Moving people story
I fled Iraq as an artist in 1998.
Because I am from Kurdistan in northern Iraq. I lived through two intense wars there. Iraq and Iran were engaged in a fierce war for eight years, from 1980 to 1988. Then the Gulf War against Kuwait started. We lived under an embargo for 14 years. My family and I lived in Kirkuk, an oil-rich city. Many of the city’s residents were Kurdish. Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, the city was ‘arabised’.
I was 7 years old. After that happened, I felt like I was in constant danger
As Kurds, life was really tough for us. We were repressed and treated as second-class citizens. Many people were poor and died of hunger due to the embargo and the repression. Children could often not go to school because it was so unsafe. Families were sat at home without money for entire days, and lost their breadwinners in the war.
People were also forced to fight in Saddam’s army. My father, too, became a military officer – and not by choice. He used to be critical of the regime. But as he got tortured for his critique, he ultimately decided to enter military service after all. One night, his unit was attacked. He has been missing ever since. I was 7 years old. After that happened, I felt like I was in constant danger. This is also when I became paralysed in both feet. Suddenly, my mother was on her own with four children, and without much money. The whole family was depressed. I still struggle a lot with my father’s disappearance. After 36 years, I am still looking for him. My family doesn’t understand that. But I simply must find out what happened.
They know no love; they have lost any sense of humanity
The children that were able to go to school often received compulsory military training. The army would show up and lock the doors. We were made to practise with their weapons. When I was older, I was also obliged to enter military service. I did it for three months, every day after school. There were even special military camps where children would learn to fight. My brother was almost taken there too, but we were able to prevent that.
However, many parents allowed it, because at least in those camps, their children had enough to eat and drink. This is how many children – not only Kurdish children – grew up as fighters. A lot of these men are now fighting for IS. IS consists in large part of former fighters of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party and Al Qaida. All they ever learned was to fight. For them, it’s not hard to kill people. They know no love; they have lost any sense of humanity.
I left when I was 20 years old. I could not live in Iraq any longer. I used to draw a lot ever since I was young, but it was almost impossible to find sketchbooks or coloured pencils – let alone study at an art academy. All the money we had at home was for food, for survival. You have dreams, you keep hoping. But you also know that they will never be a reality. On top of that, you don’t have any rights there as a woman. Everything is decided and controlled for you, you can’t vote, you can’t organise anything. You need a man’s permission for everything.
You have dreams, you keep hoping. But you also know that they will never be a reality
I ultimately fled with the help of my husband, who had been in Belgium since 1986. We weren’t married yet at the time. I knew him as my father’s cousin. He regularly visited us from Belgium, but I had never been together with him. When he proposed, I said, “Yes, I’ll come with you”. But I did tell him that I was scared of going to Europe. He said: “But here, you don’t have to join the army, and you don’t have to be scared. You’re safe here.”
In Belgium I have built a good life. I do feel safe here, I can’t complain. I realise how much freedom I have here as a woman. Luckily, I am still able to work as an artist, and to take courses and classes at the academy. I also like to meditate.
My family does tell me I’ve changed. But what I can I say, I’ve been here for over 18 years now. I am a free woman here. I don’t have to wonder whether I can safely go outside each day, and what clothes I can or cannot wear when I do.
And now the attacks by Al Qaida and IS show that things have not gotten much better in Iraq since the fall of Saddam’s regime. I have lost a lot of family because of it. My mother and youngest brother still live in Iraq, but moved to the city Erbil, in the north. But now IS is knocking on that door, too. The city is flooded with refugees and terrorists. I am terrified to lose more family in attacks there.
You’re from Iraq, you’re terrorists
I have only seen my mother and brother twice since 1998. I would love to visit them with my two sons. But my sons don’t want to go there, because they only see awful things about Iraq on TV. It scares them. The worst is that they are now often told at school, “You’re from Iraq, you’re terrorists.”
I dream of a peaceful Iraq. Every Iraqi is broken after all these years of war. In 36 years, I have not seen peace in my home country. Entire generations have gone lost. The younger generations now, too. This is why people keep fleeing. They don’t do that because they want to leave paradise! All they want is to live comfortably, and to be allowed to form and share their own opinions, instead of being abused and killed for them.
 Kurds and their families were evicted from their homes without warning. They had to rebuild their lives from scratch in the south of Iraq, without any resources, or were deported to isolated camps. Conversely, countless Shi’a were deported from the south to the north, and at times given the houses of evicted Kurds. But more often, Kurdish possessions were simply given to supporters of Saddam, with the aim of creating an Arab enclave in Kurdish territory [editor’s note].
As part of the Belgium street art route ‘Sorry, Not Sorry’, our Moving People were placed in different locations in Ghent. On April 26 (2016), thousands of miniature refugees (Tourad, Kassem, Avin, Kassala and Claudine) were scattered in the streets and in public places in Ghent. On May 7 & 8, during the festival, again 500 miniatures were placed.