Aws: The Activist



My name is Aws. I’m from Baghdad, Iraq.

Leaving my home is an experience I will never forget. The day I left I was full of mixed emotions. But, the most important thing to me that day was to complete transferring all of the music files that I had. I wanted to take my music with me.

I had to leave everything else I knew. The only way I knew how to live was in the city where I was born. My cousins came over the day we left to tell jokes and lift my spirits, but I couldn’t react, or laugh, or even be nice to them. I was going to the other side, and I didn’t know what that other side carried. I was rude to them and I regretted that afterwards. I hope they understood why I did that.

I’m not sure if we kept a key, but we locked the door. We never really realized the power of that decision until we landed in Turkey and realized that we’re not going to be able to go back home for a long time.

My family and I are committed secularists, having denounced our Muslim faith. My father was raised in the Shia tradition and my mother in the Sunni. Both sides thought we were with the other. In Iraq it is dangerous to go to a Sunni neighborhood if you’re Shia and visa versa.

Starting in 2006, when there was an escalation of sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni militants, my family and I were attacked and threatened by members of extremists groups because we did not attend prayer in the mosque of our Sunni neighborhood. We were seen as outsiders and that made people suspicious and afraid.

I was stopped in our street by a stranger driving a car. He started questioning me and told me I didn't belong in the neighborhood. He tried to get me into his car - most likely a kidnapping attempt. After that, I was scared to leave the house. I had friends from school who were kidnapped because they were from Shia families.

Soon after, our neighbor, the only other Shia man who lived on our street was kidnapped and found dead in the garbage heap the next day. My sister witnessed the kidnapping. We believe this act was committed by extremists who are Al Qaeda loyalists.

We woke up one morning to find our dog shot to death. After that, we moved to a diverse neighborhood, but things only got worse.

My mother was accused of kidnapping children and imprisoning them in our family home.

She is a secular Sunni Muslim, who doesn’t wear the Muslim headscarf, (Hijab) and comes from a Palestinian Jordanian family. She has fair skin, uncovered brown hair and speaks with a strong Palestinian accent. She spent fifty days in jail before she was released.

I was also personally targeted by religiously motivated violence because of my lack of religious beliefs and for social behaviors and political views that people thought were outside of Islam. My family rejected our Muslim faith, I listened to a lot of Western music (mostly metal), socialized in mixed-gender groups, and occasionally drank alcohol. I was once attacked by strangers throwing rocks. In school, I was called “Kaffir” — meaning “infidel” — which in the Islamic faith means someone who deserves to be killed. I stopped going to school and didn’t leave our home. My friends stopped hanging out with me and talking to me because they no longer felt comfortable being seen with me.

Because my family and I are registered as refugees, we are unable to work legally in Turkey. We are expected to live, eat and pay for rent and bills without work. The Turkish government provides no support. Of course, this is impossible.

I have done some "under the table" work for very low wages and in very unstable and unsafe circumstances whilst trying to contribute to supporting our family. Once I was stopped by people who claimed to be the police. They asked to see my work permit and ID. When they learned of my refugee status, they hit me, pushed me, and forced me to leave my clients alone in the street. My former employer also hasn't paid me for more than 6 months. We feel we are powerless to argue the case due to our lack of rights and status as refugees in Turkey.

We do not feel safe in Turkey because it is a Muslim country and a large portion of the population is very conservative. As a foreigner and refugee family in Turkey, we have been assaulted in our home in Eskisehir. In March of 2014, two men came to our apartment and pretended to be the police. They told us they had to search our apartment. Because of our refugee status we couldn't argue with them or stop them. They kept my mom, cousin and me in the kitchen. Then they went into the room where my sister was sleeping, and where we kept all our money and they stole it. We found out from other Iraqi families that this group of criminals were targeting refugee families in the area and taking advantage of our weak situation.

I volunteer with international organizations serving refugees. Not only do I meet people who have been through difficulties worse than I, which gives me a sense of humility, but I also have the opportunity to touch the lives of others. One of my greatest pleasures while living in Turkey was the day that I delivered the news to an eighteen-year-old girl that she would be able to attend university.

After volunteering, I was hired first by Humanwire and then by Safe Place International where I worked as a shelter manager serving homeless LGBT+ refugees. I care deeply about the rights of LGBT people, especially those who are refugees like I am. However, Turkey is a dangerous environment for LGBT activists. The previous manager of the shelter was attacked in the street and many of our residents have been threatened and suffered from violence.

My purpose and passion in life, given the opportunity, is to help others in the same situation as my family and I. Already in Turkey I have taken it upon myself to aid others facing similar plights, working with the Turkish Red Crescent and NGOs assisting the Syrian population in Istanbul (Small Projects Istanbul, HumanWire). However, my potential to help others will never flourish here in Turkey. In order to advance the human rights of others, I need to have complete human rights myself.


I dream of living in Canada.

Canada is a leader in the international arena of human rights. It is the perfect place for me to reach my full potential. For me, a huge part of unlocking that potential is education.

My plan is to attain an undergraduate degree in political science/international studies before pursuing a masters in human rights.

After graduation, my intention is to work with Canadian and international organizations in order to champion human rights around the world. Specifically, my own home country of Iraq. Iraq will need brave advocates and activists to put the pieces of our society back together. I would love to use the skills that I gain in Canada to help marginalized populations such as women and religious minorities to organize and realize their fundamental rights.

One day, a few years ago my friend was telling me about his life in Toronto. He told me that people in Canada accept and celebrate people from different ethnicities, backgrounds and religions. This is what I’ve been missing my whole life. A society that would accept me even though I am different.


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