NABIL Dinkha exhaled as he passed through customs at Athens airport with his family, relief flooding through his body.
They were free. Finally free.
But his soaring heart sunk as a stern voice cut through his reverie.
“Excuse me sir, I have another question for you,” called a Greek immigration official.
The Iraqi family turned back, fearing the worst. They were lucky to have gotten this far.
The father-of-two and his wife were barely able to breathe during the flight from Baghdad, with a travel ban imposed on public service employees under the Saddam Hussein regime.
The family had been forced to lie in their passport applications in order to flee the war-torn country.
“My wife was a secondary teacher so I applied for our passports with false information,” he recalls.
“Iraqis were not allowed to travel during the Iran-Iraq war and even after. It was a huge risk. If I’d have been caught, I would have been persecuted. Iraq didn’t have a good reputation and countries like Greece were turning back planes if they knew there were Iraqis on board.”
Fortunately, on that fateful day in 1990, the government official only wanted to check if they had return tickets.
Once satisfied, he waved them on, starting in motion a new chapter for the Dinkha family that led them all the way to Melbourne.
They are among millions of Iraqis who have streamed out of the unstable country in the past 27 years, desperate for a new life in a country where safety is taken for granted.
Nabil comes across many of them now at Western Health, where he works as an Arabic and Assyrian interpreter.
For him, the difficult decision to leave was made to give his children a happy, peaceful future after spending ten “hellish” years in the army.
He was initially conscripted into compulsory military service for just one year, and forced to stay for ten as war broke out with Iran, witnessing thousands of people die, including half of his mates.
“I suffered for 10 years in the army,” he recalls.
“I didn’t want my kids to go through that. I didn’t want them to go through the hell I went through.
“Every four hours you had to wake up and guard the compound. It was a bit like living like a zombie. You had no rights. You woke up and got dressed like a robot.”
After fleeing Iraq, the Christian family lived in Athens for six months, a time of constant struggle as they battled to make ends meet. Even when they were accepted as refugees by New Zealand, they had to borrow money for the airfares from Nabil’s brother in America.
He says integrating into a new country can be “very tough”, particularly for older people who often feel lonely and isolated.
“Life is very different in Australia,” he says.
“Many of these people are moving here at a later stage in life, and sitting at home with nothing to do thinking ‘What am I doing here?’.
“They don’t have any friends, their community can be spread here and there, it’s not easy.”
He says no matter what atrocities people endured in Iraq, it was never easy to leave your homeland.
“It breaks your heart,” says Nabil, 59.
“You’ve lived there all your life, then suddenly you have to run for your life. We fled before ISIS, but we lived under the tyrant Saddam Hussein. Now Daesh (ISIS) have kicked out all the Christians and confiscated their properties. People have left everything they have and fled.”
He hears many of their stories firsthand during his work at Sunshine and Footscray Hospitals.
One of the patients who has affected him the most was a man forced out of Iraq’s second biggest city, Mosul, after ISIS captured the ancient town.
Not long after the man moved to Australia with his extended family, he had two strokes, the second of which claimed his life.
While in rehab after the first stroke, his sister died, but his family didn’t have the heart to tell him.
“This is a tragedy,” he says.
“This man had to leave everything behind because extremists came in and took over the place. People come here for a place of freedom… But he arrived too late.”
He says people in Australia are “lucky”, and says they have embraced their new home.
“Life is a school to teach you,” he says. “We are happy here.
“There is always an opportunity for success in this country, you need to try harder to fulfill your dreams.
“I will never regret making Australia my new home.”
The Greatest Need Project is a story-sharing website with two major goals – to help patients facing significant hardship and disadvantage, and to facilitate research, at Western Health.
As a staff member, Nabil is sharing his story in bid to help those at Western Health who need it most.
By making a donation on Nabil’s behalf – and sharing his story on social media – you are making a difference too. Thank you.