Iraqi refugee calls Auckland home for now

Forced to flee his village in northern Iraq following the Kurd rebellion in 1961, he escaped with his family to Baghdad where he lived for the next 35 years.

After establishing a reputation as a civil engineer he worked for Saddam Hussein’s regime building military installations.

Romel Aziz at the Barbara waterfall during his long stay in Switzerland.
In limbo: Romel Aziz at the Barbara waterfall during his long stay in Switzerland. Picture supplied

“I became very famous in Iraq and the son-in-law of Saddam, Hussein Kamel al-Majid gave me many responsibilities to do some special projects.

“One was a private project to build a factory for him.

“He sent me to Saudi Arabia to buy materials and England to work on the design with a company there.

“After Hussein Kamel al-Majid’s assassination by Saddam Hussein in 1995 the authorities came looking for his money and began bothering me.

“They thought because he had sent me to Saudi Arabia and England that I know about his money or something.

“They jailed me for two weeks but still they didn’t get anything as I was innocent.”

Following his release from jail, Romel and his wife fled Iraq but with no passports the only way out was through Kurd-controlled territory. However, because Romel and his wife came from the area the Kurds agreed to allow them through.

They arranged with a smuggler to take them to Turkey, from Turkey to Italy, then Italy to Greece.

They stayed in Greece for six months with a relative who had fled Iraq earlier.

Romel and his wife then attempted to get to Denmark but were caught by the authorities in Germany and deported to Switzerland as that was the last country they had left.

“This journey took about nine months from north of Iraq to Switzerland.

“In Switzerland we applied to become refugees.

“At that time Switzerland was good friends with Saddam Hussein because he had money there so they only accepted us as temporary residents and every six months we had to renew our residency.

Romel was not allowed to work in Switzerland as he was not able to get citizenship so he started some volunteer community work as a translator.Romel Aziz (left) with young friend before he was forced to flee for the first time

“I learned German very easily as it has a similar structure to Arabic and in three months I started to translate for people.

“I would work for other refugees – Iraqis and people from other Arab countries such as Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, Libya and Syria, translating from Assyrian to Arabic and German.

“I stayed for about 10 years working with the community and sometimes got to work on other projects for the government.”

However, after six years in Switzerland Romel’s wife became depressed.

She was able to get help from the Swiss medical services to travel to New Zealand to visit her mother, brothers and sister.

Once in New Zealand she applied to become a refugee and started the long process to get Romel to join her in New Zealand.

“It took three and a half years – too long.

“She left in 2004 and I came here in August 2008. I didn’t see her during that time only through the internet.”

When Romel first arrived he said he knew little about New Zealand life and tended to mix with his own ethnic group.

“At my club there are 40 other Iraqis so I will contact these more than the others so I will be far from the Kiwi people to know what is happening.

“Even at home we have a special satellite so at the beginning I didn’t know much about New Zealand things.”

Once settled Romel decided to go back to his original profession as a civil engineer but found that his lack of knowledge of the New Zealand workplace along with no recent experience made it very hard to get work.

However, he has found the Skilled Migrant course he attended through Work & Income has given him the support he needs to improve his language skills and gain valuable work experience. Romel Aziz working as a translator in Switzerland

“The course helped me because it opened a door for me to know more people, the culture of New Zealand and also improved my English a little bit.”

“I did work experience with an Iraqi guy who turned out to be my boss on one of my water projects in Iraq.

“His company is applying for a contract with Transfields and when they receive it he has promised to give me work.”

Romel is grateful for the opportunities his adopted country has given him but still misses the village he fled some 50 years ago.

“I would like to return to Iraq one day but on two conditions – that the Americans leave Iraq and the Kurds leave my land.”