Refugee’s long journey from fear and despair
A fifteen-year roller coaster ride of soaring hope and crushing despair has characterised the life of Iraqi refugee Ammar Al-Taie.
The 32-year-old dentist survived the invasion of his homeland by US-led coalition forces, a subsequent civil war and deadly sectarian violence as he struggled to complete his education.
But when he and his family were targeted directly by Shia militants they were force to flee leaving behind their jobs, their home and friends and family.
After four years eking out a precarious living in Jordan, exhausting his meagre savings and working illegally, Ammar and his parents were finally accepted by Australia as refugees.
They arrived in December last year.
“Life in Baghdad growing up was good. We were a medium sized family for Iraq with four boys. We lived on the outskirts of the city – in a semi-rural area. Mum was the principal of a middle school and dad worked for the Ministry of Trade,” Ammar said.
“We were an educated family. My parents pushed us to learn and to go to college. My brothers turned out to be doctors and engineers and I’m a dentist,” he said.
But the Al-Taie’s lives took a turn for the worse after the first Gulf War in 1991.
“After the war the sanctions hit us. Basic things were hard to get, salaries were low and my parents struggled to make ends meet,” Ammar said.
“But we still had the drive to get educated, to get good grades and to learn,” he said.
In 2003 Iraq was again wracked by war when US-led coalition forces invaded the country looking for non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
“I had never witnessed a war before. Before the war the regime filled our minds with the idea that we had everything. But as a teenager I travelled to Malaysia and I saw computers and the internet. We didn’t have the internet or mobile phones in Iraq,” Ammar said.
“But after Saddam Hussein was deposed we hoped for a better future, for a quality education.
“Under Saddam’s regime you needed connections to get ahead. After he went, we had hopes for a better future for ourselves as students and for Iraq,” he said.
As the fighting approached Baghdad, Ammar and his family fled to a nearby rural province.
“On April 9, the day the coalition entered Baghdad, we returned home. We were full of hope for the future, even though there was no electricity and the city was in bad shape,” he said.
Ammar did well in his studies and completed high school in 2005. He gained entry to the prestigious University of Baghdad Dental College.
“I was thrilled that I was accepted and was about to embark on my dream of becoming a dentist,” he said.
“But in 2006, the deterioration began and all my hopes were shut down. I was 20 when the civil war started and it impacted badly on my college career.
Ammar says that each morning on his way to study, he and his classmates would see hundreds of bodies being delivered by police to the nearby morgue – victims of the rising sectarian violence in the city.
“We saw some terrible things. Some days there were hundreds of dead bodies and there would be women – mothers and sisters – crying over their relatives.
“These were random people just killed by gangs roaming the streets at night,” Ammar said.
He said that he and his follow students were threatened by Al Qaeda and told not to attend classes and once he was targeted by a sniper.
“At the time we were only attending college three days a week and one day a sniper shot at me,” Ammar said.
“I was lucky because he was not intending to kill me but just to warn us not to come to college. After that, none of us attended for a few weeks,” he said.
Ammar said that although it was nearly impossible to study, slowly things improved.
“There were fewer and fewer bodies as things stabilised a little. But in 2008 a bomb was planted at my university targeting the son of a government minister. He was killed and in another incident the dean of our college was killed,” Ammar said.
Despite the violence and instability, Ammar managed to graduate in 2010. But as a Sunni Muslim and an educated professional, he became the target of Shia militia gangs.
“I started working in a government centre as an intern. After a year I had to work at a centre in a semi-rural suburb on the outskirts of Baghdad and this was dangerous. There were lots of military checkpoints and militia attacks and car bombs,” Ammar said.
In one incident he and some other health centre workers were collecting the payroll from a bank when they were held up by gunmen.
“We were threatened by the gunmen who shot bullets in the air and riddled our car with gunfire,” Ammar said.
“They took the money but thankfully left us alive. We were really scared and we had no salary for our colleagues.
“The Ministry of Health provided us with no security and after the incident they just told us to ‘be careful in the future’. There was even a military checkpoint less than a kilometre from the attack. They must have heard the gunshots but they did nothing,” he said.
Ammar said that after the attack, he applied to do a Master’s degree to get himself out of harm’s way.
In 2013 he started a one year Orthodontics course while also working casually as a dentist.
Ammar applied to attend a dentistry conference in the US and was set to go. But after ISIS invaded Mosul in 2014, his visa was cancelled.
“Again my dreams had been crushed. And with the rise of ISIS, I lost hope again. Everyone was shocked by the fall of Mosul. We thought that maybe ISIS will come to Baghdad and kill everyone.
Ammar said his family was able to hear gunfire and killing near their home as ISIS penetrated the suburbs of Baghdad.
Around this time the Shia militias re-asserted themselves as a reaction to the rise of the largely Sunni ISIS and a group known as Asa’ib Ahl al Haq became particularly active in Ammar’s neighbourhood.
“Where I lived there were Shia gangs in the streets. My dad was a writer on religion, politics and philosophy and was giving lectures,” Ammar said.
“He was critical of extreme Islamic parties and he believed in free speech. Some of the Shia groups didn’t like this and they threatened him and they attacked him and beat him.
“My father tried to tell the police but the police had been infiltrated by the Shia militias. And there was a feeling among Shia’s that every Sunni was with ISIS,” he said.
Ammar said his family was continually threatened by the militias who he believes were trying to force them out of their home so they could seize it.
“Some of them even said that we should give them our home because our neighbourhood would become a Shia area,” Ammar said.
“We thought at the beginning that everybody was crazy because of ISIS but it became much more serious,” he said.
Ammar hopes that things would return to normal were again crushed when he received phone call from his colleagues at the medical centre where he worked.
“I got a phone call in November 2014 saying Asa’ib Ahl al Haq had come asking about me – about when I would come to work and where I lived,” he said.
“At that point we decided we can’t live in Iraq any more, we had to leave.
“We applied for visas to go to Jordan. After that we endured the most horrible ten days of our lives.
“We waited three days for the visas and tickets and we didn’t leave the house or open the door. We didn’t tell anyone we were leaving, not even friends or family,” Ammar said.
On November 10, 2014, the Al-Taie family caught a taxi to the airport and left their homeland forever.
“We felt relieved and safe when we arrived in Amman and the next morning I felt that hope return again. I thought maybe I would be able to build a life somewhere safe. But it was a mixed feeling because we had lost everything,” Ammar said.
At the start of 2015 the family applied to Australia’s immigration department for refugee visas and within ten days they were told their applications had been accepted for processing.
But it was to be almost another four years before they arrived in Melbourne.
The family rented a small house with their meagre savings and Ammar found work with a local dentist in Amman as a dental assistant.
“When we heard from the Australian embassy, I was really hopeful again. I had heard about Australia taking an extra 12,000 refugees and a friend of mine came to Australia after just ten months,” Ammar said.
“I started researching how things worked in Australia and what I would have to do to qualify as a dentist. I even downloaded the study materials,” he said.
But things dragged on and the optimism began to slip away again. Then, in 2016 the embassy called the Al-Taies in for interviews and medical examinations. Once again nothing happened.
“By 2017 I had lost hope again and I began to resign myself to trying to integrate into life in Jordan. I began to think that this was my destiny. But it was difficult because I was not allowed to work legally,” Ammar said.
He continued to work unofficially as a dental assistant and the family received support from Ammar’s older brother who had been living in Australia for several years.
“By 2018 I had given up all hope of ever getting to Australia but then the embassy asked me to fill out more forms and provide character references,” Ammar said.
“They even called us in for more medical checks but then we heard nothing for six months and we lost hope again.
“But suddenly in October 2018 the embassy called and said ‘congratulations, you have got your visas’. Two months later, on December 13, we arrived in Australia.
“When we arrived here, I felt excited, relieved and all the stress of four years of suffering and uncertainty was just gone. I felt light, free and like I could breathe properly again,” he said.
But Ammar says the years spent in limbo has taken a toll.
“The uncertainty about the future has impacted me. I’m more guarded sometimes now. I don’t want to appear vulnerable or show emotions and my expectations are lower,” he said.
“I try to avoid being a situation where people can let me down again,” he said.
But Ammar says he doesn’t regret the four years spent in Jordan.
“It has given me a toughness and an open-mindedness I would not have had,” he said.
“In Iraq things are very controlled and conservative. In Jordan, there was more openness and you have to accept everyone. Living there also gave me valuable experience in English. In Jordan, I mixed with foreigners and educated people speaking English,” Ammar said.
Ammar has started on a pathway to resuming his career as a dentist and has begun exploring the city that is his new home.
“I’m in love with Melbourne, I love the diversity, the people, the coffee, the beaches… everything,” he said.
But he says the most important thing is that the fear built up over 15 years of interminable cycles of hope and despair has gone. He says the overwhelming stress and worry that comes with the effort to merely survive has simply evaporated.
“In Iraq and Jordan I was always scared. Here I’m not scared. The government and the people of Australia are very supportive. We feel we are cared for,” Ammar said.
“Even if you don’t find your path here in Australia, you still know you will survive,” he said.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist