Zahra’s Story

Caritas International Belgium Zahra’s Story

Isabel Corthier

Isabel Corthier


“I cried out, screaming for them not to separate us.”

Zahra* is originally from Iraq. She crossed the Mediterranean with her four children to rejoin her husband, Zuher, who had left a few months earlier. This is her story.

Zahra* is originally from Iraq. She crossed the Mediterranean with her four children to rejoin her husband, Zuher, who had left a few months earlier. This is her story.

“We were threatened. My husband was a policeman in Iraq, and he received threats from Al Qaeda and Da’esh. A few months before we left, he was injured in a bomb blast. His back and his legs were covered in wounds,” says Zahra. “They eventually killed my brother,” Zuher adds. “I was told I was next on their list, and so I left, hoping to be reunited with my family later.” “But we couldn’t wait around forever,” Zahra points out. “I was afraid they would come take the children. We were threatened as well. It was safer to try crossing the sea.”

Scared of getting lost

It’s now October. It’s cold. The sea is more restless than it is in the summer. Zahra reflects on her journey. “We first set out towards Erbil to make it to Turkey. From there, a smuggler took us to the coast in a bus. The trip was 12 hours, and we couldn’t make any stops. I had brought along some empty water bottles so the boys could do their business. My daughter was thankfully still in diapers. The children slept on the floor. As we got off the bus, I saw there were a ton of people. It was chaos. I was scared of losing track of the kids. From there, we still had an hour’s walk to the sea. Other Iraqis helped me take care of the children. Once we got to the boat – a small inflatable dingy – the smugglers told me that there wasn’t enough space for my son. I cried out, screaming for them not to separate us. I was completely beside myself. My son was carrying a backpack which they grabbed and threw aside. Without the bag, he could ride in the boat. We could stay together. I remember that on the beach there were so many clothes and bags that had been left behind.”

Accommodation at reception centers

“Once we set out on the water, the children were very afraid. They threw up several times. As for me, I never stopped praying. The journey took one hour. Once in Greece, I followed the same trek as my husband through Macedonia and Serbia.” The family finally arrived in Belgium. “Here, we have stayed in several reception centers. Life has been very difficult, especially at the collective center in Brussels.” At that time, Belgium was in crisis as the collective reception centers were overflowing with migrants. “There wasn’t any sanitation at the center. Everything was dirty. I could hear men crying at night.” Finally, they received a response to their two asylum requests: they could stay.

A large, vulnerable family

The family was then directed toward Caritas Interntional’s Transition to Autonomy project. “Finally, we had our own housing. Just the six of us, as a family.” Their first days in Belgium were difficult, but the family hung in there together, and is very motivated. “We’re learning French, and our children are going to a Dutch-speaking school. Everything is different here. The schools and homework, for example. Everything is tidier, and cleaner. In Iraq it is very hot, and everything is covered in dust. Here, it’s cold, but the streets are clean and there’s grass. And the people, the Belgians, are kind. They help us.”


The names and photos of those mentioned in this article have been changed in order to protect their anonymity.

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