Tales of sanctuary: Salim’s story

Just outside Baghdad, Salim was driving back home from work. It was a hot day of 2007. About half way through, he passed a police checkpoint and reached a straight part of the highway. Safe, he thought. He kept driving, his windows down, his mind free.

After surviving an attempt of assassination, Salim had applied for police protection from other assaults, and had continued living his old life — he did not see this coming. Yet, the militias’ car also mysteriously made it past the checkpoint. They followed him.

It was a heartbeat. They drew closer and shot him. Three bullets crashed his car’s window, then the militias speeded away. Salim was left unwounded.

I first met Salim, whose name I have changed, eight years on at a Cardiff University postgraduate social in September. In his late thirties, with bright dark hair and eyes, he sat back quietly on an armchair looking away. He sipped his beer, exchanged a few words about this and that, about law and about Cardiff, gave me a few tips to boost my career, then mostly lay back on the chair with his beer and looked away again. I couldn’t get to know much about him then.

When I met him again, in a dark café near Cardiff University, he was more eager to speak. This time around, he thought out loud, letting words flow freely from one topic to another. He spoke with a flat voice, which he accompanied with poised gestures and with the controlled demeanour you would expect from an upper class person. In fact, he told me he was from a very well-off Iraqi family of sunni descent, and used to be a law lecturer at a university back home. (“I can tell you everything there is to know about sharia law,” he said.) He is one of Cardiff’s refugees, and just started a Masters at Cardiff University.

“I needed some kind of routine,” he said. “Inactivity was very bad for me.”

He spoke with a very flat voice, and he looked very pale.

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On 18 April 2004, Iraq understood that the war had become a civil war. The Mahdi Army, a security militia founded by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the Baghdad area, led shi’te rebels to attack the US Army. The country fell into mayhem. At the time, the Mahdi Army fought alongside other shi’te militias against foreign occupation;sunni militants fought back against shi’te groups; both factions fought against the Coalition, against the Iraqi Interim Government and against foreign occupation; in the North, Kurdish Peshmerga fought all Iraqi institutions. Al-Qaeda in Iraq andDaesh (another name for Isis) started growing their base.

By the time Britain began to withdraw from the country in 2007, Salim had lost five cousins and one uncle.

In Baghdad, shi’te militias roamed freely, and once they consolidated power, they began to intimidate sunnis out of town. Salim told me they targeted mainly civilians in positions of power or influence: he, an agnostic academic born in a rich sunnifamily, became a target immediately.

He was shot twice: after the first time, he applied for police protection, but his life didn’t see significant improvements.

“That’s because they are the militias,” he is sure. “Police and the militias are the same thing. They ignored me.”

After the second time militias tried to kill him, in 2007, it was clear he had to leave.

“You could have died every day,” he told me, in an apologetic tone. “Militias did what they wanted. I had no choice.”

He chose to stay as close to his family as possible — he went to Kurdistan.

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How to live in Iraqi Kurdistan as an Arab*:

  1. Learn to plan your life on a six–month basis; authorities only issue six-month residency permits, and you’ll have to apply for renewal twice a year;
  2. Learn to live with discrimination;
  3. Do not respond to it.

Salim built a new life in Kurdistan: he found a teaching job in a law school, engagement with a woman, and most importantly safety.

Iraqi Kurdistan had enjoyed some degree of independence since the 1970s, but when US-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003, Kurds gained more and more autonomy, and by 2005 they had established a regional parliamentary democracy and successfully held elections. And as the war exacerbated, Iraqi Kurdistan grew more independent — and safe.

Yet although safe, Salim told me life in Kurdistan was far from easy. In seven years he had 13 residency permits and suffered 36 different kinds of discrimination and persecution — as a law professor, I guess he knows best. He says the public projected on him all the evil going on south of the border.

“At first, everybody looked at me as though I was Saddam Hussein myself,” he said. “There was a lot of hostility that never really faded. Later, when Kurds started having problems with al-Maliki, I suddenly became an Al-Maliki supporter in their eyes, just because I was Iraqi. And it didn’t even make sense: Al-Maliki really was an opponent of Saddam Hussein, I couldn’t possibly like both. And then came the whole Daesh issue. And suddenly they started believing I was part of it — although they battled with Al-Maliki and the Iraqi government.”

In 2014, as Daesh’s campaign in Kurdistan seemed successful, the war brought repercussions in Salim’s life again: he was expelled from Kurdistan (technically, he did not receive a new residency permit and had to leave). And while he found himself between a rock and a hard place again, his mother and brother knocked on his door, bringing bad news from Baghdad.

“Militias had attacked our district and burnt our family house down. My mother and brother managed to escape but we didn’t hear about my father for months. Thankfully, in the end he only got kidnapped.”

And Salim was on the move again, this time off to Britain.

(*written from Salim’s experience, which ended in 2014)

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Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness that can arise after one experiences traumatic events like child abuse, warfare, terrorism and sexual assault. Symptoms can appear years after a trauma — some soldiers develop it only after going home — and include compulsive, recurring flashbacks, numbing of memories, inability to concentrate and deep depression. The illness first came to public attention as “shell shock” after World War I, when soldiers came back from the front and could not to re-integrate into civil society. (Think of Mrs Dalloway’s Septimus, whose mind gradually deteriorates, and ends up killing himself.)

Salim, too, developed PTSD after reaching Britain: he fell in deep depression and had daily flashbacks of the scenes of the attacks. The pills he took — anti-depressives, I assume — calmed him down, and they probably accounted for his flat voice and lack of focus the first time we met. When he took them, he said his depression improved, but he would become very drowsy, and he would sleep more than 12 hours a day. He did not like taking pills, living with faded emotions and no goals, but every time he tried to stop depression mounted again. He said he was constantly in harsh suffering.

He blamed idleness for this, and enrolled in a Masters to tackle the problem.

“You can imagine that after doing my PhD, seven years of teaching, being close to getting a promotion, engaged and close to my wedding, everything vanished suddenly. Since I am here and I am inactive, things got much worse, and I suffer a lot.”

He thought of suicide many times; he never went on just because of his family. They don’t know about his PTSD — having a mental illness is a shame for Iraqi men, a sign of ineptitude that embarrasses those around them — and he didn’t want to make them suffer more than they should, after losing so many relatives, he said. Thus he kept it his burden, alone, in silence.

As a refugee in Cardiff, he hadn’t found anything to get involved with. He said his life was still disorganised and he couldn’t find much psychiatric help beyond his GP. Charity Diverse Cymru offers a mental health service for refugees and asylum seekers, and has helped over 50 in 2015, but Salim never got to know about the programme and never booked an appointment.

When we went out of the café, after our talk, he got quieter. He said he regretted talking to me — he wanted to help others with his condition, let them know that they were not the only ones suffering, but he said he knew he would suffer more. Talking about it would bring the pain alive.

It would cloud his mind with scenes of the attack, again: driving his car back from work, near Baghdad. A hot day. A straight part of the highway. A car closing in on him. Shots. Bullets through his windows. Then breathing. Being alive.