For many thousands of people fleeing wars in their home countries, being granted asylum is a happy end to a sad story.
The chaos and heartache caused by US President Donald Trump’s
short-lived immigration ban earlier this month showed just how important
the right to resettle is for so many, and how it can change lives forever.
But for others, the promised land is not what they imagined. Even
after all they go through to make it there, something draws them home
That was the case for Rani Khaled Yaqoub, a 26-year-old Christian
mother of two from northern Iraq, who escaped ISIS to seek asylum in
France. After about two years in Europe, she turned around and traveled
all the way back.
“My friends found it weird, and asked why I would want to go back.
They asked me to stay there [in France] in case my situation changes,”
she says. “But this is about me and my kids. No one experienced what I
went through there [in France].”
Yaqoub is not the only one who made such a choice. The International
Organization for Migration (IOM) helped more than 12,000 people return
to Iraq in 2016 after they had sought asylum abroad. In the first month
of 2017, they assisted 500. The group believes many more are coming back
on their own, without IOM assistance.
Yaqoub’s move may seem surprising, especially since for her, going
back to Iraq didn’t mean a return all the way home. She settled in
Erbil, where many of Iraq’s internally displaced have ended up, some 50
miles from the village where she spent most of her life.
Today, she lives in a two-room office on the fifth floor of a newly
built shopping mall in Erbil with her sons, 2-year-old Ranel, and
3-year-old Rawad. The mall's lower floors are all hustle and bustle,
with clothing stalls spilling out of shops into the narrow walkways.
Yaqoub's floor has a dusty and unfinished feel — it is eerily quiet
apart from the children who dash in the hallways, pausing occasionally
to peer at shoppers in the atrium below.
She first arrived here in August 2014, after fleeing from her
hometown of Qaraqosh, not far from Mosul. ISIS fighters were heading
their way; some 100,000 Christians from the area escaped with her in the
“We were told [by Peshmerga fighters in the city] that ISIS
approached the area, and no one can stay in the area. So, like everyone
else, we packed our stuff and left,” she says. “We thought we would be
back in a couple of days.”
ISIS captured the town and ransacked its churches. Not everyone
managed to escape. Yaqoub’s husband, Mourad, was a policeman. He and his
brother stayed behind in the town as its last line of defense. Later,
they too were ordered to leave, but Mourad got caught up in clashes
between ISIS and Kurdish forces along the road to Erbil. He was killed
in the crossfire.
Yaqoub was seven months pregnant at the time. She had to face
starting a new life as a single mother. But the takeover of her town and
the death of her husband had traumatized her. She wanted to leave the
strange shopping mall and her country behind.
After five months in Erbil, she left for France, where some of her
husband’s family were already living. (French visa rules allow those who
have successfully claimed asylum to bring over family members).
When she arrived in Marseille, on France’s southern coast, she claimed asylum as a refugee.
“I went with my brother-in-law. We lived together. We didn’t find a
job of course, but we had rights. We had salaries, residency, passports,
everything official,” she says.
This might have been the closing of a chapter for Yaqoub and her two
boys. But she could never quite settle. It was the first time she had
ever left Iraq, and she was torn between the safety and security of her
new home and a yearning for her first.
Marseille is often described as Europe’s most ethnically diverse
city. It has seen successive waves of immigration from Italy, Eastern
Europe and North Africa. More than one-quarter of its 800,000 residents
are Muslim. Marseille also bears the unfortunate title of France’s “capital of crime,” due to its high murder rate and gang problems.
Yaqoub’s Iraqi Christian community is so small and unique, however,
that it barely makes a footprint in Marseille. If she felt like a
minority in Iraq, in Marseille she felt almost invisible.
“There were Arabs from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, but we did not
have any contact with them. We were too different,” she says.
And the French people she met were — she searches for the right word — “a little cold.”
There were small things that she just couldn’t get used to, like
ready-to-eat food: “If we don’t prepare the food with our own hands, we
cannot [eat] it.”
Then there were the bigger things. Iraqi communities are generally
tightly knit. Generations of families tend to stay in one place, so
everyone knows everyone else. This is especially true in the Christian
communities of northern Iraq, which have been brought closer together by
their perceived precariousness in a country that has long suffered from
“We socialize here [in Iraq]. One can count on the other, we have
each other. If you don’t have family, you have your neighbors. If you
don’t have a brother, you have a friend. Over there [in Marseille], you
feel estranged. You don’t interact with the others, that’s the nature of
things there,” Yaqoub says.
She was studying psychology in Qaraqosh. In Marseille, she couldn’t
find work. She tried to learn French, but found it very difficult.
“The language is what determines your relationship with someone,
isn’t that true? If we can’t speak, how can we interact with others?”
Her desire to go back home grew every day.
“I missed my country first, and secondly my house,” she says.
But more than that, she didn’t see Marseille as a place for her children to grow up.
“My children and I can live better here [in Iraq]. It’s difficult
there. I needed help all the time there. You cannot count on anyone,”
Yaqoub borrowed the money to cover the flights, and against the
advice of her friends and family, returned to Erbil — back to the
They interviewed dozens of returnees, and found that the image they
had of life in Europe had been idealized. The main reasons refugees came
back, they found, had to do with the time it takes to process an asylum
request — during which an applicant can’t work — and cultural
differences. Some were forced to return because they were the main
breadwinner for a family and could not find work abroad.
Yaqoub’s prospects here are not much better in Erbil than they were
in Marseille. Her only means of support comes from the local charities
that deliver food to the families living in the mall once a month.
“Honestly, this is hard, you cannot easily find a job. It’s the same
for everyone. Whenever I hear about a position, I apply. But nothing has
But despite all the advice she received to stay in Marseille, Yaqoub thinks she made the right choice to come back.
“I’m back to square one,” she says, “but my cousins are across the hall, and my old neighbors too. I’m happier here.”