Iraqi family flees Islamic State for a festive reunion

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Ramzi Naeem, back, third from left, and his extended clan. Picture: Kym Smith
Captain Nicol
Peace and joy at Christmas: those greeting-card words will have true meaning this year for four generations of the Naeem family, Iraqi Assyrian Christians who will celebrate together in Canberra after fleeing first Islamic State in Baghdad and then exile in Beirut.

The nine members of the family, including Ramzi Naeem’s aged parents, his children, son-in-law and baby Alan have benefited three times over from a series of extraordinary connections with Australia and New Zealand stretching back almost a century to World War I.

Grandfather Jameel, 77, well remembers when the family could mark Christmas at their home in Iraq.

Four-year-old Alan’s only memories are of the past 2½ years spent in exile in Lebanon. It will be their first Christmas complete as a family for 20 years.

The extended family migrated to Canberra earlier this month after fleeing an Islamic State advance on their predominantly Christian neighbourhood in Baghdad in 2014 and then spending more than two years in Beirut.

This week, visiting Parliament House as part of a difficult readjustment to a new peaceful life, Ramzi said: “I can’t believe you can just walk in.”

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The family left almost everything they had behind, including their thriving jewellery business, when they fled Baghdad. They were robbed of the little they had, including some money for “bribes”, while attempting to move to safer areas.

The Naeems were heavily dependent on support from Ramzi’s sister, Wesal, who had come to Australia 19 years ago after fleeing Saddam’s regime. Wesal was already settled in Australia, living in Canberra.

While the Naeems were waiting with groups of Christian refugees in Lebanon, the family connection with Australia helped it qualify for the Australian government’s special 12,000-refugee intake for persecuted people fleeing Iraq and Syria.

Although their daily survival in Lebanon depended on the help of relatives in Australia, other expenses, including their airfares to Beirut and then later to Australia, were covered by two Christian aid associations: Australia’s Christian Faith and Freedom and the American Nazareth Association.

However, the final assistance came largely from an almost-­century old legacy: funds left in remembrance of a soldier killed while helping 60,000 Assyrian Christian refugees from the Ottoman Turks in 1918.

Some of their expenses, including their exit visas, were partly financed by a bequest to CFF from the family of New Zealander Captain Robert Kenneth Nicol MC of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

Captain Nicol was second-in-command under Australian Captain Stanley Savige MC AIF of a 10-man detachment of Dunster Force, a combined Australian and New Zealand force that assisted the British in the rescue of Assyrian refugees in 1918. Captain Nicol was killed in action, and is ­officially recognised by Assyrian Christians as a martyr.

The extended Australian family of Captain Nicol wanted the bequest to be used specifically for ongoing aid to Christians in the Middle East.

A spokesman for CFF told The Weekend Australian: “Using the bequest to rescue Assyrians — once more endangered because of their Christian faith, their ethnicity and 7000-year connection with their ancestral land in Mesopotamia of which they have now been dispossessed — seemed an appropriate way of honouring the courage of Captain Nicol, and the dedication of his Australian family to that project.”

Part of the family pull to Australia was to reunite with sister Wesal, who fled Iraq for Australia after her first husband was killed by Saddam’s regime.

The recent arrivals are now living with the help of welfare payments that were approved only a few days ago.

They are based in government-supported accommodation for at least a month, and are looking for permanent ­alternative accommodation.

However, they do intend to support themselves as soon as they can. Ramzi wants to set himself up in business, with the help of family members. He is a jeweller and so is his son. At the end of March in Sydney, at the Assyrian new year, they will have a stall selling traditional jewellery.

Of the 12,000 special refugee intake the Australian government pledged to take, 10,092 visas have now been granted and 8317 people have arrived in Australia.