Fleeing Iraq was a dream come true, but then reality hit home


Edwin Shuker was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1955 and grew up in a small, close-knit Jewish community where everybody knew each other.

When the government started to place restrictions on Jewish life in the country, his family escaped - Mr Shuker was 16 when he, his parents, two younger sisters and grandmother arrived in Britain in 1971.

Now 60, he lives in Woodside Park, north London, with his wife Esther and his three children. As a member of Woodside Park Synagogue, he sits on the Board of Deputies and is a vice-president of the European Jewish Congress.

"We were living in almost an open prison in Baghdad," he recalled. "There were so many restrictions and persecutions of Jews. Life was impossible to carry on and we were not allowed to travel.

"We escaped by using forged papers because Jews were not allowed to travel more than five miles without permission from the police."

The false documents got the family safely into the Kurdish enclave of northern Iraq. From there they were helped by Kurds who smuggled them into Iran where the family were provided with refugee papers.

"It was a document that allowed us to travel forward, called a laissez-passer," he said.

From Iran the family travelled to Britain via Israel for "sentimental reasons". Several members of the wider family had fled Iraq for Israel in 1951, before Mr Shuker was born, and it was a chance to meet the family he had never known.

Mr Shuker said that once they arrived in the UK the transition to life in a new country was harder than he thought it would be.

"In Iraq we were only dreaming and praying, everything else was suspended, there was only the hope and faith that we would be able to get out.

"Arriving here it was more difficult than the dreams. It was quite lonely. We joined a synagogue, but we didn't know the traditions and most importantly we didn't know anybody.

"That was especially hard for my parents - to move from being well known, well loved and surrounded by friends to nothing. Everything was upside down."

Mr Shuker's father was a lawyer, but he was unable to practise in the UK so he went into the wholesale business.

"He just got on with it," recalled Mr Shuker. He said his father made a rule that the family would never ask for benefits in recognition of what Britain had already done for them.

Receiving his British passport in 1981 was "one of the proudest moments of my life", said Mr Shuker. "Up until then we were just refugees."

In 2003 Mr Shuker returned to Baghdad - "one of the biggest, most emotional moments of my life", he said. "After 32 years it was still very much part of my identity."

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