'The older you get, the more homesick you feel': The sorrow of Iraqis unable to return home again

Rising tensions have forced some of the UK's Iraqi community to postpone their travel plans

Suhaila Derwish and her husband Hafidh Aldroubi in Baghdad. Courtesty of Suhaila Derwish
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Suhaila Derwish was hoping to return to her home country of Iraq this month but rising tensions after the killing of Iran's top general have forced her to put travel plans on hold.

"In such a situation, it is not safe to go back home, unless there is something very urgent that needs you to be there," she told The National.

The British Foreign Office has advised against all travel to Iraq following the assassination Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad.

Iran's military retaliation combined with anti-government protests and the re-emergence of ISIS in the country have left the security situation increasingly fraught.

Mrs Derwish, 83, is one of around 450,000 Iraqis living in the UK. She left Iraq after the death of her husband, the famous painter Hafidh Aldroubi, and settled in London in the 1990s with her sons and their families. However, she still misses her old life in Baghdad.

Suhaila Derwish misses her homeland. Courtesy of Suhaila Derwish
Suhaila Derwish misses her homeland. Courtesy of Suhaila Derwish

“Before the Iran-Iraq war, we were living happily in the city. We didn’t feel any sectarian differences. We didn’t ask people what their religion was. My childhood was in a district of Baghdad where most people were Jewish and Christian,” she said.

“The older you get, the more homesick you feel for your people and your country.”

The last time she visited was in 2013, spending time with relatives in both Baghdad and Erbil.

“It was really quiet, peaceful and you could move around the city without any fear and then I went to Erbil for a week with my relatives and friends. I had the nicest time in Baghdad in 2013 and I still live with that dream,” she said.

“I am waiting for the situation to calm down because even my relatives there, they don’t advise me to come.”

Since October last year, more than 600 people have died during protests with the worst violence being seen in Baghdad and the southern cities.

Anti-government protesters set fire and close streets during ongoing protests in Baghdad, Iraq, in central Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. Mass protests erupted in Baghdad and across southern Iraq last month, calling for the overhaul of the political system established after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.  (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
More than 600 people have died in anti-government protests which began last year. AP 

PhD student Haider Al Khateeb has been travelling back and forth to Iraq for research despite the protests. He fled the country with his family in 1980 as a one-year-old, moving first to Syria and then to the UK. He said he has always felt Iraqi.

"There was always that continuous link," he told The National. "We had to flee Iraq as my father opposed the regime but we were always following the politics; we became accustomed to it in that sense."

He returned for the first time as a 25-year-old, staying with family members in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City in 2005.

“My first night in Iraq, there was no infrastructure and no electricity because it was a war zone. It was summertime so we were sleeping on a roof terrace where it was cooler. I was rudely awoken by gun shots and when I looked out, I could see someone was trying to down an apache and then the apache started firing back,” he explained.

“It got worse, during my stay I saw a drive-by shooting, car bombs — that was my welcome.”

Haider Alkhateeb moved away from Iraq aged one. Courtesy Haider Alkhateeb
Haider Alkhateeb moved away from Iraq aged one. Courtesy Haider Alkhateeb

Undeterred, Mr Al Khateeb would later come back to Iraq to work for two years as a cultural adviser for the multinational forces stationed in Diyala. He regularly travels back to Iraq and will not be heeding the Foreign Office’s warning.

“I don’t go with the advice,” he said. “My first post was back in 2008 and I was working for the multinational forces. Security at that time was fairly troubled, worse than now. There wasn’t an issue then so I don’t see why there would be an issue now.”

Since returning to London, Mr Al Khateeb is working on his thesis which examines radicalisation and violent extremism in Iraq. He regularly travels back to collect data but is unlikely to be making the move permanent. Although he wants his seven-year-old son and three-year-old daughter to feel Iraqi.

“For me, the main issues are safety, health and education. I’d need good access to all of those to move back there. We’re all concerned about the situation at the moment,” he said.

“But for my children, I’m keen to make sure that they go there. I want them to understand the culture and the language.”

The first time that Shawkat decided to return to his native Iraq, his teenage son hid his passport fearing for his dad's safety in a war zone.

"Dad had to come to my school and ask me where his passport was," Sam told The National. "It was after the US-led invasion in 2004. As the years went on, I got more comfortable with the idea of him going back."

(FILES) In this file photo taken on April 9, 2003, a statue of Saddam Hussein falls as it is pulled down by a US armoured vehicle in Baghdad's al-Fardous square.
On April 9, 2003, the US-led coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein. Fifteen years after the invasion, life in Iraq has been transformed as sectarian clashes and jihadist attacks have divided families and killed tens of thousands of people, leaving behind wounds that have yet to heal and a lagging economy. / AFP PHOTO / RAMZI HAIDAR
Shawkat had a lot of hope for his country after Saddam Hussein was deposed. AFP

The 69-year-old father of three, who The National is not identifying due to security reasons, was planning to travel to Iraq last month. But the renewed tensions have left the family feeling worried again for his safety.

He first left the southern city of Amara in 1976 to study for a master’s degree in what was then the Soviet Union. It would be 28 years until he could return to his home country.

After Shawkat left, Saddam Hussein had consolidated his grip on power and three decades of persecution began. His family felt the full force of Saddam’s brutal reign. His brother, sister and brother-in-law were killed on Saddam’s orders. Shawkat’s father was forced to move to the Iran border and the tea exporting business he owned in Basra was seized by the government.

Having completed a PhD in the Soviet Union, Shawkat found himself exiled from his homeland.

“When I went to the Soviet Union, I had an Iraqi passport. Then when the regime changed and Saddam came to power, I couldn’t get another passport. I couldn’t even go to the embassy because they would not accept us. We were traitors,” he said. “I had to change the date on my expired passport. There was no other way.”

Unable to go back home, Shawkat moved to Algeria then to Libya with his wife and sons to work as a maths lecturer before eventually claiming asylum in the UK in the late 1990s.

An Iraqi girl stands by as British soldiers patrol a street in the southern city of Basra 05 August 2003.  Most of Iraq has been plagued by a collapse of basic services including security following the war to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.  AFP PHOTO/Ahmad AL-RUBAYE (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)
Basra in 2003. AFP

Shawkat had a lot of hope for his country when he went back in 2004. “We hoped we could go back permanently. In the 1970s, it was a beautiful country. I thought I could teach in a university and we could make a new life there.

“Of course, when I went back it was totally different.”

While the whole family never ended up moving to Iraq, Shawkat taught maths in schools in Amara from 2011 until 2018, returning to the UK during school holidays. Although he has now retired in London, he still goes back for short periods to visit family members. Two years ago, he brought Sam with him — the only one of his children to see his country.

“I want Sam to come with me again to get an Iraqi passport,” he said. “It is our land. I want a link between my family in the UK and the family in Iraq. I’m ready to go again even though the situation is worse.”

But for the time being, Shawkat will observe the wishes of his UK-based family — much to Sam’s relief. He won't be hiding his dad's passport again.