Refugee women share memories from homes they didn't want to leave

Iraqi and Syrian recipes, crafts and personal stories compiled to help others understand

Iraqi refugee Shahinez has fond memories of her life in the ancient city of Mosul before the invasion of US forces in 2003. It was, she says, a life of “simplicity, easiness and beauty.”

“Mosul is a beautiful city located on Tigris River,” she recalls nostalgically.

“My home was very close to the river, near a bridge that we walked across every day. The city was full of green nature, with a very nice climate. There were many churches all around Mosul.”

This idyllic vision of Mosul, as something like a Middle Eastern Garden of Eden, is tragically different from the images of a shattered landscape of razed buildings which we’ve seen on our screens over the past few years.

“The life in those countries in the Middle East was really beautiful – in Syria, in Iraq – before these problems,” says Shahinez, who fled with her family to Jordan in 2014 after ISIS gained control of the city and forced Christians to convert to Islam or leave.

“The life in those countries in the Middle East was really beautiful.” – Shahinez

Her new city of Melbourne is beautiful too, she says, “but Mosul is the place of my birth and so it’s in my heart.”

Helping Australians to understand that Iraqi and Syrian refugees would have preferred to stay in their places of birth is one of the aims of a new book, Tea & Thread: Portraits of Middle Eastern Women Far from Home, published by Grace Abounding Books, an imprint of Anglican Aid.

Shahinez is one of 17 diverse women from the Middle East who fill this book with their stories of life before, during and after the war. They also share their family recipes and traditional handicrafts. Shahinez contributes two lamb recipes including Tashreeb, a much-loved lamb shank stew that all Iraqis are brought up on. Other women explain how to make crafts such as olive oil soap, cross stitch original designs and weave palm fronds.

“People need to know that these aren’t places that people want to leave. They want to stay there because their hearts are there,” says Sally Bathgate, who with photographer Katrina Flett Gulbrandsen created the book while working with displaced women and their families in Amman, Jordan.

“People need to know that these aren’t places that people want to leave.” – Sally Bathgate

By offering glimpses into the lives of women from the Middle East who have found refuge in Australia, Sally hopes the book can be a bridge between two disparate cultures, encouraging conversations and hospitality. Instead of focusing on the conflicts in the region, the book aims to demystify Middle Eastern culture by showing its joyful and beautiful aspects.

“We hear a lot of stories, but I don’t think we hear the stories of women themselves often,” says Sally. As friends, rather than journalists, Sally and Katrina were in a unique position to draw together the threads of these women’s stories over endless cups of tea, and so help Australians come face to face with them.

“All of the women in the book are friends, they are people that we’ve sat with, we’ve eaten with, we’ve cried with, we’ve laughed with, we’ve celebrated with. So the stories are not questions and answers – we’re just trying to express our love in those stories, honouring them and giving a more personal side to the crisis,” says Sally.

“They are people that we’ve sat with, we’ve eaten with, we’ve cried with.” – Sally Bathgate

Speaking in Arabic translated by Sally, Shahinez says it was tiring at first living in a very different culture, but “slowly, slowly” as she met people from Iraq and Syria at an Anglican Church in Melbourne, she felt more settled.

“We eat together and it really relaxes me,” she says, highlighting the importance of hospitality in Middle Eastern culture.

While she still misses home, she lives by the Bible verse Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through Christ who strengths me.”

“We eat together and it really relaxes me.” – Shahinez

Shahinez wants Australians to know that the faith of Christians from Iraq is very strong. The photo of her above shows her holding a picture of Jesus that is very precious to her.

“I brought it from Mosul to Jordan, from Jordan to here and it’s always with me and it’s very important to me.”

“On the back of it is Jesus’s prayer for unity among believers from John 17. In my church in Mosul, we pray it together every year, and we prayed it just before we left. It’s a beautiful prayer and it’s in my heart.”