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The Journey of Jana: Escaping Abuse as an Atheist in Iraq

A woman removing her hijab represents freedom of belief

ana (an alias), a 28-year-old Iraqi ex-Muslim, grew up in the city of Nasiriyah. Like most girls in Iraq, Jana was raised as a Muslim. She was raised in a wealthy family, however she suffered various horrors as a child, sexual abuse and regular sexual assaults. As Jana grew up and became a young woman, she continued to be on the receiving end of various beatings from family members, including being stabbed by her brother. She boldly pushed forward and began to express the doubts that were kept deep inside her. She bore witness to many awful things happening to others around her in the name of Allah; she began to question the Quran. “Some things were just not reasonable,” she told us.

These gender-based inequalities associated with social and religious norms began to stir anger in Jana. Her family threatened to kill her in the name of religion. Her mother and brothers beat her repeatedly for expressing her displeasure, for her questioning of the status quo. “I started to hate it when my family was beating me for stupid reasons” she said. “When I saw there is no way out for me, I tried to kill myself many times over the years.” She sliced her wrists; she took poison; she tried to overdose on medications. She tried many ways to die but was never successful. “I was depressed and hopeless, and began to think only death could save me from all of this.”

This sense of futility led Jana to look past suicide. Somehow she felt an invisible strength inside her come to the surface. Perhaps it was the sense of pointlessness that pushed her to boldness and bravery. “One day I saw some online posts about some girls who managed to escape their families,” she explained. “I started to think I could do it, too. I saw an Iraqi girl from another city just like myself, and it gave me hope.” Jana sent a message to the girl and asked how she was able to get away. “She said if you really want to do it, you can do it, but you’ll need money.”

Jana tried to save up. Her father had passed away years before. When her mother found out about the money, she took it. So Jana started saving again but this time she asked a friend to hold onto it for her, in secret. Jana then managed to get ahold of her passport, which her mother had hidden away in the house. With the passport in hand, Jana applied for an electronic visa to an undisclosed country. “I couldn’t believe I’d actually do it,” she said. When her mother found out, she proceeded to beat Jana, who, by this time, unfortunately, was used to it. “I couldn’t help but smile;” she said. “I just didn’t care. I’ll survive,” she said to herself.

The very next morning Jana met with a travel agent and booked the flight out of Iraq. One of her friends helped her get to the airport, and when airport personnel asked Jana where she was going, she simply told them she was visiting family in an undisclosed country. They believed her. When she arrived in that nation’s capital in the wee hours of the night, she proceeded to buy another flight, out of the country and into another. “I really thought they wouldn't let me board but I got the go-ahead” she told us. “I was so happy I threw away my black abaya (a robe-like dress) at the airport. I still couldn’t take off my hijab as it’s not allowed there. And when I arrived in [the other country] I was still afraid to take off my hijab because in my passport photo I was wearing one. But as soon as I got out of the airport I took it off” she said. “You have no idea how happy I was! I felt happy and free, like I didn’t have a care in the world.”

Jana, however, was not out of the woods yet. Her friend from the United States had booked and paid for a week’s stay at a hotel. She got scared, understandably, and quickly relocated to a different hotel in a different city, where she was arrested. After two days of incarceration they finally released her.

Jana was referred to the ARAP team by Secular Rescue of CFI. We sought out our own contacts in the region and conducted a background check and third-party interviews; we obtained documents, abuse photos, and other evidence, essentially vetting all of Jana’s claims. We found every aspect of her atheist-persecution report to be true, precarious, and urgent. Our Case Manager reassured her that she is not alone, and that we could provide immediate assistance with regard to her pressing financial needs by giving her guidance and referral.

Meanwhile, Turkish immigration regularly moved Jana around to different cities, essentially resetting her asylum case to a back burner with each relocation. This tactic forced her to spend nearly all of her money, which was all borrowed. She was again on the cusp of homelessness, which reignited her despair. And this is when Secular Rescue’s emergency aid was transferred to Jana, which brought an immense sense of relief and calmness to her disposition. Not only did the aid-package help to pay for rent and bills, but also food, internet connectivity, work-authorization documentation fees, and some urgent medical attention that she required but had to set aside.

“I’m happy and relieved I don’t have to think about how to pay,” she told us. “Before, I felt awful. I even thought, I’m alone with no support… I thought about ending my life, but Secular Rescue helped me a lot, gave me hope,” she said. “It’s just a really good feeling to know I can pay and live until I find a way to Europe or find work here.” While her asylum case crawls its way through an excessively lengthy review process—all too typical these days—we will continue to stand by her and with her. She is not alone in this. Her story is like so many others that land on our desks.

We want to see her cross this dangerous, churning river to get to the peaceful safety on the far shore. Our aid has allowed Jana to dream, to have hope, to look to the future with energy, bright eyes, and a sense of purpose.

“I want to learn how to swim!” she told us. “Because of hijab and abaya it wasn’t allowed. I want to try everything that was forbidden… a bit of drink and food and dancing!” We look on with happiness and hope for Jana, that she will finally get a taste of religious freedom and freedom of conscience, to live her life on her own terms far from the beatings and death-threats, far from the oppressive constraints of patriarchal Iraq, its customs, and its utter intolerance toward the nonbeliever.


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