Previously: My students inspire me to begin collecting stories about refugee resettlement. I arrange these stories according to date of arrival in Australia, stories that start in Vietnam, Romania, China, Sri Lanka and now, Iraq.
Sabah opens the door and I step into the small lounge room. His wife Lamia hugs me warmly. As usual, she is wearing a pendant in the shape of Iraq on a gold chain around her neck. Their eldest son Iba emerges from the corridor in a Che Guevara T-shirt. He is waif-like in his leanness, his wide smile radiating friendliness and good-humoured mischief.
When we sit down on the sofa, our knees almost touch the coffee table, a table laden with food –pistachios, almonds, walnuts, Ferrero Rocher chocolates, a large fruit platter, three types of cake and a six-pack of Coca-Cola.
Sabah tells me that Iba will translate for him and Lamia. This surprises me because he was in one of the higher-level English class at TAFE, but later I will understand that we’re not going to be talking about simple everyday matters and simple everyday English will not suffice.
Sabah launches into his story. Even though I cannot understand Arabic, I can hear that he is laying out one smooth sentence after another. The eloquence befits him, a playwright. He speaks on at length, with no hesitation to search for the right word or phrase. I think to myself that must have examined the events leading up to his exile so many times that he can perform it as a soliloquy.
When Sabah stops speaking, Iba interprets, ‘The circumstances in my country are very difficult. These circumstances come from the Americans invading my country because everything was destroyed after the invasion.’ The Americans said that they had come to give peace and freedom a chance, and to improve living conditions, but instead, militia groups increased. One of these groups was Al-Qaeda.
About a year after the 2003 invasion, the head of The Parliament newspaper, Muayad Sami, was killed by Al-Qaeda with the approval of the old government, the Ba’athist party. As his deputy at the newspaper office, Sabah presided over a memorial held in Muayad’s honour.
A few days later, a Ba’athist Party member warned Sabah that he was next on the hit list and advised Sabah to leave the country immediately. This man acted against his party’s wishes because of the respect he had for Sabah, a famous Iraqi writer.
Lamia pipes up: Also, their daughter Ranin was told not to go to the Chess Centre anymore.
‘Why?’ I ask.
‘One of the chess club members told Ranin not to come anymore because he cared for her,’ says Iba. ‘Extremists don’t like chess. It is against the Islamic laws.’
In those days, there were two ways the militia communicated their objections to certain people or activities. One: they wrote warnings on pieces of paper – cease this activity or you will be killed – scrunched them up and threw them into the home or office of the objectionable person. Two: they stuck blacklisted names up in public places.
‘In one week, we managed to sell whatever we had – the stuff in the house we were renting – and travelled to Jordan. There were many killings at that time, many people threatened, killed, displaced, and explosions everywhere, bombing – people blowing up places and people. We lived a life without peace and safety in Baqubah. On our way to Jordan, we witnessed a last scene of violence,’ says Sabah.