Iraqi refugee’s survival story

Marvin Cohen with supporter Cely Malki Benchoem. Photo: Shane Desiatnik.

IT took eight painful years for Jewish Iraqi refugee, Perth resident Marvin Cohen, to complete a book giving testimony of his family’s tragic persecution in Iraq under ruthless dictator Saddam Hussein, and his own remarkable survival story.

He told The AJN last week – before speaking about My Salvation: The Remarkable Story of an Iraqi Refugee, at Bondi Mizrachi Synagogue in Sydney – that it’s never been more important for people to learn about the plight of Jewish refugees in Arab lands.

“For Jewish people, but also for non-Jewish people, because they only know one thing of what’s happening in the Middle East and Israel – about the Palestinians. They don’t know about the Jews that were living in Arab countries for thousands of years – and what happened to them.

“And my story, in Iraq, is recent – it happened in the ’80s and ’90s.

“My parents, my siblings, were persecuted and killed for no other reason than they were Jewish. Iraq wanted to wipe us out from history. Even the graves they destroyed.

“Because they couldn’t attack Israel, they used to attack Jews in Iraq who couldn’t defend themselves. Since Saddam’s death, it’s worse.”

Cohen was born in 1974 in Zakho, Iraq, and his paternal ancestry there dates back to Babylonian times.

After the Farhud Jewish massacre in June 1941, Iraq’s Jews suffered increasing anti-Semitism and attempts at ethnic cleansing. Between 1949 and 1951, 104,000 fled to the Jewish State, but a ban on Jewish emigration in 1952 trapped Iraq’s remaining Jews.

Cohen’s book explains how in 1983, aged nine, he and his father were jailed for four years, falsely accused of acting as spies. Within the next seven years, three of his brothers were tortured and killed, his father was butchered and Cohen witnessed his mother being dragged to her death.

After escaping during a second prison sentence, he managed to cross the Syrian border by foot. His journey to Australia took almost 10 years, via Turkey, Hungary and Austria.

When he arrived at Perth airport in 1999, he was promptly sent to a detention centre before gaining a refugee visa and being embraced by Perth’s Jewish community.

“The end of my book is a happy one – I have managed to survive and keep my faith and Jewish heritage – I could not live without it.

“I go every Friday to Dianella Shul in Perth and have made many friends – they are now my family.

“I want Australian Jews to take with them from my story an appreciation of what they have – the freedom to practise their faith.”

To order My Salvation, transcribed by Andrew Blitz, contact Cely Malki Benchoam on 0414 242 524 or [email protected].

SHANE DESIATNIK