Young Muslim saviour helps two elderly Iraqi Christians start a new life

News Stories, 10 May 2007

© Reuters/A.A.Naby
A view of the Nile flowing through Cairo. The two Iraqi sisters spent more than five months in the Egyptian capital as the guests of a kindly young couple.

CAIRO, Egypt, May 10 (UNHCR) Two Iraqi Christians were beginning a new life in the Netherlands on Thursday, eternally grateful to the young Egyptian woman who took them in more than five months ago after finding the two old ladies alone and bewildered at Cairo International Airport.

The women, Rose*, 78, and her 76-year-old sister Georgette*, flew out of Cairo International Airport on Wednesday for a reunion in Amsterdam with the older woman's daughter, perhaps their only living relative. The siblings fear that Rose's son, who put them on a plane for Egypt at the end of December, has been killed in the Iraqi cauldron along with his family.

Seeing them off was Amal*, the devout 23-year-old Muslim who had been dropping off relatives at the airport on New Year's Eve when she spotted the distressed women and offered them shelter, help and friendship.

While the Iraqi women were looking forward to a reunion with their relative, they were also distraught at leaving behind the young Muslim woman and her Saudi husband, Mohamed,* who had done so much for them, including putting the women in touch with UNHCR to help find a lasting solution.

"What can I say? Where in the world can you find someone who will host you for five months, feed you, take care of you and worry about you?," Rose asked, tears rolling down her cheeks. "I am indebted to this man, whom I consider a son now, and his wife and their 20-month-old daughter."

She was also crying for her son and his family. "All we want from life now is to see my daughter and to hear news about my son. We want to rest in peace," Rose stressed.

Rose and Georgette's journey has its roots in the fighting and sectarianism that has gained pace in Iraq since 2004 and uprooted millions of Iraqis. Some 1.9 million Iraqis are displaced inside the country and up to 2 million others have fled abroad, mainly to neighbouring Syria and Jordan.

The older sister, whose ancestors came from Armenia, said her family were targeted by militias in Baghdad because they were Christians and from a minority group. "My [teenage] grandson sustained serious injuries on his way from school one afternoon [last December] after escaping from the militias who were trying to kidnap him. That night we made a decision to leave," Rose said.

"We sold all of our furniture and belongings and took the US$250 that we were able to collect and headed to the airport the next morning," she noted. Her son Ragheb,* his wife and their children were unable to board the plane because they did not possess the correct documents, but Rose's boy gave his elderly relatives the money and said he would try to get a visa and join them later.

"He asked me to use the money for one or two week's rent and said that we should call him as soon as we had an address," Rose said, adding that when they arrived in Cairo they had no money left because they had to spend it on excess baggage charges. They felt depressed and lost.

This was when fate entered in the form of Amal, who always wears the niqab veil that covers the face leaving only small slits for the eyes. "While I was about to leave the airport, I saw two elderly ladies crying and in a state of panic," she recalled. The young woman went up to the women and when she found out about their predicament, Amal invited Rose and Georgette to her house.

The Egyptian thought Rose's son would soon turn up in Cairo, but he never did and she could not reach him on his mobile phone number. "One day passed and another day and then a week and I started to feel worried about the two elderly sisters and about the son, whose fate up till this moment is unknown," said Amal.

Amal was able to contact Rose's daughter, who had been living in Amsterdam for many years. She also contacted UNHCR after a cousin told her about its work in resettling refugees. "The moment I reached UNHCR, I felt that a heavy weight had been taken off my chest. Someone else besides me was thinking of a long-term solution for these two elderly ladies."

UNHCR staff registered the sisters and referred their case to the Dutch embassy for resettlement in the Netherlands. "The two ladies did not have any long-term support in Egypt and were a classic case of vulnerability," said Muriel Jurmie, a UNHCR resettlement officer, who thanked Amal and her husband Mohamed.

Rose and Georgette now have the opportunity to live out their twilight years in peace and comfort, but there will always be uncertainty and sadness so long as the relatives left behind in Baghdad remain missing.

For her part, Amal can take heart from her good deed, but it might not be quite enough. "I will truly miss them, I got so used to having them at home," she said. "I hope that the next phase of their life will bring them peace and serenity. No one deserves to go through the trauma that they went through at this age."

* Names changed for protection reasons

By Abeer Etefa in Cairo, Egypt