Author relives escape from Iraq
For most people, Iraq is a faraway place on a glowing computer or television screen.
It’s a place where we send soldiers and spouses and sisters, and pray for their safe return. It’s somewhere we forget as our work, softball practice, income taxes or other things absorb our attention, until the next news report pulls us back to images of desert and tanks.
For Jwan Al Brwe, Iraq isn’t a foreign country. It’s not just a trending topic on political talk shows. It is a place she once called home.
“In my country, there’s a lot of beautiful, simple stuff in life,” said Al Brwe, who now lives in Land O’ Lakes with her sister.
She recalls simple pleasures she enjoyed while growing up in Duhok, a town in Northern Iraq.
She recalls the warm bread, right from the oven, that her father brought them before the children left for school, and the fresh milk delivered daily to their doorstep by a farmer.
She has haunting memories, too: The threats of bombing and poisonous gas. Fleeing through the mountains on a dangerous trek to Turkey to escape. Seeing people starving and dying as they awaited permission to cross the border.
When they reached the border, Al Brwe recalls being rejected and forced to return to the family’s decimated town. She also recalls being jailed in Greece, after another desperate attempt to escape.
Then, after years of hoping, planning and praying, she remembers finally arriving in the United States.
Her memories are documented in her book, “Hope to the Last Breath: Flowers Among the Thorns in the Land Between Two Rivers,” released in December by CHB Media.
Besides conveying what happened in Iraq, she wants to bring attention to what’s happening there now.
Al Brwe, now 32, and her family suffered in Northern Iraq as a result of war, but it’s not the one we’ve seen play out over the past dozen years.
Before that war and before Operation Desert Shield, Iraq and Iran were at war throughout most of the 1980s. Border conflicts were common and each side suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties.
After that war ended, the people in Northern Iraq faced more conflict — not from Iran, but from their own government. That part of the country is dominated by Kurds (an ethnic group found in several countries in the region) and was under constant oppression by the Iraqi regime led by Saddam Hussein.
The Kurds wanted self-rule. Hussein responded with genocide, by way of ground invasions, aerial assaults and chemical attacks.
When politicians in the United States criticized Hussein for “using chemical weapons against his own people,” they were referring to the region where Al Brwe and her family lived.
A particularly brutal attack occurred in the town of Halabja, a 90-minute drive from Al Brwe’s Duhok. When their town was rumored to be next, they knew it was time to leave.
Al Brwe and her family, as well as her uncle’s family, fled to the mountains. The group of 16 was among a million people clamoring to find safety.
They spent several days crossing the mountains to reach the Turkish border, where they begged for admittance. They stayed there for more than a month, suffering while awaiting an answer.
“We were melting snow to stay hydrated,” Al Brwe recalled.
They were forced to burn money to fuel the fire, and her father rooted around in the ground, seeking anything he could find they could eat.
Thousands died, many of them children and infants, and they were buried beneath piles of dirt because there were no tools to prepare a proper grave.
Al Brwe was 9. She was starving and dehydrated, and her hair began to fall out.
“When you’re young, when you live that kind of life, you’re not young anymore,” she said. “You think like an adult. That’s the sad part. They steal your childhood away.”
There are other painful chapters in her story, including being rejected by Turkey and returned in trucks to Duhok, which had been attacked. Aside from their beds, little remained of their home.
They stayed there for years, until they could save enough money for visas before trying to escape again.
As Al Brwe’s family lived through this period in Iraq, they technically weren’t part of the conflict.
Al Brwe is not a Kurd and her family is not Muslim, the dominant Kurd faith. Her family members are Chaldean Christians, affiliated with the Catholic Church.
But bombs don’t differentiate between religions, so the danger was as real for them as for anyone else.
“My faith was shaken,” Al Brwe said. “I’m like ‘God if you’re watching, how are you letting all these people die?’ You stop believing.”
She was angry at Turkey for rejecting them, angry with the Iraqi government for persecuting them and angry with the world community for ignoring them, even though it knew what was happening, she said.
“We felt abandoned,” she said.
A faith restored
Over time — through hard work, time and introspection — her faith became a source of strength again. And that renewed faith would help her through another trying time in her young life.
With temporary visas in hand, her family made it into Turkey this time.
They planned to escape by hiding on meat trucks, en route to Greece, but were caught and jailed. Al Brwe was 15.
But a change in the law during their incarceration allowed refugee families to stay. The family eventually reached the United States and was joined by her uncle’s family later.
Even that happiness was tempered by loss.
Within a year, her father, David, passed away from lung cancer.
It is no coincidence, Al Brwe believes, that her father held on until his family had settled into their new country.
“When you carry so much burden in your life, and you know that your children are safe, then you can let go,” she said.
While “Hope to the Last Breath” tells a story of horrific suffering, Al Brwe wants it to have a positive effect on its readers.
“Americans have this beautiful love that you guys give,” said Al Brwe, who became a citizen in 2005. “When you’re surrounded by kind people, it heals you. I got healed slowly. It took years.”
Besides describing incidents of the past, the book serves to remind people of the new threat facing the people of Iraq.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is terrorizing the region, she said.
“Today, everything that happened to me — it’s similar, but a different situation — is happening today, and the world is still not looking at them,” she said.
While Al Brwe is free now to pursue her passions, including art and dance, she continues to pray for her own healing, for the safety of her family in Iraq and for the world to take note of her people’s suffering.
She also gives thanks for being given the strength that has carried her through dark times.
Al Brwe hopes that her family’s fight for survival in Iraq decades ago, and their ultimate freedom, will help to encourage others who are facing struggles and challenges.
“Never stop hoping, no matter what you’re doing in life,” she said. “We can change the world by being kind. Kindness is contagious.”
Published March 25, 2015