My flight from Saddam's Iraq by Nadhim Zahawi

UK cabinet minister recalls the terror of trying to escape his homeland

Nadhim Zahawi delivering his keynote speech during the Conservative Party Conference last year. Getty Images
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Britain's Education Secretary has spoken of the stress that accompanied his family's flight from Iraq after his father was threatened by Saddam Hussein's government.

Nadhim Zahawi, a successful businessman and Conservative politician, told The Spectator magazine of how he watched security officials intercept his father's departing airplane as an 11-year-old at Baghdad International Airport.

His father had been tipped off that the secret police loyal to Saddam Hussein, then the deputy leader of Iraq, had put his name on a list. The Kurd told his colleagues he was going on a trip to the north but packed his bags for the airport. By the time the police raided his house he had departed the country.

"Just before take-off, an army truck drove to the plane,’ Mr Zahawi said. "We were all terrified. We were convinced they were going to bring him down off the plane: that’s what they do. But they brought a different man down."

Although he was a school pupil when he left the country, Mr Zahawi said he still remembers the atmosphere before the rest of the family left to join the father in London. There was an ever present psychological terror.

A view of a bridge over the Tigris River in central Baghdad, circa 1978. Getty Images

"That’s how mind control is: you create fear between neighbours, fear between parents and children," he said. "Teachers would even encourage pupils to say what you talked about last night with your family – just in case the family were being negative about the Party."

Mr Zahawi also recalled how as a boy without any English he started to learn what was happening in the UK by trying to read newspapers. "I couldn’t make any sense of the Telegraph because my English wasn’t good enough," he said. "I started reading The Sun, and it actually helped me improve my reading."

Britain's Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi arrives for a cabinet meeting in Downing Street. EPA

In the week that the number of Ukrainians leaving their country exceeded two million, he said the UK would take large numbers of refugees, despite criticism of a slow and bureaucratic application system. "I think we’ve struck the right balance, because it’s right to have some checks as to who we’re settling here," he said. "I want to go further and see how much more we can do to support the Ukrainians who will be refugees in neighbouring countries.

"I think you’re going to see a couple of hundred thousand Ukrainians be settled – and welcomed – in this country," he said.

Updated: July 06, 2022, 6:57 AM