Refugee’s courageous journey to safety
On her epic refugee journey Iraqi woman Wafaa Razooqi has twice beaten cancer, endured the death of her husband and survived the invasion of her home town by extremist ISIS fighters.
Wafaa and her family made a difficult and dangerous journey through Kurdistan, Jordan and Lebanon.
Now settled in Melbourne, she and her family are rebuilding their lives.
Wafaa and her family lived in Mosul, one of the most historic and culturally significant cities in the Arab world.
Until the 1990s it was a wealthy and multicultural city where different religious and ethnic groups live side by side.
But this changed after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. By 2009, the security situation had become desperate.
“The situation became very bad. We had to leave because it was not safe,” Wafaa said.
“And when ISIS came it was not safe for Christians,” she said, speaking through an interpreter.
Wafaa and her family left for Kurdistan from where the family applied for refugee status with IOM.
Her daughter Anne was approved and left for the United States. But the health check that was part of the visa process revealed Wafaa had a cancer in her chest cavity which meant she was not approved to travel to the US.
Accompanied by her husband Salim Daoud Malko and her other adult children, Wafaa remained in Kurdistan and underwent treatment for cancer.
“It was a terrible time. We suffered a lot and I was having with chemotherapy which made me ill,” Wafaa said.
“Life was very hard. We could not work in Kurdistan and we had no opportunity to live normally,” she said.
Because of the precarious nature of their lives, Wafaa’s two sons David and Saher both married their fiancees and both had daughters.
Then, in 2016, as things became worse in Iraq and ISIS claimed more and more territory, the family decided to leave for Lebanon. But before they left, Salim died from a heart attack.
“It was a terrible time for us. Things seemed to be getting worse,” Wafaa said.
Eventually the seven family members sought refuge in Lebanon.
“We stayed four months in Lebanon but we could not access the International organisation for Migration (IOM) or the UN to apply for visas so we moved to Jordan,” Wafaa said.
The family applied again to join Anne in the UAS but received little encouragement from the US immigration authorities.
“We applied to go to Australia but at the same time my daughter in law Sarah, who was just 20, developed cancer,” Wafaa said.
“She needed treatment which was very expensive in Lebanon – about $US2,500 per session – so we sold out house to pay for it. We also had to pay for rent, food and living expenses,” she said.
“We explained our situation to the Australian embassy in Jordan. They were very helpful and were keen to help us.
“They gave us a case number and that was the start of our journey to Australia. We arrived here in June 2018,” Wafaa said.
“We were welcomed at the airport by AMES Australia and our Australian lives began,”
Shortly after the family’s arrival Wafaa fell ill with cancer again. She had been encouraged by her AMES case manager Balsam Hanna to have a routine mammogram as part of her post-arrival health checks.
“Balsam asked me to go and do a mammogram and it found I had breast cancer. If she had not asked me to go, I would not have known,” Wafaa said.
She had a cancerous cyst removed and underwent radiotherapy.
A plan to return to Iraq to see her elder sister had to be put on hold because of the operation.
“The operation went very well. I had a very bad experience when I got cancer in Iraq. But here in Australia it was very different, I had no pain.
“Because of my experience in Iraq, when I first learned I had cancer I was very scared. But Balsam reassured me that Australia’s health system is very good.
“In the end it was a small operation and I had radiotherapy but no chemo,” she said.
Wafaa is now healthy and her family is doing well.
“When we first came to Australia my two boys said they wanted to work and not rely on the government,” she said.
“My youngest son Saher started work as a plasterer then he worked as a forklift driver in a recycling plant. Now he has started his own cleaning business.
“The elder son David first worked as a barber. Now his is a mechanic working for a company that repairs trains.
“Initially we all lived in the same house in Craigieburn but now as the two families have grown, we are spread across two homes. David and Holya have two kids and live two minutes away.
“I live with my younger son Saher and his wife Sarah,” she said.
Wafaa said life now is good for her and her family but she worried about refugee families still languishing in Lebanon and other countries in the region.
“My daughter-in-law’s family are still in Lebanon and life is difficult for them,” she said.
“They have to queue for hours to buy bread and there is no milk for the children. I really hope something can be done to help people like them.”
Wafaa’s story is being used to promote breast cancer screening among diverse communities.
She shared her experiences with migrant women’s group Harmony Alliance as part of their Healthy Horizons series about reaching migrant and refugee women with relevant and accessible healthcare information.
“I encourage every woman from 50 years up to make time for a mammogram, check her body, and check her breasts because this is important for women. It’s so easy,” Wafaa told Harmony Alliance.
“The same thing happened to a friend. She had a mammogram, and they found something in her breast. And I told her she should get it looked after, and I would go with her. I took her to get another mammogram, and she is fine and happy now,” she said.
“Yes, I encourage women, especially those from a migrant background, them to check all of their body, not only for breast cancer. I really want to help them and encourage them. After the experience, I feel very positive, and I like to get out and visit different places and look after myself,” Wafaa said.