"Leaving everything behind"

The story of an Iraqi woman who fled to Cyprus to start all over again

Sultana* never imagined reaching the place where she is now. After successfully completing her university degree in English studies she was one of the few women who managed to get a job as interpreter and translator for the Ministry of Trade in her country. Her personal life was not less privileged, she married an electronic engineer who bought a big house for them and their three daughters. Sultana was born in the 60’s in a small village in the south of the country: “I had a very nice childhood there, I was brought up in a privileged family in a country which was stable and rich.”

But that is now only part of her memories. Those good old days in Iraq are gone and today her fate has drastically changed. Her face now looks a bit emaciated, after a few days of living, sleeping, eating and thus surviving in the open air by the edge of a busy road in Nicosia. Sultana and her family have joined a sit-in just outside the buffer zone though she never imagined herself going to sleep in the street, “I thought that as almost everybody knows how terrible the situation in Iraq is, we would obtain immediate and full refugee protection but it was only a dream.” **

Sultana and her family arrived in the occupied north of Cyprus two months ago after fleeing the ongoing state of war in Iraq.

“The situation in Iraq today is simply unbearable, I just don’t want to see my children die in front of my eyes, what mother would bear such a thing?” she claims.

Sultana thinks her two 13-years-old twin daughters and the 2-years-old baby girl are already traumatized because of the relentless shooting taking place in Baghdad, “they have bombed my children’s school four times, but I was one of those stubborn mothers who resisted to give in and I believed in the idea of trying to live your life as normal as possible. I talked to them about being strong, but sometimes I just didn’t know what else to say or do, I just keep telling them it’s a test from God and we have to be strong and patient.”

But Sultana can not convince herself about those words and claims this violence is everywhere they go: “While in Iraq just before we decided to leave, one of my daughters got ill and needed to be taken to hospital, you have no idea how much I regret taking her there”. An explosion had occurred earlier that day and the ward was full of wounded people, some of them did not have legs or arms. Sultana remembers: “My daughter was so frightened and shocked that we had to return home straightaway. It seems that one of my twin daughters has recently developed some difficulties to speak and is now stammering.”

A point with no return

“When someone touches your family that’s it”, Sultana has been trying to restrain her crying but she can not do it anymore. “My husband’s mother was killed right in front of him…He saw her die. What kind of life is this in which you can not even sit at home without thinking that someone could suddenly break into your house and kill you and your family?”

A few years ago Sultana’s husband was kidnapped and put in captivity for three days: “kidnaps in Iraq are done every day, my husband was so ill-treated and bitten that he can’t do many things like carrying heavy stuff anymore.”

Sultana considers that being a woman in Iraq is a tragedy in itself as you can become an easy target of all forms of violence.

Reliable reports confirm that in certain parts of Iraq, women are increasingly becoming common targets of violent attacks, such as kidnapping, rape force prostitution, trafficking and murder.

Sultana does not care about having left everything behind: “We left our house, our properties, and who knows if we will be able to get them back. What we want is a life in which you can take your children out for a walk without fearing for your life.”

The protection in Cyprus

Sultana was granted subsidiary protection after filing an application for asylum, but she claims that is not enough: “As an asylum-seeker or under subsidiary protection we can’t work and the welfare allowance is so difficult to get”. As a woman she fears that one day she will not be able to feed her children: “I have already spent the money I had with me on rent and if I can’t work or get any financial help how am I going to live in Cyprus? I don’t want public allowance from the government, I want to be useful and earn the right to re-start a new life away from death and fear.”

Sultana was asked to stay in the reception centre for asylum-seekers in Kofinou but she wanted to continue staying at the apartment the family was renting. “How the five of us can live and sleep all together in one bedroom? My twin daughters are 13 years old and need their own space at home, schools and other facilities which they will not find in that isolated center.”***

“I decided to come to Cyprus because I thought we would be able to live in peace and our basic human rights would be fully protected but now we feel abandoned.” Sultana has become a sort of female leader in the sit-in and they all recognise her previous background education and status. It is now dark and while sleeping in the open air only covered by a bunch of blankets all of these 40 Iraqi men and women seem the same: people dreaming of a life of freedom and peace which they wish will soon come true.


*Sultana is not her real name.

**UNHCR sent a press release regarding the protest, dated 21/02/07

***The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in its Annual Report of 2006 mentions that the Reception Center in Cyprus is characterized by inconveniently small spaces. Moreover, the Ombudsperson in a related report (February 2007)mentions that the prolonged stay in the Center which is situated in an isolated area of Kofinou, where employment opportunities, education and social interactions are non-existent, leads to a series of problems, as the lack of a feeling of self sufficiency, lack of future prospects, gradual exclusion, violence as well as an increase in mental health illnesses.

written in 2007 by UNHCR Representation in Cyprus

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