Gealass’ story:

The scene I could never erase from my memory

GMT 17:37 Wednesday ,21 January 2015

 Migrant Voice - The scene I could never erase from my memory


Gealass Al Khalifa was born in 1951 Kirkuk, the richest city in the world for oil. Kirkuk in northern Iraq was also known for the outstanding beauty of its surrounding towns and villages. The beautiful nature, the smell of the roses, the water falls, the sparkling streams with bright stones and clear water, all this nurtured Gealass’s creativity and love for beauty which she has later articulated in words.

With her four sisters and a brother, Gealass grew up in a house always full of people from all walks of life, cultures and religions as her father was a judge. This has led to her speaking many languages and having a good understanding and good relationship with people from different backgrounds. “My father encouraged me to read all types of books from an early age, especially literature, legal, health, poetry and story books.” Gealass wanted to follow her father’s footsteps and become a lawyer, but circumstances led to her becoming a teacher. She loves classical music, especially Arabic and Kurdish and used to sing at her family and friends celebrations. This was seen as a brave act at the time as it was not culturally appropriate for a woman to sing, even as an amateur as Gealass did. Gealass wrote three children plays and seven booklets about love, principals, human suffering from the political situation in the country during the Saddam regime, and the injustice faced by women due to the male dominant, patriarchal society. Gealass explained women were victims of both. “Since my early years, I have been on a mission to search for the truth and justice in every corner of my house, the streets and the world around me. I try to find solutions for life’s difficulties.

I used to write to a number of local and international radio stations. I was arrested for contacting a radio station once and was released by a miracle after interrogation. It was very rare for the authorities at that time to interrogate me as the norm was to charge and sentence a suspect without getting into a legal process with witnesses and evidence.”

Even as a child or a teenager, Gealass used to call her friends and the locals, stand on a box, and address them using the style of language they understand to inform them of what is happening in the world and evoke a discussion. She also did this during visits to her relatives. She would listen to the radio and read books and newspapers to share the knowledge and information with others in her town. The world’s biggest writers and philosophers inspired her.

At the age of 21, Gealass got married and later had three children. “My life changed since my husband was arrested in 1983 by the Iraqi authorities, like many other Kurdish or even Iraqi innocent people.” Gealass explains it was very hard. “With my three very young children, we used to go to one of the bus garages at 10 o’clock at night to board a bus packed with tens of women and children going to visit their parents and relatives in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. We would arrive at 5 in the early morning. Thousands and thousands of people would disembark the buses and plunge into the sticky muddy field to make the journey of over three kilometres to reach the prison’s entrance. The mud would stick to people’s feet and clothes. When the prison opens at 8, people launch at the gate. Some fall on the ground and some are stampeded on by the flows of back rows of people. This goes on all the way until reaching inside the prison where the strict and provocative search by the security guards make you curse the day you were born. You go into the prison hall and you see the sad faces and the torture marks on the bodies. You see the eyes which are waiting and expecting to see their loved ones and the eyes of those waiting but not expecting anyone to visit them because of fear or the high financial cost of the trip. If I could have all the pens and the books in the world, I would have filled it with the stories of those inside the prison. This is the scene that I could never erase from my mind and memory; so many people, so many stories. One of those people was a newlywed young and beautiful woman, pressing on her mother in law’s hands and pleading with her, 'Why did you marry me to your son for three days?' I learnt later on that the husband was arrested shortly after marriage and was killed by the Saddam’s party activists. Another story was of a woman and her three children finding the father after many years of his disappearing. One of the children was biting his father’s hand as he was missing him so much.”

The prisoners wore dark coloured clothing, which added to the misery of their situation. Gealass described painfully what she saw. She said that the prisoners had bruises and swollen faces; some with their eye or both eyes pulled out in prison as a torture method; some disabled from the torture and beating; some with their nose or ears cut off – this is a sign that they were soldiers who ran away from military service; some with twisted arms from hanging from the ceiling for prolonged period of time; and many other signs which make the stone bleed.

Gealass carried with her lots of food, drink and clothing, especially underwear to the prisoners who did not get any visitors. Due to the heat, the sweating and lack of hygiene facilities, the prisoners’ underwear were rotten, and they would appreciate getting some new ones. The way back home from the prison visit was no fun either. The children would sit on the sticky ground in the unbearable summer heat and the freezing winter cold, resting from the heavy weight of the food and clothing they were carrying while waiting for the buses to arrive.

Gealass’ husband was killed after few years in the prison. She was later on arrested at her school and in front of her primary school teachers and pupils. She was blind folded and handcuffed; driven to a police station where she was pushed down to the bottom of the stairs leading to the underground interrogation room as if they were dealing with a runaway criminal. Gealass’s crime was writing a children’s play based on the alphabetic letters without referring to and glorifying the name of Saddam Hussein. She came up with a different theme for each of the letters. When I asked her what theme she had for the letter, which the president’s name starts with, she said it was Sound and Echo.

Gealass still suffers till today and will suffer all her life from the disability caused by the torture she experienced as a result. But Gealass insists that there were others who were much worse off. She saw detained children who were denied food and drink and starved to death and then their bodies thrown into the rubbish bin. She also saw with her own eyes a women raped by seven policemen in front of her husband. The woman was begging her husband to admit to anything which he did not commit so they would leave her. The husband used to say that he is prepared to admit to anything they wanted him to admit, but they would not listen. Gealass heard later that the women died after they hanged her husband.

Gealass fled later to the UK, following her children who had already left for fear of prison and torture. Leaving Iraq in 2003 did not mean that her troubles were over. With the help of relatives, Gealass negotiated her escape from Iraq with a smuggler. There are no signed contracts with the smugglers. Some of them request part of the payment before helping you out of the country and the rest upon arrival, while others demanded the whole payment upfront. The smugglers’ fees started from $5000 and over. “I was placed inside a jute sack I could breathe from between fruit and vegetable boxes, with many other people on a lorry heading to Turkey. We took some biscuits and bottles of water with us. The lorry would stop in some villages and open the back door for us to answer the call of nature. The trip lasted few days. We spent stressful and anxious time in Turkey while waiting to be provided with Fake Italian passports in order for us to continue our journey into Europe.”

Gealass insisted on flying to London after hearing all about the horrific journey by sea. One of the smugglers was very open and honest and explained to her the painful truth about the conditions of the journey and the risks involved. He told her that he will take them in an old rotten boat in a journey that will last up to three days. But if the boat experiences any problems at sea due to bad weather, he will have to throw few people randomly in the see to regain the boat’s balance. Gealass has also learnt that the smugglers would put having sex with some women as a condition in return for the bribes paid to officers from the authorities chasing them, in the countries along the route they are taking, to avoid interception. The route would be from Turkey to Greece and then to the rest of Europe. The Taqseem area in Istanbul was the centre for the smugglers. The trip would take place in the dark. No questions are allowed and threats are used to make you comply with the smuggler. Many Iraqi families used to sell everything they have during the Saddam regime and travel north of the country in search of the smugglers who would then cheat them out of their money, and take them to an area in Northern Iraq called Doukan. They would then tell them that this is Greece.

“On arrival at Heathrow, I gave the immigration officer my daughter’s telephone number which I memorised. My daughter would not believe the immigration officer at first as she did not except to see me again. When she saw me, she could not believe her eyes and we hugged for a long time. I went with my daughter to her place and the next day we headed to the Home Office where I applied for asylum. When I went the next time for my interview with the Home Office, I was told that my asylum application has been refused as the Saddam regime has collapsed. I was told that the Kurdish area is safe and that I have to go back to Iraq. My financially support was cut off and I was asked to leave my daughter’s accommodation, even though it was on the fourth floor with no lift. I was already suffering so much pain due to my broken knee and injury. My daughter was fined for having me with her for three years. I started moving from home to home and sleeping on friends’ sofa for more than four years”.

This was a very difficult time for Gealass who felt desperate, depressed and demoralised due to her homelessness and lack of support. Then one day Gealass gathered her strength and decided that there is more to life as long as she is free and can still breathe. She joined the Iraqi Kurdish Association where she met lots of people and started reading and volunteering. She met a group of human rights activists, including a number of women focusing on women’s rights, and started working with them. They then set up an organisation called ‘Kurdish Woman Project.’ The new voluntary project worked closely with other women organisations and lobbied for better rights for women in the male dominant Kurdish society back home.

One of the main goals for the new organisation was to bring an end to the ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ (FGM) practice which became increasingly common within the Kurdish community, encouraged by the teaching of some of the religious clerics on a number of extremist religious TV channels. A policy proposal was presented to the Kurdish Parliament which led to the introduction and implementation of a law making the FGM practice a crime punishable by no less than three years in prison and up to a 5 million Iraqi dinar fine for the perpetrator. Gealass and her co-activists moved to work on another and more complex issue: the multiple marriages based on a religious reading. The activists faced lots of hostility and attacks from religious clerics and institutions, but this did not deter them from carrying on with their mission to give women equal rights. A policy proposal was submitted to the government of Kurdistan which introduced a law banning men from having a second wife unless in very exceptional circumstances. Some of the women activists succeeded in meeting with the president of the region of Kurdistan, Masoud Al-Barzani, and asked him to provide shelters for women fleeing domestic violence. There are now a number of shelters in Kurdistan protecting many women and providing them with the best service and support. The only reason Gealass could not travel with her colleagues was her lack of legal immigration status and passport. Gealass has since been given a leave to remain in the UK and is now a British citizen. She and her colleagues are currently working to promote equality in inheritance between men and women.

Although retired, Gealss spends seven days of the week volunteering and campaigning for a better world. Among her other activities is a project that she helped set up and run at the Kurdish Cultural Centre, to support older new citizens to learn more about and to integrate in their new home. Gealass believes that it is easier for younger people to integrate and engage with their local community, as they get a better opportunity to achieve this through schooling and employment. Older people are vulnerable and can feel very isolated, especially if they do not speak or understand the language or the local culture and way of life, which can be very different from the one they grew up into. Older migrants and refugees are not a priority, so there are not many services for them. Gealass organises seminars and trips to introduce Iraqi and Kurdish men and women over the age of 50 to the British way of life, history, and culture. She is also keen on assisting the older citizens with getting rid of some of the traditions and practices not compatible with their new community, such as arranged marriage, marriage with relatives, and FGM.

Gealass will forgive the people who abused her if they apologise and mend their ways. She sees forgiveness as an essential part of the process of bringing about change for the better. But she insists that justice needs to take its course and the people who did wrong need to face justice in order to preserve the integrity of society. Article by: Nazek Ramadan


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