Refugee family’s close shave with ISIS
For Iraqi refugee Naseer Zakaria and his family just two hours meant the difference between freedom and slavery or death.
As ISIS fighters approached his home city of Qaraqosh, in northern Iraq, Naseer ignored the promises of the extremist group and local civil leaders that no one would be harmed and he gathered his family and fled north into Kurdistan.
As it turned out ISIS enslaved hundreds of his fellow Christians and killed dozens more.
“Fifteen days after they arrived ISIS told the Christians who had stayed, they had three days to leave, convert to Islam or be killed,” Naseer said this week.
“For those who left, everything was taken from them; their cars, their gold and all their possessions,” Naseer said.
“We were lucky. We got out just two hours before the ISIS fighters arrived. If we had not, my daughter would have been married off to an ISIS fighter and we would all be slaves – or worse,” he said.
It was 2014 and ISIS was sweeping though Syria and Iraq seizing vast amounts of territory, enslaving or murdering thousands and leaving much of the world looking on in disbelief.
The group had already taken Raqqa, in north- central, and declared it the capital of a self-style caliphate. They soon after had possession of the cities of Mosul and Tikrit.
Naseer had a successful career as an architect working on religious buildings around his homeland on the historic and ancient Plains of Nineveh.
“Life was good. We were financially secure and there was peace. We were as happy as you could be as a Christian living in Iraq,” he said.
“We first became worried about ISIS after we heard about what happened in Mosul. Just 300 fighters occupied Mosul – a city of 2 million people,” Naseer said.
“There were 30,000 security forces in Mosul but they fled.
“I have two kids so we fled to Kurdistan. There were bombs and artillery falling so we just had to go,” he said.
The family slept outdoors on the streets for days amid the confusion.
After a few days there was a pause in the fighting and Naseer and his family was encouraged by community leaders to return home.
“We returned to our town but a second bigger attack happened on August 5. It was a very bad day. A lot of people, including two young girls and their mother, were killed so we fled again,” he said.
“This time we made the decision to flee for good. I decided to leave Iraq forever and never return,” Naseer said.
After twenty hours on the road, the family arrived at Erbil, to the north, and moved into a small house owned by Naseer’s father-in-law that was already shelter to nine other families.
“We arrived there at midnight and the journey had been very hot – the kids were suffering heat stroke,” Naseer said.
On his brief return to Qaraqosh, Naseer saw the devastation wrought by ISIS.
“ISIS had destroyed 90 per cent of the houses. They put C4 explosives in the houses and burned them down. I don’t understand this. C4 is expensive, why would you spend so much money destroying homes. It’s crazy,” he said.
Eventually Nasser, his wife Joman, children Noor and Marina and mother Habiba, reached the relative safety of Jordan where they lived for two years.
They arrived in Melbourne as refugees earlier this year and are grateful to have found safety.
“We are thankful to be here living in peace but we worry for people still living in Syria and Jordan,” Naseer said.
“I will improve my English and then hope to work in architecture or civil engineering,” he said.
“But I would beg Australia and other countries to take more people from the minority groups in the Middle East that are the targets of the extremists,” Naseer said.
As a Christian, Naseer says he was a constant target of extremists groups.
“Because I worked in churches and monasteries, they considered I was an infidel and they tried to kidnap me a couple of times,” he said.
“A car bomb went off very close to me once and I have been threatened with guns.
“In my country there is no law, there is just the weak and the strong and Christians are very weak,” Naseer said.
He said he had never known real peace in Iraq.
“In my city many people died in the 1980s because of the Iran-Iraq war,” Naseer said.
“As a child every day I would watch funeral processions go past my house and I though at the time there was no hope for us – we will all die,” he said.
“After the war ended Saddam promised peace and good life but he was a bad and crazy guy.
“He made another war when he challenged America by occupying Kuwait. Saddam was a very wild and stupid president and we paid the price,” Naseer said.
“After that we endured the embargoes that made things very tough for ordinary people. But we hoped that one day Saddam would be gone and the embargoes would end – it was a light at the end of the tunnel.
“And after 2003, with Saddam gone, the Iraqi people were very happy and we were told the situation was getting better and we would have democracy and prosperity.
“But then corruption and sectarianism ate the country. So, after 2007 that light at the end of the tunnel went out,” Naseer said.
He said that coming to Australia was a dream come true.
“I am thankful that Australia has given us a safe place to live. When I first arrived I saw everyone smiling at us and I could not believe it. In Iraq no one smiles,” Naseer said.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist