“Your past does not determine your future”

A young Iraqi woman’s journey to self-actualisation in the face of conflict

Imagine one day, the town that you have lived in for your whole life is invaded. That you hear the echoing screams of terror from your neighbour’s house and the streets that you used to walk on are suddenly flooded with blood. Imagine being consumed with such fear as you are faced with the deafening reality that there is no escape from this horror. In 2015, this is what happened to me and the people of my community in Ninewa town, Iraq.

I vividly remember hiding from ISIS inside our house, so scared that we would rather starve then even consider stepping outside. Everyone was traumatised from the constant shootings and violence. Women and girls were being raped in front of their families, abducted from their houses and trafficked. It was a living hell that that we couldn’t escape from and any attempts to do so, risked being captured and killed by ISIS.

I was very young at the time and had to grow up fast. My family were one of the lucky few who were able to find a moment to escape under the cover of night. We arrived at a town called Kirkuk, hungry, tired and petrified for what was awaiting us. Someone informed us that we could seek shelter at an internally displaced person’s (IDP) camp. For the first time since we fled our home we felt safe again, so we stood in the line to be registered with many other families who were fleeing from ISIS.

Even though we had finally found shelter and safety, my parents still felt helpless, as with eight children and no jobs available, it meant the food and medicinal resources we had were severely stretched. As tensions rose, my parents argued more frequently due to pressure of our desperate situation. My mother was becoming angrier with my father, until one day he walked out and left the camp. We didn’t know where he was, until he returned with a wedding proposal for me. I was only 14.

My father introduced me to my fiancé, a Turkish man, and I was showered with attention and new clothes. I didn’t know what was happening, I saw my parents’ misery, but I never understood why until they sent me away with him. I was married to a man I didn’t know, who took me to his house where we remained for a week, until he returned me back to my family.

I was so ecstatic to see my family again, but I knew my parents weren’t happy and I remember asking them when they thought my new husband would return. Days passed and I kept waiting for him, but he never came back, and no one ever mentioned him again. It made me feel so frustrated because I was confused and disturbed by this whole situation. What was happening?

I had an argument with my mother, and she shouted at me that he will never be back, because my father had sold me for a week to this married man who had children of his own. I was devastated, I have never felt more ashamed and worthless in my life. Everything I had believed in came crumbling down; the faith I had in my parents, in humanity, was all gone. I still remember the misery on my parents’ faces, the shame, as I kept on asking: how could they have done this to me? But the reality is that our fates and who we believe we truly are, were changed from the moment that ISIS invaded our lives. I have come to know that people do extreme things when they have no way out, and my parents were helpless.

I sunk into a severe depression after that, unable to cope with what had happened to me. My mother kept urging me to seek help, she told me about these ladies from Islamic Relief who were offering free psycho-social support. Initially I refused, I couldn’t talk about what I had been through. After a while, I decided to see what it was about, I was surprised to see so many activities in one place. Most women and girls from the camp visit the Women’s Space Centre (WSC), where they share stories, heal, and take part in group activities. This was the first time that I’d felt excited and hopeful for the future, I enrolled myself in a hairstyling course and continued the psychosocial support that I needed.

Islamic Relief with the support of UNFPA, helped me to become a qualified trainer. I have since worked for Save the Children as a volunteer trainer and have started searching for a similar paid job. My family is proud of me as I am able to earn a respectable livelihood and help support them.

Even though my life isn’t exactly what I had envisioned for myself years ago, I have never felt happier than when I am styling women’s and girls’ hair. The sense of achievement when I see that I have made someone feel beautiful and given them a sense of normality, is what truly keeps me going. The lives that these women are living need a bit of beauty, and I am so honoured to be able to give them at least something during these hard times. I was lost once and didn’t think I would ever feel good again, but these women and Islamic Relief have helped me regain my sense of purpose. I now have the self-determination to create my own happiness, regardless of my circumstances.

I am a living example that your past doesn’t determine your future and I hope I can be a source of motivation and inspiration for girls inside this camp and all around the world.