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About A Week: Into Exile

Peter Hinchliffe presents the sad and shocking story of an Iraqi family who have had to seek refuge in Syria.

The United Nations is appealing for $129 million to educate some 500,000 children now living as refugees in the Middle East after fleeing with their families from violence in Iraq.

Syria and Jordan desperately need money to expand schools and train teachers.

Judy Cheng-Hopkins, head of operations of the UN refugee agency, said many of the Iraqi children who have fled from their homeland have no access to school. She appealed to donor countries and organizations to come forwards with cash – “Otherwise we would be left with a whole generation of uneducated and possibly alienated youth."

More than 2 million Iraqis are now refugees, according to the United Nations.

To almost everybody not caught up in the conflict it has hard to realise the shock and misery of these refugees. Here is one story that puts a human face to the suffering of thousands.

Bassim Mohamed Tawfiq Hussein gives the following account of what happened to him and his family a few weeks ago:

“At 4am on Saturday, 9 June, 2007, American forces raided my house. The team consisted of approximately twenty soldiers, three striker tanks, police dogs and two Iraqi translators.

They called over the loudspeaker to open the door and proceeded to strike my house with sound grenades.
I was separated from my wife and two young children, Mohammed, 8, and Zaid, 6. My wrists were tied with plastic straps and the soldiers proceeded to search every room in the house, smashing the doors and terrifying my wife and children. My wife was screaming in shock and the soldiers threatened to take one of my children if she did not stop.

They also confiscated everything that was precious to us, and expensive, including jewellery belonging to my wife valued at about $3,000. Much of this is priceless as it is has been handed down through generations. The soldiers also took all the cash we had in the house, including $800, 150 Jordanian dinars, as well as about one million Iraqi dinars (approximately $800).

The US forces smashed all the clocks in the house before seizing all official documents: passports, identities, certificates, family photos, and personal items including a camera and CDs. My sister-in-law is a New Zealander and they asked questions about her and took away her pictures.

I was arrested and had a black bag put over my head. I had no idea what was going to happen to me. The soldiers put me in one of the tanks which took me to an unknown destination which I later learned was inside the Green Zone. I was transferred to another prison outside the Green Zone the same day.

After I left, the US forces ordered my wife and children to leave the house. The Americans then set fire to my personal car in the carport attached to the house - a white Volkswagen Passat model 1985 four door sedan valued at about $2,000 to $2,500.

My wife and children were left distraught in the street with a partially demolished house and had to ask the neighbours for help to extinguish the burning car. The house was unliveable and dangerous for my family so they were forced to go and stay with my sister and her family in their small house.

We had only moved into our home earlier in the year, to escape the area where I had lived my entire life. It had become dangerous due to its position on a main road where roadside bombs are commonplace. Twice, every window in the house was smashed because of the explosions.
I spent my life savings renovating the second home, a total of $60,000, and now have had to abandon both homes.

After the arrest I was interrogated, firstly inside the Green Zone for several hours and secondly, outside the Green Zone. I was taken by helicopter for at least two hours with a large number of detainees. The trip was a very frightening experience as we all had a black bag over our heads and plastic tapes tying our hands behind us. I received painful wounds on my wrists and almost choked because the bag was so tight. Hardly any light and air got through and we were packed in like animals almost on top of each other and very tightly side by side. There was heavy baggage thrown on top of us and some detainees were screaming and crying because they could not breathe properly, or move.

After arriving at the second prison I spent all of my time in a solitary cell, which was extremely cold. I was given a very thin blanket in order to feel as uncomfortable as possible and couldn’t sleep from the severe cold which was used as part of the psychological warfare during the investigation. The food given to us detainees was the minimum to keep us alive.

One thing that helped me was my fluent English. I could forego the need for a translator which helped to avoid any of the mistakes made by the Shiite translator (I am Sunni), either deliberately or unintentionally. Investigators’ treatment of me improved once they discovered I am a driver for, and long-term employee of, the United Nations.
After four days of investigation the charges of terrorism against me were dropped and I was informed I would be released. Once again, I was transferred to a prison inside the Green Zone by helicopter. This second flight was far worse than the first flight as even larger numbers of prisoners and baggage were loaded. We were packed on top of each other with the luggage above us, making the situation extremely difficult to endure.

I was released the following day: Wednesday 13 June 2007. I was left at the Almualq Bridge (Karadah suburb), where I took a taxi to my sister’s house, as I knew my family would be there. I thank God for everything.
The US forces gave me compensation of $4,000 and the amount of $20 for the taxi. They returned official documents, phones and some personal items. However, my wife’s precious gold jewellery was not returned.

It is too dangerous for me to return to the house from where I was taken and there are no longer any prospects for a decent life for me and my family in Iraq. We have since moved to Syria where we are now refugees living in a small apartment, reliant upon financial assistance from my brother and his wife working in Saudi Arabia. They have applied for visas for our family to go to Australia, where he lives, and we pray that we will once again be able to live normal lives. The children have suffered greatly and have not known a normal childhood.

My elderly mother, who was visiting Saudi Arabia at the time of my arrest, has been displaced from the only home she has known but is thankful that we are all safe and together.

I give thanks to God Almighty and am so grateful to all those who contributed to my release from both inside and outside the UN office.’’

*

Ban Ki-moon, the UN head, speaking at a conference in Geneva urged Iraq’s neighbours not to close their borders to refugees, and also urged other countries further afield to do more to help tackle the humanitarian crisis.

Officials from more than 60 countries attended the meeting which was called by the UN refugee agency.

There are an estimated 1,200,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria, 750,000 in Jordan, 200,000 in the Gulf states, 100,000 in Egypt, 54,000 in Iran, 40,000 in Lebanon and 10,000 in Turkey.

The United Nations is seeking commitments from wealthy countries, particular the United States and member countries of the European Union, to give a home to some of the most vulnerable of the Iraqi refugees.

On a BBC radio programme it was stated that more homes had been offered to Iraqi refugees in one small town in Sweden than in the whole of the United States.

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