Our Humanity

Personal Letter

Dear Brothers and Sisters, Mums and Dads, Aunts and Uncles,

I would like to start this letter with a great thought 

It’s amazing how a little tomorrow can make up for a whole lot of yesterday
— John Guare, Author and Playwright

This is truly a profound thought, to leave my past and focus on the future.

I can not describe the lift in my spirits to know there are friends I have never met that are willing to just hear my troubles. My desire is to only speak from my heart and let them flow to yours. With that, this is my story.

I have lived through war. Now  am living in refuge.Yet the greatest lesson is to see the potential in each human being. This potential, tapped or untapped, needs a stable foundation. A foundation of education, skills and resources to return and help others in this same horrible situation. Moving to Canada is the key step to fulfilling my dream of fighting for human rights and broken communities on a professional level.

In Baghdad, the basic human rights of my family and me were violated not because of what we did, because of who we were. We fled to Turkey hoping things would improve for us, but they have not, and in many ways they have gotten worse. I have lost my freedom to travel - even domestically - my freedom to work and most importantly my freedom to pursue a meaningful future.

One of my greatest pleasures while living in Turkey was the day that I delivered the news to an 18 year old girl that she would be able to attend university. Through my work with an NGO, and my coordinating efforts her dream became reality. That was the day that I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

That is the one positive thing that I have gained from the experiences of war and as a refugee: a purpose. My purpose and passion in life, given the opportunity, is to help others in the same situation as my family and myself. In Turkey, I have already taken it upon myself to aid others facing similar plights; working with the Turkish Red Crescent and NGOs(Small Projects Istanbul, HumanWire) assisting the Syrian population in Istanbul. My potential to help others, however, will never flourish here in Turkey. In order to advance the human rights of others, I need to have complete human rights myself.

Canada is a leader in the international arena of human rights. It is the perfect place for me to reach my full potential. For me, a huge part of unlocking that potential is education. Last year I began attending a Canadian High School in Istanbul (Simcoe Academy). It would be a natural step to continue my education at a university in Canada. My plan is to attain an undergraduate degree in political science/international studies in the realm of human rights before pursuing a masters in international law. I am extremely excited by the prospect of fulfilling this dream in one of the world class programs offered by Canadian universities.

After graduation, my intention is to work with Canadian and international NGOs in order to champion human rights around the world. Specifically, my home country of Iraq will need brave advocates and activists to put the pieces of our society back together. I would love to use the skills that I gain in Canada to help marginalised populations such as women and religious minorities to organise and realise their fundamental rights.

On top of the obvious opportunities that the country would offer me, I am also very attracted to the way of life in Canada. Reading through my Canadian textbooks and talking to one of my best friends, living in Toronto, has given me insight into the culture. I am delighted to find that many of my own values, from environmental protection to general friendliness, are reflected in Canadian society.

One day, a few years ago my friend was telling me about his life in Toronto. He told me that people in Canada accept and celebrate people from different ethnicities, backgrounds and religions. That is what attracted me to Canada in the first place. It is what I’ve been missing my whole life. A society that would accept me even though I am different. For me that is so inspiring. It should be like that everywhere but it is not. I need to go to Canada and gain the tools and connections to help make other places understand this same beauty.

Although I am still deeply connected to the Middle East, I would be honored to call Canada my home.

Thank you,

Aws Jubair

Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present
— Albert Camus

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!

Put it in the Pocket

It was providence that we met. Saleh, Abudi and I were looking for the young lad who runs a pool hall above a kebabci. We had visited but the lad was out - apparently looking for people to play. While we were walking, I notice Aladeen peering back at us, probably because we were talking loudly in English. Once we crossed the road, we bumped into the pool hall lad handing out fliers. Aladeen stopped too. We all huddled around teasing him that his only clients came to see him and he was out soliciting for us. Aladeen suddenly stepped in, he was looking to play too. Perfect, we can play a tournament. 

We all walked off to the hall - the five of us. Throughout the tournament we found out a bit about Aladeen. The young Gambian had left his home for a modeling competition in Antalya - southern Turkey. After winning, he decided to travel to Istanbul to continue. 

We met him only 12 days into his new life in Istanbul and he was already learning the harsh realities of this city. He already had several 'promising' job offers that only cost a few thousand to start. Saleh immediately warned him to be careful and trust no one. In the city famed to be the capital of the world for its sprawling reaches over Europe and Asia, its easy to get lost. In this ancient city of merchants, newcomers are easy targets for a quick scheme. If justice is blind, so is crime. 

We were relieved that he had not fallen into the traps. He talked of his ambition to model, but was unable to give agents a portfolio. Thankfully, earlier that week I had talked to a friend studying photo-journalism. He has agreed to snap the photos in his studio and put something together. In the meantime, Aladeen has been looking for work to gain his feet in this chaotic city. 

A Car for the Charismatic

Balat, İstanbul

A month ago, Abdulwahed and I went with a Human Rights Lawyer to a family living in Balat - a broken area of Istanbul that has fallen into disrepair over the last decade. The narrow apartments have been a refuge for fleeing families as they nominally cheap. That is, until the land lorde adds on all sorts of additional costs; reminding you of the window tax. In two small rooms - 3m. x 3m.(10ft. x 10ft.) - lives a family of 12. The family is not connected by blood as much as by welcoming. One 8 year old girl was adopted into the family after wondering into Turkey after the death of her parents in Aleppo.

This family surprisingly lives a tranquil life. For magnitude of their troubles and stresses, they work diligently and wait patiently. The father cannot work because of shrapnel in his arm and back, so the income is dependent on the children(12-19yrs.). Still when asked how is work, one of the boys always replies, ‘I am not in the worst situation, for that I praise God.’

The two youngest - both called Hammudi pictured above - greet the visitors as if they run the show. Beaconing you to come in, take a seat, they sit across from you as if you were here to ask their advice. The younger Hammudi(pictures with his father) is just coordinated enough to run and jump and enjoys to ‘monkey around’, hanging off whatever he can. The older Hammudi is less active as his vision is very poor - since his first birthday, he has been well past legally blind and can only see inches from his face.

We have visited many times since our first encounter. Our biggest priority is to purchase a washing machine that will relieve one of the women from washing clothes daily- freeing her up to work and provide for the family. In the meantime, they asked for shoes for the children. To our delight we found two identical pairs of stomp light-up shoes for the Hammudis and two other pairs for their older sisters.

The older Hammudi, when over hearing us talk with his mother about wants and needs, took the chance to get in a few words.

‘بدي سيارة (I want a car)’
— Older Hammudi

Unexpectedly, a package arrived a week later with some donations and inside were some hotwheels. For us, this just proves at how even the littlest gift to these families can make a world of difference.

Hammudi now wanders around his room driving the car up the wall, off the tellie and flying through the room. His voice making the sound of a revving engine echoing through the apartment. Seeing Hammudi like this was a wonderful experience, but to see his father watch his son play so gleefully was overwhelming.

To the secret donator of the hotwheels, please know that you strengthened a whole family in their faith in providence and persistence against challenges. Thank you.

Welcome to the Family

Çapa-Şehremini, İstanbul

One of the nicest parts of Middle Eastern culture is a sense of family and the relationship you have to everyone. Its a privilege to be brought into this community as an ağabey(Turkish: older brother - Abi) or أخ(Arabic: brother - Akh). Maybe I’m not the most responsible with giving chocolates to the wee ones, but what can you do about that cutie. For the first few weeks in Istanbul, I worked in childcare at Small Projects Istanbul. It is a hectic place to say the least.

In one corner a kid was ‘facepainting’ another with a dry brush - no paint. He was a little upset with the results, but soon got over it when the girls invited him to their tea party. All four of them, three girls and a boy, sat pretty in their dresses - cracks me up to this day. Little did I know that this first day was my introduction to the infamous Hammudi. That little dude is one of the youngest, yet most respected of the children. In the morning he walks into the centre, throws his jacket on the rack and walks arms wide, chin up saying, 

I’m back, what do you have for me.
— Hammudi

Since then we’ve had some music classes, painted stories from our lives, had a pillow fight which has brokered a long term peace agreement, made a table fort where the adults hid for a little break and enjoyed the endless entertainment that little ones can bring.

It truly has been a blessing. Thank you for the welcome عائلة (Arabic: family - ‘A’la)