From Smuggling Goods to Saving Neighbours

Bijar and his family. © IOM/Taryn Fivek 2015

By Taryn Fivek

Bijar and his family of four moved into a caravan in Dawodiya camp, in the northern Iraqi governorate of Dohuk, from unfinished buildings in neighbouring Warmale where they had initially sought refuge after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) invaded Sinjar  in the autumn of 2014.

A quiet and unassuming family man, his story, although not the only one of bravery to come from the conflict in Iraq, is quite remarkable nonetheless. When asked how it feels to be described as a hero, Bijar smiles and looks down at his hands with humility. “It feels good to have saved lives, but I really just did what I had to do.”

In his village near Sinjar town, Bijar made a modest living before the conflict smuggling goods across the Iraq – Syria border. Loading up his truck with items like cigarettes and livestock, he would take back roads across the border. Judged as being in a dishonest trade by some, it was he who came to his neighbours’ aid when they had to flee the oncoming violence.

“I received a call from a friend of mine in the police who told me that ISIL had reached Sinjar town. But we already knew something terrible was happening when we heard explosions nearby that they were coming our way. People from the village next to ours were already running through the streets of my neighbourhood, fleeing the violence we had all only heard so much about but had not affected us directly.”

“All I could think about at first was getting my wife and children to safety. We had all heard stories about what happened to women and children when the terrorists took over a town. I knew I had to get them out of town. My truck wasn’t working, and I didn’t know what to do. A friend of mine suggested we go to an old castle nearby, which doubled as a base for local forces. We let ourselves in and ‘borrowed’ a truck. Lucky for us, the keys were in the ignition already.”

After taking the oversized pick-up truck, Bijar returned to his family. His wife, fearing for their son, had sent him ahead with his uncle already.

“On our way out of the village, we seemed to collect more and more people. I saw people on the side of the road, just sitting there, hopeless, and told them to get in. It was sad for us that we had brought nothing but diapers for our youngest son, but lucky for all of the people who needed a ride. All in all, there were forty people piled on top of each other in the pickup truck by the time we left.”

The same back roads that he knew from his smuggling trade helped him escape into Syria undetected. “It took us only a half hour to get to the border. When we arrived in Syria, some friendly militias helped us to the Feshkabour crossing back into Iraq. Of course, at the border, the military took their truck back. I was happy we didn’t get into trouble, but I think they knew I had only borrowed it out of necessity.”

Bijar, his family and his 40 neighbours spent the night in an open field next to the border crossing. “We all slept in the dust that night. All I could think of was my son, and if I would ever see him again.”

Thankfully, his uncle called him the next morning and told him they would come to where the rest of the family was, in Wermale in northern Dohuk. “The villagers let us stay in some old, unfinished buildings there,” Bijar says. “When I saw my son, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was just one day that we were apart, but it felt like the longest day of my life.”

Since their displacement, Bijar and his family have received non-food item aid which included fuel and shelter from IOM Iraq. When IOM staff first met Bijar's family during the harsh winter months, he expressed hope that his family would soon move from their unfinished building to the new camp being constructed nearby. Now living in a caravan in Dawodiya camp, his children attend kindergarten and his wife says that the private kitchen and bathroom makes their new shelter feel like a home. 

Bijar says the conflict is still too close to his hometown for him and his family to return to Sinjar. Still, he stays in touch with people from his village to foster a sense of community. “I still get calls from the people I rescued, just to tell me how they are doing and ask after my family’s health. Once the fighting stops, we will go back. Until then, we will simply live day by day here.”