Zahia Hassan found out via a terrifying text message that her home in Husseini, Iraq, had been overrun by militants. Sent by her sister-in-law, the chilling message read: 'DON'T COME HOME, ISIS HAVE COME FOR US'. Zahia describes the eight months that followed as the worst of her life. She was working away from the family home when ISIS broke down the front door. Her brother Yusef was in the house and lucky to survive - ISIS fighters forced him to his knees and pointed a gun at his head.
Miraculously, after Zahia's sister-in-law begged them not to shoot, the militants let Yusef go - but forced the whole family to leave without any belongings. ISIS turned Zahia's family home into a makeshift military base. For the eight months that followed, Zahia slept on mattresses with her four-year-old son and her siblings at friends' and relatives' houses, unable to find work.
"Nowhere felt like home and I was so scared and lonely," she says. "I was always terrified ISIS would catch up with us."
Zahia's village was eventually liberated from ISIS and Zahia decided to return, but the home she loved was in tatters. Much of the building was a shell - her family's possessions torched, the walls black with soot and peppered with bullet holes. "I was so shocked when I came back," she says. "It was really awful, it wasn't the place I'd known. But there is no other place like home. I came back because a person cannot rest somewhere that isn't their home."
Since then Zahia has begun to rebuild her home and her life with support from Oxfam.
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Zahia's brother and sister-in-law decided not to return to Husseini with her, and she admits that memories of happier times still haunt her. "I remember one afternoon my brother was with his wife and was happy because he was newly married," she says sadly. "We were drinking juice and tea and had made cakes, and my younger brother was telling jokes and stories and making us laugh. I
remember and miss those good times."
Day by day, however, Zahia is creating a new future. Oxfam initially gave her a simple but very powerful kind of support - paying her to paint houses, including her own. "Now I feel happier about
my home," she smiles. "I no longer feel empty, I can hope again."
And we also helped Zahia to start earning a more permanent income. She had worked as a tailor but her sewing machine was destroyed, so we provided a new one to help her restart her business. "When Oxfam came to my house and brought me the sewing machine I couldn't believe it," she says. "I was so happy."
"I thank God and I thank Oxfam. Now I have hope."
Oxfam is working with tens of thousands of people who have fled violence across Iraq - offering whatever support is needed most. During a harsh winter, we provided blankets and fuel to help 12,000 people stay warm. We've given mattresses, kitchen items and essentials like soap and detergent to families forced to shelter in mosques and camps. We're building water tanks and toilets to help refugees stay healthy. And we're providing training so people can learn skills - like cutting hair - they can earn a living from when they return home.
Zahia is clear about the difference support from Oxfam made to her: "I thank God and I thank Oxfam," she says. "Now I have hope."
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Photos: Tommy Trenchard