“I had to flee war in Iraq and felt like an imposter ever since”
Dhuha Al-Zaidi was only five when she and her family had to leave her beloved home and seek refuge in the same country that had invaded her homeland in the first place: the UK. In this emotional essay, she conveys the sense of displacement and inadequacy that she experienced as a child who was not only forced to witness the horrors of war, but also to choose between her conflicting identities in order to fit in.
I always considered myself fairly privileged growing up, despite living in a war-torn country. But the recent Ukrainian refugee crisis has forced me to contemplate my own, displaced upbringing.
I’m an Iraqi with dual British nationality. It feels unusual to introduce myself as that, because I never truly felt like I fit in here. The word I’m looking for is imposter.
However, I’m very grateful for all the support I received when I arrived in the UK in 2006, aged five and disoriented. Still, as I continue to mature, I’m beginning to truly make sense of the anguish I felt upon leaving my nation to settle into the exact country that invaded it.
I was just a toddler when in 2003, British and American forces began their invasion in a mission to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime. After the invaders left my country, my family, and many others, were forced to flee as a matter of safety.
I can recall some of my Iraqi childhood – the good and the ugly. In trying to write this piece, I contacted my sister to ask her what she remembered about our former home.
“Was it the one that got bombed?” she replied.
We lived in a cosy flat in Karrada, big enough to accomodate my parents, my twin and my older brother. There wasn’t much to it, but it was good enough to shield from the attacks outside. My siblings and I would joke with my mum in the kitchen, feeling content in the moment. To this day, we remember it and still bring it up, as a tribute to my inner child.
The kitchen overlooked many neighbouring flats where, families like ours were trying to cope with the ongoing mayhem, making jokes and playing games whilst a car was burning just a few floors down. At one point, we came back from shopping to find the window smashed into a million pieces. We never questioned it, but we knew why. We stayed hopeful, managed to fix it, only for the roof to cave in from more bombings later.
Amidst this tragedy, I still loved my country, my true home. The most loving and hospitable citizens one could meet. Iraqis strolling up and down the streets, smiling at one another, extending several invitations to come and try their wife’s dolma, a delicious Iraqi dish of stuffed vegetables and vine leaves. They never failed to offer a helping hand, or cardamom chai.
Despite everything, my family and I were still managing to get by each day, visiting friends and family, and going to work.
My dad’s job, however, cost us our safety and what would be our departure from the close-knit life we once knew.
My dad is a journalist, something that is widely accepted in Western societies, but in Iraq, this was life-threatening.
In fact, as a BBC reporter, he was classed as a “traitor”, since the British broadcaster was associated with the enemy that destroyed our beloved homeland. That meant that his life was in danger, and he very soon found himself applying for asylum in the UK, to escape what would be a death threat.
Leaving Iraq taught me a lot, as I now enter young adulthood. It allowed me to break through cultural barriers, travel, and experience studying in different schools.
When I first came to the UK, I lived in Huddersfield, a town in West Yorkshire. We stayed there for a couple of years, long enough for me to extend my English vocabulary from “Hello”, “Goodbye” and “I love you”. I went to primary school there and was often called upon during class to attend “special” lessons, which I later realised was the teacher’s nice way of making us feel good about not speaking any English. Safe to say when we finally moved to London, I had the typical Yorkshire accent for a while until I grew out of it – this still makes a great conversation starter. I am now pursuing a Bachelor’s in Journalism. Words cannot articulate how it feels to have come this far.
As one would normally expect, the move from Huddersfield to London was shocking. We found temporary accommodation, courtesy of the BBC. My dad still swears he can recall the smell of it. We did all the tourist activities to blend in, and whilst it was fun, a part of me always longed for the sticky summer nights in Baghdad. The family would gather until late, the adults in constant laughter, us kids being told a million times to go to sleep, then pretending we did when we were eavesdropping. Here in London, I don’t have any family. No cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents. I could never relate to kids at school who had to go see their grandparents at the weekend or attend an annoying cousin’s birthday party. In fact, I always wished they knew how lucky they were to even have that annoying cousin here.
Between 2007 and 2009, over 38,000 Iraqis accounted for nearly one in five of all asylum applications in the EU. This made Iraq the largest country of origin for refugees.
If one thing strikes you about these statistics, it’s the pure desperation of Iraqi citizens to abandon everything they once knew just to stay alive. My family being amongst them feels almost surreal.
It’s no revelation that Iraq is known for its shattered country, something the media makes it hard to forget. However, I am living proof that Iraqis are not just fearful citizens whose lives were once dictated by one of the world’s most hated men, but they are honourable in their dedication to remain united against the face of conflict through demonstrations, marches, and civil disobedience.
Being in London for the majority of my life has led me back to the joys of being Arab. I was once ashamed to not be English, always pretending to be someone I wasn’t. Now, I love exhibiting my culture and educating people who are eager to listen and not just passively believe what they see in the media.
I represent the struggles that my family went through for me to get here, and I feel privileged to be given that chance. I truly hope the Ukrainian refugees get a chance to experience the freedom that we are blessed to have.