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Several intending Pilgrims Who booked With Huloolumrah Gambia Still Remain In The Country As Hajj Approaches

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Buba Sanyang, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Lands, Regional Governments and Religious Affairs

By Buba Gagigo

A large number of Gambian pilgrims (estimated to be around 135 people) are allegedly stranded in the country as the Hajj rituals approach. The pilgrims, who bought their travel packages from the travel agency, Huloolumrah Gambia, say they have not been able to travel to Mecca despite paying their full four hundred and fifty thousand dalasis fees.

The pilgrims have been waiting for days for their travel arrangements to be finalized, but they say the agency has not provided them with any updates. They are now worried that they will not be able to make the Hajj, which is a religious obligation for all Muslims who are able to afford it.

On Sunday , Aja Fatty spoke to Fatou Touray, the host of Kerr Fatou, on a live show. Fatty said that her sister-in-law is one of the stranded pilgrims. She stated that they chose Huloolumrah Gambia after Gambia International Airlines (GIA) ran out of space for this year’s hajj.

“We originally planned to have my sister-in-law travel with the GIA, as we have family members working there. However, there was an unexpected delay in the arrival of her money, so we were unable to book with them. We then booked with Huloolumrah Gambia, as they were still selling Hajj packages at the time. We paid D450,000 to them, plus two hundred dollars for Ram. They gave us the original receipts for this.

“My sister-in-law and other intended pilgrims in her group attended all the training and got all their vaccinations in order. They had a WhatsApp forum where intending pilgrims were updated.

“We were told to be at the airport on Friday, June 16, 2023, by 11:00 PM. We left our home on time, but before we arrived at the airport, we received voice messages from Huloolumrah Gambia representatives advising us to stay at home until we hear back from them. We decided to go to the airport anyway to see what was happening.

“When we arrived, we found many people complaining that they had been waiting for a long time and had not seen any representatives from the travel agency. Huloolumrah Gambia had led us to believe that they had secured visas for all the pilgrims, but none of the pilgrims had any in their possession. We tried to call Huloolumrah Gambia, but no one answered. The Gambia government should take action to ensure that this does not happen to other pilgrims,” she said.

Haddy Touray, another stranded pilgrim, spoke to Kerr Fatou. She said that she got Huloolumrah Gambia’s number from someone at Gambia International Airlines (GIA) after she went to the GIA to book her hajj. However, when she arrived at the GIA, she was informed that they were fully booked and had no spots left in their allotment for this year.

“I went to Gambia International Airlines to book a Hajj package, but they told me that they were fully booked. On my way out, one of the staff members told me about another company called Huloolumrah Gambia that was still offering Hajj packages. She gave me their phone number, and I called them.

“Huloolumrah Gambia confirmed that they still had space, and they texted me their account number. I paid the moneyinto their bank account, and then I went to their office in Bijilo to submit my receipt to get my booking confirmed.” -Haddy stated

Haddy said that she didn’t have any doubts about Huloolumrah Gambia at first because they were sending pictures of people they had taken for Umrah in their WhatsApp group throughout Ramadan. However, she now believes that the Gambia government is also to blame for the company’s actions, as it is not licensed by the Hajj Commission and should not have been operating.

“The government stopped the company (Huloolumrah Gambia) from advertising their Hajj package, but it did not stop them from collecting people’s money. This has left many people, including elderly people, in a difficult situation. The company is now saying that they have the visas in their system, but they cannot print them out. They are still insisting that they will fly people out on June 21st, but I do not believe that they will be able to do so. This is very wrong, and I am concerned for the people who have been affected by this.

I have also learned that this is not the first time that this company has done this to people. Last year, there were also people who paid their money but did not get to go for the Hajj. This is unacceptable, and I hope that the government will take action to protect people from this company,” she said.

Ousainou Njie also spoke with Fatou on her live show on Sunday. He said that his mother was one of the people who paid D450,000 to Huloolumrah Gambia. Mr. Njie said he suspected foul play and quickly reported the matter to the Brusubi Police Station. He was able to get his mother’s money back after confronting the company’s CEO at their main offices. He sent a copy of the refund check to the host as proof.

“My mom was one of the pilgrims who had paid for everything and completed the training. When I came home on Friday, I found her listening to a voice note. She told me that the first batch of pilgrims had been stranded at the airport and that no one from the agency was there to look after them,” he explained.

He said he called the Hajj commission, but they told him that the company did not have a license to sell Hajj packages.

“In the WhatsApp group, the company said they were at the office working on the pilgrim’s visas. However, when I sent someone to the office, they found it closed. The next day, I went to the Brusubi Police Station and reported the matter. I then went to the company’s office and met with the CEO. He locked himself in his office and claimed to be in a Zoom meeting. He asked for a few minutes, but I refused because it was urgent. He then asked me to sit down, but I declined. I demanded to speak with him so that I could understand what had happened,” he explained.

Ousainou said that the CEO informed him of a delay, which was caused by a printing issue.

“I asked what the delay was about. He said they were having a printing problem. I told him that I had lived in the Middle East before and knew that their visas are electronic and that you can print them in the Gambia. He said that their portal was having an issue. I asked if they had applied for the visas, and he said yes. I asked him for the SRN number, which is a unique number that is printed on every visa. He asked me what an SRN number was. I told him that he didn’t know what he was doing because every visa has an SRN number.

“The man said that he did not apply for the visas, but that his partners in Saudi Arabia did. I asked him if he had booked tickets for the pilgrims, and he showed me a Turkish Airlines ticket. I tried to verify the ticket on the Turkish Airlines website, but the flight number was invalid. I told him that the ticket was not valid, and I asked him to return our money. He then refunded the full amount of money that we had paid him (D450,000). As I am speaking to you, I have my mother’s money back,” he concluded.

Buba Sanyang, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Lands, Regional Governments, and Religious Affairs, stated that Huloolumrah Gambia was not one of the companies to which the government issued licenses to sell Hajj packages this year.

“We’ve heard about this Huloolumrah Gambia in Ramadan. We called them to inform them that they were doing advertisements for Hajj without a license and that they should not do any advertisements in the name of the Gambia’s Hajj quota. We told them that the Gambia’s quota for the Hajj is 2000 people, and we have already allocated that to the twelve companies that are licensed with the Hajj Commission. The airline that we (the Hajj Commission) use to fly our pilgrims is Ethiopian Airlines. Amir-ul Hajj invited them (Huloolumrah Gambia) to his office when we heard of them to ask them not to advertise Hajj packages, but they insisted that they were advertising for Umrah instead. 

“The Hajj Commission warned them to desist from advertising that they are taking people for Hajj. We later issued a press release and mentioned all the companies that are eligible to take people. Yesterday, (early Sunday), while I was returning from the airport to see off the last batch of Gambian pilgrims who departed early Sunday morning, I heard the news that there are still pilgrims in the country, but I want to make it very clear that all the pilgrims who booked through the government-licensed travel agencies have left the country as we speak. There’s no other company licensed by the Gambia government that still has pilgrims in the country. If they’re doing it by themselves, the law will take its course. We were never aware of them selling Hajj packages; we would have intervened earlier to protect people,” he said.

He explained that the Gambia was allocated 2000 people to go to Hajj by Saudi Arabia, and twelve companies were given licenses by the Gambia Government to fly the pilgrims for Hajj.

“Yesterday (Saturday, June 17th), at 6:40 a.m., 343 of the last batches of Gambian pilgrims left. These were the people who booked with the twelve agencies licensed by the government. Two other flights had already left on the 15th of this month (June). The first flight had 343 people, and one hour later, the second flight left with 343 people. The third flight left the next day (on June 16th) with 343 people. The GIA flight also left last Friday with 343 people, which makes it the fourth flight. The last flight took off on Saturday with 343 people,” he said.

Pilgrims who purportedly booked their Hajj with Huloolumrah Gambia and spoke to Kerr Fatou are currently in the country. They told Kerr Fatou that they would wait until next Wednesday, June 21st, to see if the company could fly them to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. If the company is not able to do so, they will seek a refund.

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