Thank you, Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, ladies and gentlemen.
For 25 centuries, Jews lived in harmony with the inhabitants and contributed to the economic, social, and cultural background of first Babylon, now Iraq. There were a few pogroms against the Jews in Iraq, most notably in 1929 and later in 1941: the infamous farhud incited by the Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem. In 1948, the State of Israel was created. Iraq, along with four other Arab countries, suffered a sore defeat on the front against Israel, so Iraq needed a scapegoat to justify this defeat. They tried and hanged the innocent Mr. Shafiq Ades as an Israeli spy. They hanged him in front of his house and forced his wife and children to watch. Three of his children live in Montreal today. Sixty-five years later, this family still carries the scars and the trauma of this inhuman tragedy.
I will now tell you my own story. My father was the son of a well-to-do, self-made merchant and property owner in Iraq. In the early 1920s when England decided to appoint a king in Iraq, King Faisal I, they chose my grandfather's house for him to live in. My grandfather, Shaul Shashoua, duly moved out and rented his house for a nominal sum to the king until a suitable palace was built for him to move into.
Up until 1950, there were approximately 150,000 Jews in Iraq. After the farhud and the persecution of the Jews by their fellow citizens and the government, and after the hanging of Mr. Shafiq Ades, Iraq stated that it would now allow the Jews to leave for Israel on condition they renounce their Iraqi citizenship. Nearly the entire Jewish population asked for this laisser passer. They were denationalized and their assets were frozen while they were still in Iraq waiting for their turn to leave.
Upon their departure they were searched and further stripped of their cash and jewellery, allowed one suitcase each, and only 50 Iraqi dinars to take with them. The Government of Iraq duly confiscated all their property immediately upon their departure. My father and mother, however, decided to stay and weather the storm along with around 7,000 other Jews. Things stabilized slowly in the country, yet Jews, including my sisters, left Iraq for various reasons, never to return. All those who left were eventually stripped of their Iraqi nationality and had their assets frozen. I, being the youngest, stayed with my parents.
I have to stress here the fact that we who chose to stay in Iraq despite all the persecutions had no connections with Israel, especially because of the total Iraqi boycott of Israel. Even drawing the Star of David was taboo, even in the privacy of our own homes.
The regime in Iraq underwent many revolutions and coups d'état, the last one in 1962 when the Baath Party arrived with Saddam Hussein. This party soon restricted travel for the Jews again. They froze the sales of our own property all over again. In 1967, the Six Day War broke out and Israel won the war. As a retaliation against Israel, Iraq tightened the screws on the now 3,000 innocent Jews remaining there. They cut off all our telephones. They refused to admit Jews at universities. They revoked all commercial licences. They instructed all businesses to fire their Jewish employees. There was no unemployment insurance in Iraq, so they had no money left to live on. They froze all our assets. Eventually they allowed us to withdraw only 300 dinars a month from our own bank accounts for daily expenses. Many Jewish children were fainting at school from hunger because their parents had no money left for food. When my grandfather passed away in 1968, my mother and grandmother were forced to pay the government rent for the house my grandfather built in 1927. They were paying for the shares my mom's siblings should have inherited, but now belonged to the Iraqi government.
On top of this, they started to go to Jewish homes at random, usually after midnight. They would search the house, vandalize it, arrest the father, the son, sometimes even the daughter. The accusation was always that they were spying for Israel.
It got to the stage that any time a car passed by at night, I would wake up, kneel, and pray that this car would not stop at our house to raise havoc in our lives. My mother and I bought sleeping pills to commit suicide if ever they came to arrest us.
In 1968 the random arrests intensified. Men were now tortured and forced to say they were spies. They were tied to ceiling fans that were turned to full speed. Some had their fingernails, toenails, teeth pulled out. Their genitals were electrocuted. Many died from the torture alone.
All these arrests and this torture culminated in mock Mickey Mouse trials in December 1968 and January 1969. The defendants were not allowed to have their own lawyer. The state appointed one for them, who further incriminated them as spies for Israel. They sentenced them and hanged them that same night.
When we woke up on January 27, 1969, to our horror we found out that 14 innocent men had been hanged. Ten of them were Jewish. At least three of these victims were less than 18 years of age. The Iraqi courts jacked up the ages to make it legal internationally to hang them. All the charges were glaringly trumped up.
The Iraqi people, so hungry for blood, went into a frenzy of jubilation. Thousands were dancing and chanting and poking the dead men. Women were breastfeeding and entire families were picnicking in front of the dangling bodies of those martyrs. The radio was blaring that the country was now rid of their spies, and encouraged the public to continue denouncing the fifth column.
We were still attending university then, and were in the midst of mid-term exams, so we had no choice but to go to university that day. I was thinking, “Surely we are among the educated. Surely they are smart enough to discern that the whole trial is utter nonsense. Plus, they are our friends, our colleagues. They will surely sympathize. They'll understand.” Yet to our surprise, when we arrived at the university, we were greeted with banners applauding what the government did and demanding more such acts. They were looking at us and laughing. The message was, “You are next.” We were horrified, yet we were too terrified to show our grief.
Israel attested that those victims were innocent and not its spies. There was a world outcry following these fake accusations, and the Iraqi government defiantly answered that it had enough trees to hang all the remaining Jews in the country.
You can just imagine the sheer terror that dominated our daily existence after that horrid day. It was the blackest day in our young teenage lives, a day that is indelible in the memory of any Jew who was living in Iraq then.
Eventually, in 1970, a small window of opportunity presented itself to us. There was a temporary truce between the Kurds in the north of Iraq and the Iraqi government. The Kurds were willing to help us escape because they too were a mistreated minority and understood what we were going through. The Iraqi government decided to turn a blind eye to the Jews who were escaping, partly because of international pressure, partly because they were paid by Jewish agencies abroad for each one who left. Yet the big prize was still the assets left behind.
They still managed to terrorize us anyway, because from time to time they would perform mass arrests of entire families.
Seeing that there was no future for me in Baghdad, I decided to take a chance. I knew that by leaving illegally I was endangering both my life and the lives of my parents, who were staying behind in the hope of someday salvaging some of their now frozen properties. We were acting out of desperation.
I was among the lucky ones. I managed to escape with another family successfully. However, many of my friends were caught while trying to escape; some of them were even arrested twice. Imagine the interrogations, the torture, and the terror they went through.
I arrived safely in Iran in November 1990 and stopped in London on my way to North America.
I met many of my childhood friends and met some of my uncles, aunts, and cousins for the first time because they had left Iraq before I was born and were, as I have just become, banned from ever going back.
I finally arrived at my final destination, Canada, that wonderful utopia called Canada, where I was reunited with my sisters and even more family. We finally tasted freedom. North America was and is this haven where everyone is equal and free. We arrived in this glorious country where we were able to finally close an ugly chapter of our lives and start a new and fresh one.
I became a flight attendant with Air Canada. I was able to fly all over the world, except to Baghdad to see my parents. For 20 years, we could not speak to them because their telephones had been cut off during the Six Day War. The letters to and from my parents were censored and took three weeks to reach Baghdad. It took another three weeks to get an answer. I never knew if they were still alive from the time they would write the letter to the time I'd receive that letter. For 20 years I had that constant ache about my parents. It was like a scar in the heart that would never heal. It was also this constant worry about their welfare, well-being, and safety.
Finally, a miracle happened. After the Iran-Iraq war, they granted passports to everyone in Iraq, including the Jews. My parents were finally able to leave Iraq. The first time I heard them on the phone I did not even recognize their voices. It was a miracle that they finally arrived in Canada in 1990. We were finally happily reunited. We were with our beloved mom and dad, who waited 20 years in vain to sell any of their properties. My dad was 80 years old. He left everything he owned in Iraq and came out with nothing. All his siblings had long lost their inheritance upon leaving Iraq 40 years earlier.
They came penniless, but Canada offered them a haven to come to after all those wasted years when my parents lived in constant fear. They missed all the special occasions with their children, such as their daughters' weddings, grandchildren, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs. My parents got to meet their grandchildren for the first time only after they became teenagers. They did manage, however, to walk me down the aisle when I got married to my wonderful husband.
It is a happy ending in many ways because most of us survived those harrowing times, but it does not mean that we did not suffer emotionally and financially and we still struggle to make a living while we have all these properties in Iraq that we cannot access. I would like to point out also that none of the Iraqi Jews who came to either Canada or the United States, or to England for that matter, asked for or received refugee status or privileges, including my parents. We all came as immigrants and threw ourselves immediately into starting new lives, into working hard, paying taxes, and enjoying, as well as serving, this glorious country that has so much to offer. It is a happy ending because we arrived in this wonderful country called Canada.
In closing, we pray that God bless Canada and the United States, these two great countries where we live free and normal lives, our new wonderful country and home that embraced us and that we are privileged to be a part of. We hope to continue to contribute towards its growth and well-being. Amen.
Thank you, Canada.