Refugee family finds deliverance
Eman Shashy and her family were the last to leave their village before ISIS arrived and destroyed it.
The family of Iraqi refugees had no vehicle and were forced to walk through the night to safety as the Islamic State militants descended upon their home.
“We had to run. We left everything behind except the clothes we were wearing,” said Eman, who now lives in Melbourne’s west.
“We walked because we had no car and all the time we were afraid ISIS would catch up with us,” she said.
Their flight was the end of the “good life” they had known in the picturesque village of Al-Hamdaniya, near the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, and the beginnings of their journey as refugees.
The family had always lived in Al-Hamdaniya, a mostly Christian town in northern Iraq near Mosul, and enjoyed a peaceful life; Eman working as a nurse and her husband Raed as a builder.
“It was a good life in Iraq. We had family and friends around us. Every Sunday after church we would go a restaurant for a meal or to the park where our children could play,” Eman said.
But things started to go wrong for the family when ISIS took the nearby city of Mosul in June 2014.
“As Christians we were very anxious about the future. Mosul was just an hour and a half away and we worried all the time that ISIS would come,” Eman said.
“We didn’t know what we would do or where we would go if they came,” she said.
At one point the family left their home in July 2014 when rumours spread around the village that ISIS was on its way. The family sought refuge with Eman’s parents in a town to the north.
The rumours proved false and Eman and her family returned home after a few weeks.
But eventually ISIS did come and most of the village of about 10,000 families fled.
“The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters came and said they would stop ISIS but eventually they just left and people in our village started to flee,” Eman said.
“We didn’t have a car and no one had any room to take us with them in their vehicles so we were forced to walk,” she said.
Eman and her husband along with two young children and members of their extended family, including Raed’s ageing parents, walked through the night to safety. They left the village just two hours before ISIS fighters arrived.
“I think we were the last people to leave our village,” Eman said.
The group of seven was lucky to be picked up by a bus sent back to collect stragglers from the town.
Eman said the bus travelled six or seven hours to Erbil, in Kurdistan, where the group found refuge in the grounds of a Christian Church. There they camped out in tents with 500 other families.
Pregnant with her third child and with no kitchen or bathroom, Eman began to fear for the future.
“It was very difficult. I was pregnant, we were living in a tent and we had brought nothing with us. We lived for four months camped in the garden of the church,” Eman said.
“When I knew I was pregnant, I was very sad. I wondered how I would care for the baby in the conditions we were living in. We had no house, no running water and no work,” she said.
After months in tents the family was settled in some houses provided by a European NGO but their difficulties continued.
“We were five families in one small house with one bathroom and one kitchen. There was tension and arguments and this became very difficult also,” Eman said.
“We didn’t know what would happen to us so we made the decision to leave Iraq and go to Jordan,” she said.
The family left for Jordan in June 2016.
“We had heard that some people who had gone to Jordan had managed to get to Australia and the US. And my uncle had come to Australia the year before,” Eman said.
The family applied for resettlement visas through the embassy in Amman and after ten months in Jordan were on their way to Australia.
The couple still have family in Iraq to whom they speak each week on the phone.
“Life is still very hard for them. ISIS is gone now but everything is destroyed and damaged,” Eman said.
“People have been forced to go back to their villages but there is nothing there. My father and other people we know have gone back but their home has been burned down and everything has been taken,” she said.
Eman said her family was grateful to be in Australia. She and Raed are improving their English and their two eldest children attend the local primary school.
“Because I saw so many things in Iraq, I know that life here in Australia is so good for us and especially for our kids,” Eman said.
“Even the school here is amazing. It is so different from Iraq, the children learn so many things and in different ways and the teachers are wonderful,” she said.
“Step by step you can be doing something to improve your life here in Australia. It’s very good for us.
“We are studying English for now and then we will get jobs and we will support ourselves and we will be able to help our families back in Iraq.
“I want to thank the Australian Government and all of the people who have helped us to make a future for my kids here.
“We are safe here and my kids are safe here – and that is big thing for me,” Eman said.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist