In our new series ‘The Frontline of Motherhood’ we’ll be sharing the stories of mothers who inspire us: women who’ve done great things or faced unimaginable challenges and come out fighting; women whose stories blast the wretched phrase ‘just a mum’ right out of the water.
Ban is a single mum. She told Charlotte how she escaped war-torn Iraq with her elderly mother and two young daughters and fled to Syria. Then, as Syria too was ravaged by war, she fled again.
My first daughter, Zahara, was born in 1998, soon after I was married. We were living in Baghdad. I didn’t work at first but after a few years I found a job at a kindergarten where I could take her with me. I stopped working in 2003 when I had my second daughter, Zainab. Everything gets harder when you have two children to look after.
My husband was violent. Zahara witnessed everything. When she was six months old she saw her father beating me. She was screaming and my face was covered in blood. She’s still traumatised by the violence she’s seen; but it wasn’t just at home.
A few months before Zainab was born the Americans invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s government. Over the next six years life became increasingly difficult and dangerous for us. The kindergarten where I’d worked was linked to Saddam’s Ba’ath Party. As far as Saddam’s enemies were concerned, this meant I was his friend. Supporters of the new government used to come to our house and scream threats at us. I had two young children to protect but we were now political targets, living in a war zone. It was terrifying. We saw so much devastation around us. My elder daughter saw people killed right in front of her. We were scared to go out and even scared in our home. It got to a point where there was no electricity. I had no work, no money and I couldn’t carry on in my abusive marriage.
In 2009 I felt like I had to escape – with my two girls, who were now six and ten, and with my eighty-year-old mother. As a family we knew Syria well. In happier times we used to go there for summer holidays. So I left the girls with my mother, crossed the border into Syria alone and found a little house to rent in Jaramana – a small town some miles south of Damascus. I had to sell all our furniture and the last of my jewellery to raise the money to go. But it was worth it. A week later I drove back to Baghdad to collect my family and a few bags of clothes and we left Iraq for good.
I felt a huge sense of relief when we arrived at our new home. Syria is a beautiful country and I’ll never forget how kind our new neighbours were to us. To begin with we had nothing but one woman, who was not rich herself, gave us a sofa and a fridge. She was like a sister to me. They speak Arabic in Syria, like we do in Iraq, so we could make ourselves understood easily – even though the dialect is a bit different. The children settled in quickly and started school there and we all looked forward to a happier and more peaceful life. After two years though, everything changed again.
In the spring of 2011 the Syrian Civil War started. I was petrified whenever my children left the house. I used to stand outside the front door, heart thumping, waiting for my daughter to get back from school. One day the school was bombed – although my daughter happened to be off sick that day. After that I just couldn’t let her go back. Even as we went to sleep we’d hear desperate shouting in the streets and missiles raining in all around us. We never knew if our house would be next. The anxiety hit my elder daughter especially hard because she’d already seen so much bloodshed in Iraq. She couldn’t sleep. She used to scream: “I’m going to die”. What could I say to her? All I said was “well if you do die you probably won’t feel it”. And, like in Iraq, we weren’t just at risk because we were in a dangerous place – we were also targets because of our identities. In the chaos of violence between different factions, people made assumptions about whose side you were on just based on your ethnicity or your religious faith. I was attacked because I was Iraqi and children were threatened.
Since we came to Syria the UN had supported us as refugees. We were waiting to hear where the family would eventually be resettled. As the civil war in Syria raged I felt desperate to flee to America or the UK. I just don’t think I could ever feel safe in a Middle Eastern country again. At one point I got a call saying we could go to America – but then we were told that they wouldn’t take my mother. So we stayed. I couldn’t leave my mother alone there. In March 2013 we got a call from the UN to say that all four of us had been accepted to go to England as refugees. We couldn’t believe it! We were shouting and screaming with happiness and relief. There was a lot of waiting – medical tests and endless paperwork – but eventually, after many more months, we began our long journey across Europe.
There was a big group of us – mainly Iraqis. We went by coach to Lebanon. Then we flew to Bucharest. We slept at the airport for a few hours and then we took a bus to the Timișoara Refugee Centre in western Romania. All the way I had to keep track of our bags, my two girls (now aged ten and fourteen) and my mother, who needed a lot of help. We lived at the camp in Timișoara for 35 days. It was miserable. People were crammed in so close together that there were many arguments. We just had to stick together and wait. Eventually, in January 2014, we were brought to the UK and our long journey came to an end.
The UN had worked with the British charity Refugee Action to help get a house ready for us and to settle us in to our new life in Greater Manchester. Refugee Action was with us straight away. They sent an interpreter to help us; they took us to the Post Office to get photos and a visa; they showed us how to take buses and how to find the shopping centre; and they helped us to register with a GP. We still have a lovely case-worker who is there to help us. Everything was new to us and it made such a difference to have her support.
My youngest daughter has just started secondary school. She’s doing really well and she has a best friend there. She’s a very happy child. My elder daughter is studying English, maths and IT at a local college. She has struggled much more to adjust. She remembers so much more of what we went through. And I think the fact that she had just started to feel safe in Syria when the civil war broke out still haunts her. She often has nightmares and wakes up screaming. She still jumps if she hears a door slam or a car backfiring.
I’ve held my family together for so long but I don’t really feel exhausted. I’m just so relieved that we’re safe now. But I do feel pressure. I want to scream and scream inside and let everything out but I can’t. I used to have someone to hold me if I was crying but now I’m the one supporting everyone else and there’s no-one there for me. I’m too scared to have a serious relationship now though. I can’t trust men anymore. I’m just beginning to make friends locally. Our next-door neighbours have been very kind to us. It’s been really hard but just in the last month I’ve started to feel as if there are people here I could call on. I don’t want to go and look for Iraqi immigrants to make friends with; our life is in Britain now and I want to make British friends.
Every night I cry and talk with God and ask Him to help me. I feel quite alone and it’s difficult. But always there is God. I hope to see my daughters flourish in this new country. I would love to see them both finish university and get good jobs. And I pray that they will marry the right person – not the wrong one like I did. I just want the four of us to live in peace and safety and to have a good life. I hope that the worst is behind us now.
Refugee Action helps refugees like Ban and her family to build new lives in the UK. To learn more about their work and how you can help them, please visit their website.
Do you know a mother with an amazing personal story? If you have any suggestions, please let us know in the comments section below and we’ll be in touch.