Previously in Refuge #25 A playwright and his chess-playing daughter: After receiving a tip-off that his name was next on a hit list, Sabah and his family sold everything and made plans to leave Iraq.

The family had hired a driver and a four-wheel drive for their escape to Jordan. The car was crammed with suitcases of books and clothes, folders of Sabah’s writing, a mattress, countless chess medals and even a keychain, a souvenir from Mallorca, Spain. It was just a trinket, but it meant so much and it was small, so it was packed. Hundreds of such decisions made over two weeks meant that there was barely room to move.

After travelling almost three hundred kilometres from Baghdad, the driver pulled over at a restaurant strategically located at a junction on the highway. The right fork in the road led to Syria, the left fork to Jordan.

The family stepped out of the car, grateful for a chance to stretch their legs. Iba was twenty-five years old, Ranin twenty-three and Yamam thirteen. Only their eldest daughter, Rua, was not with them. She had moved to Australia some time ago.

A few oil tankers were parked across the road. Iraq floated on a pool of oil, the source of all her wealth and many of her troubles. A group of men in Shemagh headscarves approached the tankers. Militiamen for sure, but no one knew if they were Al-Qaeda or Al-Baathist. Since the Americans ousted Saddam Hussein two years ago, many groups had been jostling for control, using displays of violence to intimidate. If the militiamen wanted to make a point, this location was ideal. There was a clear line of sight from the restaurant crowd to the oil tankers. A mere fifty metres of separated the two.

Waving guns in the air, the militiamen directed the oil tanker drivers to park near a large hole. They forced one driver to open the valves and spill the oil into the hole but the other driver resisted. The sound of gunfire blasted away his protests. One driver was killed. The other man’s leg was shattered. The militiamen heaved the two men into the back of a pickup and drove off.

Oh my God, thought Sabah, we’re so close to Jordan now. As if reading Sabah’s thoughts, their driver said, ‘They’re just Jihadist, not terrorist. They’re not going to harm people.’ The family hurried back to the car and the driver sped down the left fork. Four hours later, they reached Amman, the capital of Jordan.

The family lodged an application for asylum with the Australian embassy and were told, ‘You will be called in for an interview.’ They didn’t know how long they would have to wait so they tried to stretch out their savings.

At that stage, Iraqis did not require a visa to enter Jordan. The tight rental market meant that the family could only afford a one-bedroom basement apartment in a busy city block.

‘Ya Allah,’ cried Lamia, throwing up her hands in despair when she saw big rats scurrying under cupboards and into walls. At night, rats scampered around their toes as they tried to sleep. The family stayed indoors all day, every day, because Jordanian police, overwhelmed by the influx of Iraqis, were arresting foreigners for the smallest offences.

When the Australian Embassy interviewed them six months later, their friends at the apartment asked them, ‘What did you tell the Australians?’ Sabah repeated his story but they laughed, ‘Such a story won’t get you into Australia. You’ll be rejected.’

‘It’s an honest story. This is what happened to us,’ said Sabah. As a writer who had always sought to expose the truth, fabricating a tale would be a denial of his life’s work. Even so, worry and fear lingered: What if their friends were right and they were rejected? What then?

Lamia was too afraid to go to the market and therefore not able to cook. So they grew fat on deep-fried falafels, which they bought from street vendors, till one day she cried out, ‘Sabah, what have you done to us?’

To be continued next Friday 6 September in Refuge #27: The Actress. This is part of the serial online release of Refuge. Subscribe for free to receive email links to new instalments every Friday.

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