Zahra Halo made the heartbreaking decision to flee Islamic State with most of her children while one of her sons had been missing for years. Now, she has found him and wants to bring him home.
Zahra Halo is a mother who knows how to fight. She has learnt how to suffer, too.
For years she has battled to keep her children safe and her family together.
Her youngest son, Hazim, was missing for almost five years.
Now, she has found him and has just one last step to bring him home — securing a visa through the Department of Home Affairs.
A family separated
Ms Halo was captured along with her husband, four daughters and Hazim when Islamic State raided Shingal in northern Iraq in 2014, killing and raping at will — only her eldest son, Hasan, escaped.
She sobs as she tells her story.
“It was a disaster. It was a disaster for the Ezidi people.”
For hundreds of years the Ezidi (the Halo family prefers Ezidi to the more commonly used Yazidi) have been a stateless persecuted minority.
The Australian Parliament called Islamic State’s assault on the Ezidi a genocide.
Ms Halo’s husband was separated from her. She has not heard from him since.
Eleven-year-old Hazim was also taken from his family, and it would be almost five years before they could contact him again.
Ms Halo and her eldest daughter Haseeba, 17, were sold as slaves, and nine-year-old Lina was struck in the head when warplanes bombed the prison where they were being held.
We were trying to stop her bleeding with only tissues.
“It was really, really horrible — they took two of my kids and the other one was injured in my hands.”
Lina survived and was eventually moved with her mother and two sisters to Raqqa, Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold, and held as slaves for 11 months.
They were regularly abused and ordered to convert to Islam, Ms Halo said.
But when they tried to take Lina away, she decided to risk everything and flee.
Lina was nine years old and they were trying to marry her to a 45-year-old man, so I escaped.
After a long and hazardous journey — during which people she sought help from had sold them for ransom — Ms Halo arrived in Iraq and reunited with Hasan, who had survived alone for almost a year.
It would be another two years before Haseeba was released after her Islamic State captors were defeated in Mosul.
In 2015, the Australian Government announced 12,000 special humanitarian visas in response to the conflict in Iraq and Syria.
The Halos were ideal candidates for the new intake and their friends urged them to leave Iraq.
But that meant leaving behind Hazim, who was by then 14 and still an Islamic State prisoner.
“I didn’t want to come [to Australia] in the beginning because I was hoping my son would come, so I refused two times in the beginning,” Ms Halo said.
“But then, because of the other kids, I decided to come.
When I was seeing my kids, I could not even buy clothes for them, so that’s why I decided to bring my kids here.
“It was very hard to take that decision.”
The family moved to Australia in 2018 and settled in Armidale in northern New South Wales.
Armidale’s Ezidi community
Almost 400 Ezidis live in Armidale, after residents campaigned for the city to become a regional settlement location.
Most of the refugees are young families and, for the most part, are embracing their new lives.
The community has two football teams playing in the local competition.
There are weekly afternoon tea gatherings between Ezidi and other Armidale residents.
And new babies and weddings are on the horizon.
Nawaf Khalaf recently became engaged to Suham Elias in a gathering that involved almost all Ezidi in the city.
Mr Khalaf said it came after a long struggle for his people that extended long before the genocide in 2014.
“In 2009, while I was getting my hair cut at the barber, a bomb detonated outside the shop,” he said.
“I was injured in the head and body, six others were killed, including my friend.”
The Ezidi say the 2014 genocide was the 74th in their history, and that all Ezidi in Australia have left terror and loved ones behind.
“There would not be a single family who has not experienced horrors,” refugee advocate Robin Jones said.
Dr Jones has worked in the humanitarian sector for almost 50 years and was key in bringing the Ezidi to Armidale.
“By horrors, I mean, perhaps the kidnapping of a family member in front of them,” she said.
“And then perhaps the parents have had to leave northern Iraq to come to Armidale in order to save their other children.
That’s a horror situation for any parent.
“And that, of course, adds to the feelings that they have here about not being able to bring their relatives: ‘Will my brother, will my uncle, will my parents survive, or will Islamic State also kidnap them?'”
A bid to reunite
Dr Jones said most of the families had lodged visa applications with the Department of Home Affairs to bring relatives to Australia.
“When they left Iraq, they all had the expectation that they could bring immediate family members,” she said.
But the department is rejecting the applications on the basis that “Australia has limited capacity for humanitarian resettlement and cannot resettle all people who apply for a refugee and humanitarian visa”.
Many of the letters sent to applicants say the same thing:
“I accept that the applicants are subject to some degree of persecution or discrimination in their home country and have some connection with Australia.
“Although there is no evidence that there is another country available for the applicant’s settlement protection, Australia does not have the capacity to provide for permanent settlement of all applications at this time.”
It was this clause that immigration lawyer Mark Lyden said gave the department discretionary control over who received a visa.
“Not everybody can be brought to safety, unfortunately, and that routinely leaves refugees in an extremely difficult position,” he said.
“It’s no surprise that many of the Ezidi people are in the same situation, where they have been separated from loved ones in their country of origin, they’re under extreme pressure to try to resolve that, but it’s extremely difficult.”
In a written statement, the department said the Government’s global humanitarian program aimed to provide permanent resettlement to those most in need, including to reunite refugees overseas with their families in Australia.
It also reiterated the assessment criteria listed in the Armidale Ezidi’s application documents, including that “the capacity of the Australian community to provide for the permanent settlement of persons such as the applicant in Australia”.
Mr Lyden said even when someone met all the criteria, the Government still held discretionary power and could deny the application.
The Government still has an out clause, particularly in regard to the 201 visa the Ezidis hold, because all of these split family applications are subject to a ‘compelling grounds’ criteria — one of those criteria is Australia’s interests, basically,” he said.
“And that’s the out clause in all these circumstances; if it doesn’t meet our [the Australian Government’s] planning figures for the next year in relation to humanitarian programs, that’s the way they’re refused.”
The rejection letters also said there were no grounds for appeal.
“Decisions to refuse to grant refugee and humanitarian visas cannot be reviewed by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal,” the letters state.
Impossible to move on
Khalid Ali moved to Armidale with his wife Basima and their two-year-old daughter Ala on special humanitarian visas in April last year.
Ms Ali’s family also received humanitarian visas and now live in Armidale; her husband’s family, however, were not so fortunate.
He has made six visa applications to the Department of Home Affairs since arriving in Australia and all have been denied.
Ms Ali said the rejections were taking a toll on Khalid’s health.
“It’s really hard for us, and especially for Khalid. He is always thinking about his family over there. He’s very, very upset.”
Many of the refugees spend their nights speaking to loved ones in Iraq.
They say it is impossible to move on with their lives knowing their families are not safe.
“It impacts a lot on our life here because we know what they’ve gone through because we were in the same situation,” Ms Ali said.
Ms Halo said while her son was missing, she was unable to rest.
I usually couldn’t sleep at night,” she said.
“I was always in contact with them [her family and friends in Iraq] to see if they could find him.”
Hazim was freed after five years, when Kurdish Peshmerga forces won a battle against Islamic State in Syria and moved Hazim to an Ezidi safehouse and eventually back to Iraq.
The Halo family must now negotiate the visa process successfully if they are to bring Hazim, now 16, to Armidale.
Mr Lyden said, based on the department’s precedent of rejecting visa applications so far, he would caution against high expectations.
“There is a split family provision in the regulations, which in some circumstances will allow people like the Ezidi … to reunite certain members of their family,” he said.
“But as with all applications like this, there is a pretty unsatisfactory outcome in most cases.”
Hasan, 19, is in Armidale and determined to see his brother again.
“Every day, I’m talking with him … so, if he can’t come to Australia, I will have to go back to Iraq,” he said.