Iraq to Australia: In Search of a Safe Place
My name is Nibras Rahbe. I am originally Assyrian, born in Iraq.
I remember as a young girl walking to school, and reading the big black signs hanging on the walls of the houses. They displayed, in bold white letters, the names of the Iraq-Iran war martyrs. Some houses had more than one sign, meaning they had lost more than one household member. Sometimes it was three or four. When I started to understand the weight of this loss, my body dropped and went heavy.
We used to look at the houses and count. There were so many names. When I started going to high school, the signs became something normal. When we saw houses with new signs, we thought, “Okay, they had someone who died as well.” It became routine, and the heaviness in my body eventually felt normal.
My father was a soldier, serving in the Iraqi military from 1984 to 1988. He started on the front line. We would see him only once every six to eight months, and I would cry myself to sleep all the time. We lived in fear that someone would knock on our front door with the news that we had lost him, and we’d have to put his name up on our house.
My mother worked hard to put food on the table while raising seven children on her own because my father wasn’t around. For work, she would go to the factory to get bags of fabric to sew together into clothes, and take them back to the factory for money. She struggled so much raising us on her own – to the point of exhaustion – but she always kept going. She made sure that her children were fed before she ate, and would stay up all night if one of us was sick.
Death became a part of our lives during the Iraq-Iran war. We would see the news, and the names of those who died. Fear became our lives, and it was out of our control. I never thought we would be separated from our close friends and relatives, though. I dreamed of a future where we could be whatever we wanted. I bet my friends that one day I would become a journalist – that one day we would all live our dreams and reach our goals.
Those dreams were demolished the day my parents decided to flee the country.
In 1988, after the war stopped, the conflicts came to an end. A year later we thought we would be living in peace forever. People started to travel overseas and the embassies were open.
But this era did not last. In 1990, the embassy doors began closing again. My father was not willing to wait and see what would happen to his family, All of us children were still very young, and he knew that if Iraq went to war again, things would be worse than the first time.
The Turkish embassy was one of the few that remained open. We scrambled to get an appointment before it closed, and got one of the last visas to Turkey. I was 13 years old at the time.
We were a family of nine. The oldest child was 16, the youngest was still in nappies. I didn’t have any initial reaction to leaving since I thought we were coming back, but on the day we left, I was devastated. I wrapped my arms around my close friends and my neighbours, not wanting to let go. Tears ran down my cheeks as I felt a part of me slipping away. It didn’t feel real. It was as though my brain and my heart were no longer connected.
A few weeks after we left, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait started. It was August of 1990. Things turned bad. There were those who were against humanity, against the government, who wanted to take advantage of the conflict and gain control. Women were kidnapped, raped and killed. Even when a ransom was paid, kidnappers would torture their victims and throw their bodies in front of their family homes.
If we didn’t leave, I would have lost half my siblings, be killed or kidnapped. Becoming a refugee was not a choice. Or, if it was, it was a choice between living and dying.
We became illegal residents in Turkey once our visitors’ visa expired. Our situation became untenable. If we were deported back to Iraq, we would face threats, kidnapping, discrimination and possible death. But we also couldn’t risk staying in Turkey. We didn’t know where we would end up, or what was next. We only knew that we lived every day hoping for a better life.
Then, at the beginning of 1991, my father decided going to Greece was the only option left for us. We had to put our life on the line, and risk it all for a better future.
My dad met a smuggler who would take us. The trip would take seven hours, by foot. We had no idea what the trip would be like, only that they’d get us to the border. We started on a bus, and began walking at 10 PM to hide from the authorities.
We lost our shoes in the cold and rain, and continued barefoot through the farms, all wet and muddy. My father was carrying my younger sister. Through tears, she asked my father, “Dad, can we please go back home”? I will remember this as one of our hardest moments.
After hours of walking, we reached the Evros river between Turkey and Greece. All I knew was that it was a deep and long river at the border that separated the two countries. We were exhausted, hungry and cold.
We had only a small inflatable boat with which to cross. The boat could take just one adult and one child at a time. It was very scary, and my siblings were small. We had heard news of families dying while trying to cross this river.
It took 15 crossings to ferry us all across the river. At one point, when half of us were on the Greek border and half on the Turkish border, the authorities came. Everyone had to be quiet, even the youngest children. We had our eyes closed and our heads down. If any of us were caught, the authorities would send us straight back to Iraq.
When we all finally crossed into Greece, we no longer had to hide. My father spoke English, and that was the only way to communicate. It was very hard at the beginning, but we felt more secure at the time we registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office.
There were more Assyrians in Greece than in Turkey, and Greek people were more welcoming with open arms. On our first day, an Assyrian guy helped us rent a granny flat in the area. The second day, we opened the door and saw bags of food outside. My dad found a job working in a shop as a carpenter, and there were other Assyrians who had lived there for quite a long time, and even learned the language. People in Greece were supportive and helpful, and showed humanity towards us. There was a rapport.
While Greece was safer than Turkey, we still didn’t have any rights. If you don’t have rights, you can’t build roots — like buying a house, having a career, or going to university. I felt empty because there was nothing to look forward to. There were no goals to work towards, no purpose. We knew it was temporary and we would again have to leave.
Finally, at the beginning of 1992, Australia approved our application for humanitarian protection, creating a path to becoming permanent residents, and to have rights as residents and eventually citizens. We were interviewed at the Australian embassy, and then, on April 7, 1992, we went to Australia.
We were overwhelmed. There were no words to express our feelings and our thoughts were unbound. Australia gave us a new beginning and a bright future. In Australia we had hope, careers, work and opportunity. We finally had rights.
We are not given a choice to become refugees. We had to because of the circumstances. There are countless people who have been forcibly displaced from their countries and homes, and given up a lot due to war, conflict and poverty. But refugees are human representations of what it means to overcome odds. We are a people who have resilience because of the difficulties we have been through and the conflicts we have seen. The refugee journey is a journey that I’m proud of, and I want to share it because I want the world to know what we’ve achieved.
My name is Nibras Rabhe. I am Australian-Assyrian, and I am proud of my journey.
Nibras Rahbe is an Assyrian born in Iraq. A single mother of three kids, she first arrived in Australia in 1992 and speaks Assyrian, Chaldean and Arabic. She was able to fulfil her goal of studying for a Graduate Certificate in Migration Law and Practice, and is grateful to God for what she has accomplished. She believes it’s never too late to achieve your dreams with true dedication, focus and hard work.