as a diplomat. His mother’s cousin lives in Rhode Island and agreed to receive him but, as someone wanted by the Colombian government, Iriarte was taking a chance by boarding an international flight.
Nevertheless, he went to the airport with his grandmother. “I knew it was the last time I would see her,” he said. “I would either make it and not be able to come back or get caught and end up in jail.”
The trip to the United States was nerve-wracking.“I remember that day very well,” Iriarte said. “I showed up at the airport and waited in line. The woman at customs opened my passport and stamped it. If she had scanned it, I would have been detained right there.”
Iriarte’s flight to Providence had a stopover in Miami and, when the plane was close to landing, he had to fill out a customs form.
The reason for his visit? Pleasure. Where would he be staying? Iriarte did not have his relative’s address, so he claimed he would be staying at the Hyatt Hotel in Miami, taking the address from an in-flight magazine. How much money did he have? Iriarte reported $2,000, a realistic amount for a vacation abroad. In truth, he had $8 in his pocket.
Landing in Miami, Iriarte was again in danger that the true nature of his visit would be discovered and he would be deported immediately. “Nobody checked that I had a connecting flight to Providence 20 minutes later,” he said. “I guess I was very lucky. I was meant to be here.”
Iriarte applied for political asylum in the United States as soon as he arrived in Rhode Island, touching off a three-year court battle. “It took a long time and it was very, very scary,” he said.
If this bid failed, Iriarte would be returned to Colombia to face jail time and likely military service in the country’s most dangerous area as punishment for having fled.
Helping Iriarte with his legal battle was Allison Foley, a lawyer fresh out of Roger Williams University and working her first independent case.
Foley won the case in three years – which Iriarte was told is an amazingly short time for an asylum proceeding – giving him full residency and eligibility for citizenship in 2012. “It was a really big victory for her,” Iriarte said. The two remain close friends.
Through another lucky meeting, Iriarte found love and a chance to continue his education. After only a week in the United States, Iriarte met Josh Klemp, who has been his partner for five years. Klemp is the director of SkillsUSA, an organization that has an office at the Community College of Rhode Island, and he suggested that Iriarte attend classes at the college.
Iriarte, a Providence resident, began taking classes in 2007, before his asylum status was granted. “I wanted to get something started,” Iriarte said. “I always knew what I wanted to do.”
After graduating with a degree in General Studies and a 3.8 GPA, Iriarte will go on to Rhode Island College to study to become a Spanish teacher.
“Spanish is my passion; all the Latin languages, but especially Spanish,” Iriarte said. “I think I want to share that.”
Wherever he goes from here, Iriarte said he will always remember CCRI. “I will never forget where I started,” he said. “CCRI gave me a chance to start everything and it will always be my school.”
Though he can never again return to Colombia, many of Iriarte’s relatives also have fled the turmoil there and live in Argentina, France and Miami. Iriarte and Klemp are planning their first trip abroad together this summer to Spain.