If It Were Only My Shadow Following Me: Why I Fled Iraq.

I write this statement on behalf of myself, my father, my mother and my sister to explain how we came to be refugees and why we fear living in or returning to Iraq.

My family and I are committed secularists, having denounced our Muslim faith. My father was raised in the Shia tradition and my mother in the Sunni.

Starting in 2006, when there was an escalation of sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni militants, my family and I were attacked and threatened by members of extremist Sunni communities as we did not attend prayer in the mosque of our Sunni neighborhood despite being asked on multiple occasions by our neighbors.

People were suspicious of us and even afraid because we were seen as outsiders. At the same time, my father was working in a Shia neighborhood.

Our family heritage together with living and working in different locations caused us trouble in both neighborhoods. Both sides used to think that we were with the other sectarian side (it is risky to go to a Sunni neighborhood if you're a Shia). At work, people who were in Shia militias were suspicious of my father because we were living in a Sunni neighborhood, even though we come from a Shia background. In their minds, we must be cooperating with Sunni groups if we felt we could continue to live there.

On a number of occasions through 2006 and 2007, some militia members from Al Mahdi Army militia (a Shia militia under the leadership of one of the most powerful and influential Shia Imams, backed by Iran) came to my father’s workplace to ask about him. His boss explained that they wanted to kidnap him. and on some days he would call my father and tell him not to come to the office, because he knew they would be there.

As divisions in our society deepened, it became clear we were less and less welcome to live in our Sunni neighborhood. This neighborhood was where me and my sister grew up and our family had lived for many years.

In the same year, a woman from the neighborhood came to our house and asked my mother if my father could take shifts in guarding the mosque. He didn’t go. Soon after, I was stopped in our street by a stranger driving a car who started questioning me and told me I didn't belong in the neighborhood. He tried to get me into his car in what was probably a kidnapping attempt. I survived the incident but it made me scared to leave the house again, especially because I had friends from school who were kidnapped because they were from Shia families.

In that same week, there was a black mysterious car parked right in front of our house. It was strange and we had good reason to believe that there were people inside who wanted to either kidnap or kill my father. We called him at work to warn him, and so he didn’t come back home that day.

Soon after, our neighbor, who was the last other Shia man who lived on our street was kidnapped and found dead in the garbage heap the next day. My sister witnessed the kidnapping. We believe this act was committed by Sunni extremists who are Al Qaeda loyalists. At this point we were living in direct fear of getting murdered.

On June 16th, 2007 we got a phone call warning us that they (the Sunni religious extremists who we believe belonged to Al Qaeda) were coming after us next, and that we should leave. On that night we heard some shots fired in our street. We didn't know what was going on until we woke up the next day and found our dog Ceta killed by gun shots. This was a direct threat to us as a family.

We fled to another neighborhood in a Shia majority area where we thought we would be safer.

However, we were wrong. While my father was at work one day towards the end of December 2007, my family arose to the sound of the police storming into our home.  My mother is a secular, Sunni Muslim who doesn’t wear the Muslim headscarf (Hijab) and comes from a Palestinian Jordanian family. She has fair skin, uncovered brown hair and speaks with a strong Palestinian accent. Because of this she was perceived as an outsider and a threat in our neighborhood.  At that time, Palestinians who were living in Shia majority neighborhoods were being threatened, harassed and forced by Shia militias to flee their homes. Many of them were leaving the country (many members of my mom’s family left the country during that period of time). We believe the events that night happened because the militias were attempting to force her out.

A teenage boy, who we believe had ties with the Shia militias, was with the police that day and had accused my mother of kidnapping children and imprisoning them at the family home. The police and army arrested her without charges or evidence. After 50 days of imprisonment, the judge reviewed her case and cleared her of any wrongdoing. She was released without charge.

After my mother’s release, we applied and received our passports in efforts to leave the country and go to Jordan, since my mother is a Jordanian citizen. We applied for the visa, waited for months, and were eventually denied.

I was also personally targeted by religiously motivated violence because of my lack of religious beliefs and for social behaviors and political views that people thought were outside of Islam in Iraq. My family rejected our Muslim faith, and I listened to a lot of Western music (mostly metal), socialized in mixed-gender groups, and occasionally drank alcohol.

Once, when I was sitting in the neighborhood in the afternoon, I was attacked by strangers throwing rocks and had to escape. In school, I was called “Kaffir” - meaning “infidel” -  which by Islamic faith means someone who deserves to be killed.

One time in 2010, four men approached me while I was walking out at night with a friend. They asked if I was promoting another type of religion and said that they had heard I was expressing anti-religious views and practicing some habits that were outside of Islam. They warned me I would face ‘a big problem’ and be taken to a place nobody knows about, if I said anything that made them return. They told me they could come back and visit me even inside school.

I felt threatened because in Iraq, youth who followed a similar lifestyle or expressed their anti-religious beliefs were being stoned to death. Their heads would be smashed with concrete blocks for speaking out or dressing in a fashion seeming to emulate the ‘emo’ or metal styles, as many people saw this as representing homosexuality and anti-religious or even Satanic sentiments.

For these reasons I felt worried and threatened whenever I was outside the house. I stopped going to school and even leaving our home. My friends stopped hanging out with me and talking to me because they no longer felt comfortable being seen together.

My father is a former employee of the Iraqi Ministry of Finance, where he was responsible for taxing goods imported through the Zurbatya border crossing with Iran. On February 1st, 2011, he inspected a number of trucks which appeared to contain suspicious goods.

Following the inspection, an individual from the car approached him, threatening

I will empty the bullets of my pistol in your head.
— Smuggler

He later learned that the goods were a shipment of illegal weapons, which were being smuggled in food crates by a network connected to one of the most influential Shia militias.

On February 8th, 2011, after a family visit to see my uncle, our neighbors informed us that men dressed in black had come looking for my father. To avoid any possible confrontation, my family and I stayed with my uncle for a period. During this time, we received multiple phone calls from neighbors, informing us that these people (I think they were militants belonging to one of the Shia militias backed by Iran) continued to search for my father and that it was not safe for him to return. We then received a phone call from our next-door neighbor who told us that they had marked my door with the word “Wanted”.  At that point we understood that there would be only one outcome if we remained in Baghdad - we would be kidnapped and killed. We were forced to make the difficult decision to leave our home, our community, and our lives to live as refugees in Turkey. My father left Iraq on the 22nd February 2011 and my mother, sister and myself followed on the 22nd March 2011.

This threat against my father was not only aimed at  him, it was aimed against my family as a whole. I believe if any of my family members were to return to Iraq, the Shia militias who threatened my father would try to find them to kill or kidnap them to get revenge against him.

My family and I are registered with the UNHCR in Turkey as refugees and as such, we are unable to work legally to provide for ourselves. As stated by Turkish law, we are all denied a formal work permit or any movement outside the small city of Eskisehir because of our refugee status. Any travel we do outside this city is deemed illegal and the opportunities are very low here. We do not receive any support from the Turkish government. We are expected to live, eat and pay for rent and bills without work. Of course, this is impossible, so my mother and father tried to work in a restaurant, but they paid us far below the minimum wage and many times they did not pay them at all, so they quit. On a few occasions my parents applied for work but were turned away because they are refugees or simply because they are Arabs.

I have done some ‘under the table’ work for very low wages and in very unstable and unsafe circumstances whilst trying to contribute to supporting our family. While working without an official work permit, I was stopped by tourism officials, who physically abused me in front of my clients and fined me 2000 Turkish lira, which I still cannot afford to pay. Recently, I experienced another incident of violence because of my refugee status. I was stopped by people who claimed to be the police, who asked to see my work permit and ID. When they learned of my refugee status, they hit me, pushed me, and forced me to leave my clients alone in the street. My former employer also hasn't paid me for more than 6 months. We feel we are powerless to argue the case due to our lack of rights and status as  refugees in Turkey.

We do not feel safe in Turkey because it is a Muslim country and a large portion of the population is very conservative. We feel that a big element of the country's mentality is threatening towards religious minorities, different nationalities and races such as my family. On several occasions people have refused to rent us an apartment and told us directly that it is because we are refugees, or because we are Iraqis. We have been turned away when trying to get work for the same reasons.

As a foreigner and refugee family in Turkey we have been assaulted in our home in Eskisehir. In March of 2014, two men came to our apartment at night and pretended to be the police. They told us they had to search our apartment. We were vulnerable because of our refugee and social status - we couldn't argue with them or stop them. They kept my mom, cousin and me in the kitchen. Then they went into the room where my sister was sleeping, and where we kept all the money we had and they stole it. We only found out after they had left. We reported what had happened to the police but they weren't able to get us back our money. We found out from other Iraqi families that this group of criminals were targeting refugee families in the area and taking advantage of our weak situation.

For all of these reasons, my family and I do not feel that we can have a safe or stable life in Turkey and we would definitely not be safe if we returned to Iraq.

Thank you for your time and interest in my story!