Iraq Conference: Refugees seek a new life to get over the nightmares
CAIRO, Egypt, April 13 (UNHCR) - The brutal experiences of one Iraqi family in Baghdad, their life as refugees in Cairo and their expected resettlement to Australia provide a glimpse of the crisis as the UN refugee agency convenes an international conference on those displaced by the violence in Iraq.
"How long will the world watch our tragedy on television screens and stay silent about our suffering? Iraq is bleeding and Iraqis are suffering," said Adel*, a 48-year-old Iraqi refugee who arrived in Egypt with his wife Shareefa* and their three children in 2005 after being driven out of Baghdad by sectarian violence, kidnapping and death threats.
UNHCR will host an international conference on refugees and internally displaced people in Iraq and the surrounding region next Tuesday and Wednesday, seeking a continuing global commitment to find solutions. More than 450 participants from at least 60 nations, 37 inter-governmental organisations and 64 non-governmental organisations have registered.
UNHCR and its partners estimate there are close to two million Iraqis displaced within Iraq and a similar number outside - mainly in Syria and Jordan and nearby countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and Iran. While many had left before 2003, increasing numbers of Iraqis are now fleeing their homes - up to 50,000 a month.
In a modest one-bedroom apartment in the city of 6th of October on the outskirts of Cairo, where many Iraqis have now settled and live off small business, Adel tearfully described how his family became part of the refugee statistic.
"At age 48, I was at the peak of my career with a good life. I was the director of a multinational company in Iraq working in the private sector, making good money and raising a family," said Adel. "You were safe and secure if you stayed away from politics and the regime. We were Sunni, Shiite, Christian neighbours, brothers and friends but then everything suddenly changed."
Adel said the first few months after the U.S.-led invasion were relatively calm but by the middle of 2004, the situation was getting worse by the day.
"We were an easy target because my husband worked in the private sector and had name recognition in the business community," said Shareefa. Soon the family started to receive death threats written on white paper - in blood - telling them to leave the neighbourhood.
"We never paid attention to these threats in the beginning, till one night the door was banging really hard and before we knew it there were more than 100 people in our home all dressed in black with masked faces. Imagine 100 people in a two-storey home," recalled Adel. "They dragged my 16-year-old, beating him up and then took him outside to a car. They started beating me up till I passed out."
The militia men looted their home and the family's life savings before driving Adel and his son to an unknown location where they were tortured for three weeks. When they were finally released, they were warned not to go back to their home and to immediately leave Iraq.
"Our story is the story of many other Iraqis from all factions who are subject to daily threats. We immediately realised that we have no other option but to leave immediately," said Shareefa. In Cairo they are no longer in danger, but life is difficult and they still suffer from the traumas of their experience.
"We finally feel safe and secure but we are having a hard time surviving, especially with a six-year-old who is psychologically traumatised after being beaten up by the militias and seeing his father and brother tortured and kidnapped. He needs special care," said Shareefa, breaking down in tears.
"How can one forget these scenes? My five-year-old on the floor and one of the militia men standing with his shoes pressing on the child's neck and head. The boy immediately lost control and started urinating. I cannot forget these scenes."
Adel registered the family with UNHCR as soon as they arrived in Cairo. "I am not sure what we would have done without the help we received from UNHCR. We were about to be deported for overstaying our visa but the authorities granted us resident permits after UNHCR intervened," said Adel.
There are more than 100,000 Iraqis in Egypt. The UN refugee agency has registered 6,400 Iraqis, with another 6,200 registration interviews scheduled. The total is large, but dwarfed by the estimated 1.2 million Iraqis now in Syria and 750,000 in Jordan. In addition there are up to 40,000 Iraqis in Lebanon, 54,000 in Iran and 10,000 in Turkey.
The family awaits a new life in Australia, reporting that they have been accepted by the government under a special humanitarian programme outside the resettlement programme operated by UNHCR.
"We are vulnerable, demoralised and have lost interest in everything in life. We hope that we can start a new life and forget the wounds and scars that we will carry along for many years to come," said Mahmoud*, the 16-year-old son. "I can't ever go back to Iraq. I get nightmares every time I put my head on the pillow."
* Name changed for protection reasons
By Abeer Etefa in Cairo, Egypt