Escaping Islamic State group: How a Ball State professor and his family survived
Editor's note: Names have been changed to protect identities.
Islamic State (IS), the terror group that has taken swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, has dominated the headlines within the last couple of years. The American public witnessed the discussion around the terror group take off in the presidential election. Most people know about the group, but it’s not common to look at them right in the eyes like a Ball State professor and his family had to do.
When the Iraqi army failed to keep IS out of cities like Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul Shia militias stepped in to help them fight the terror group.
Before IS was known as the threat it is today, Abdul — an Iraqi with a background in linguistics, translation, interpretation and cultural studies — worked as a professor at the University of Mosul teaching in the department of translation.
He obtained the job in 2006 at a time when “interpreters [and] translators were stigmatized for collaborating” with the Americans. He was able to experience the affects of this first-hand when the head of the translation department was “showered with gun [fire]” in the same year he was hired.
The department-head position for the program was vacant for three years because nobody wanted to take it and be the next possible target, Abdul said.
At this point in time, the coalition forces and the Iraqi government were trying to fight against an insurgency that appeared after the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein.
Abdul said he received death threats at the University of Mosul in 2006, forcing him to end a lot of the initiatives he was pushing in the city, like improving higher education. As a result, he went back to teaching in a more traditional way, and he paid money to change the occupation on his passport from translator to businessman for his safety.
Fast track to 2010 and the Iraqi scholar would start to see more security in the country. There were still attacks, but they weren’t targeting teachers — instead, terror groups were focused on military targets.
He began to work with a group of Americans who were part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, a military unit that focused on the reconstruction of unstable cities throughout the country, to create a satellite campus for Christians. Militants would target them when they traveled back and forth to the university.
Around this time, he frequently visited with academics in the Kurdistan region and noticed they had an “American Knowledge Corner” that provided information about study abroad programs, academic advising and cultural advising.
“I was jealous seeing that and knowing that Mosul University doesn’t have that,” Abdul said.
The idea was well received by the university and Abdul helped open the center, which was called the “International Knowledge Corner” due to Mosul still being a hub for the insurgency.
Shortly after opening the center, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship that enabled him to take a three-month professional development program in America.
When he came back to Mosul, he became the director of the International Corner and he began to work with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to improve the quality of English education in Iraq’s second largest city.
"At some point I felt more and more comfortable having my name associated with the American Corner and not even the International Corner and to have the U.S. Embassy logo in my office," Abdul said.
Then everything changed when IS took over Mosul in June of 2014.
The city was put on a curfew by the central government for a week before IS came into Mosul from the West.
In a matter of days, the city fell, but the Iraqi Army — before retreating — was able to keep IS out of the east side of Mosul long enough for Abdul and his family to flee.
"The mass exodus from the city was just mind-blowing: It was thousands of thousands of people and cars [trying to get out]," Abdul said. "When [IS] saw everything [in the International Corner] and the documents, that’s when things got ugly.”
While Abdul and his family fled the city, IS would soon be in control of the entirety of Mosul. Then, Abdul said, he felt like he was now on the IS hit list.
Abdul took his family to Kurdistan where Fatima, his wife who is half Arab half Kurdish, had family. The family stayed in Kurdistan for about a month before another problem came their way.
“If you are non-Kurd you need to have a residence permit in Kurdistan, so I went to renew it and that’s when they told me they couldn’t renew it,” Abdul said.
So Abdul and Fatima packed their bags and returned back to Mosul.
MOVE TO MOSUL
When he arrived to Mosul, there was no running water, the electricity was cut off and Abdul and his family were forced to follow the terror group's rule.
"They were so demanding with women's appearance. I usually drive a car in Iraq, but at that time I couldn’t even go out, barely go out," Fatima said. "People were scared of them and their order."
The family had to move back and forth between houses while keeping a low profile; Abdul could be killed if IS figured out that he was the one working in the International Corner.
Luckily, the director of the Fulbright Scholarship at the time contacted Abdul and encouraged him to apply for the Scholar Rescue Fund, a fund that helps bring academics out of dangerous situations.
There was no internet in the city, so Abdul would have to go to a nearby Internet café — which was run by IS — to keep in contact with people who were affiliated with the Scholar Rescue Fund.
Eventually, he was awarded the fund and began to have frequent calls from someone in the Washington, D.C., who reassured that he would make it to the US safely.
He had concerns because living in the city was dangerous. At that time, leaving the city would require a permit from IS, which he couldn’t get due to his name being connected to the International Corner.
Another issue was that his son's name is similar to a high-ranking member in IS. This posed a problem with the Iraqi government because of the connotation the name had.
"So I was wanted on the IS side and my son could be wanted on the government side," Abdul said.
Abdul’s plan was to get fake IDs for himself and his son. He also planned to place medical files he had from a past heart condition in the front window of the car when he went through the IS checkpoint out of the city. He was going to tell the militants at the checkpoint that he needed to go to Baghdad for medical tests.
A member of IS questioned him at the checkpoint that led outside of Mosul.
“[IS militants] asked, 'Why are you taking your family with you if you’re [only] going to get a couple tests,'" Abdul said.
Abdul told him that he had to take his family with him because he didn’t know how long the tests would take.
While this was happening, the family’s driver was trying to get the attention of the other militants at the checkpoint and told them that “we are with you” and “we need you.”
Then, Abdul said the IS militant speaking to him said, "Man, you have a lot of luggage in the back. I believe you are not coming back."
But for some reason, the militant let the family leave Mosul. To this day, Abdul has no idea why the IS member allowed him to leave. Even though they were out of Mosul, there was still a long and dangerous trip to Baghdad ahead of them.
The roads between Mosul and Baghdad were cut off, so Abdul's driver took them on trails and even did a bit of off-road driving. When they were about 75 miles away from Baghdad, they approached a newly paved road.
The road was paved by IS, and it was made for the Iraqi military and other militias to travel on.
"Improvised explosive devices were planted all along that road," Abdul said. "You could see the wires protruding, coming out [of the ground]."
His driver asked if the family wanted to proceed or go back to Mosul.
The Iraqi scholar said, “I'm leaving Mosul. I'm leaving Iraq, or I'll die trying.”
Fatima was in the back seat of the car with her son and her 1-year-old daughter.
"My daughter started crying, throwing up," Fatima said. "Even my son [was saying], 'Why, why, why? We don't want to die, we have to go back [to Mosul], we don't have to go [to Baghdad].’"
Abdul then made the final decision to travel across the newly paved road. He told his family, "If it goes off then we are all leaving. If it doesn't, we are all surviving."
After safely making it down the road, they made it to the outskirts of Baghdad where they ran into Iranian-backed Shia militias.
When the Iraqi army failed to keep IS out of cities like Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul, these militias stepped in to help them fight the terror group. Abdul described these militias as a "different kind" of IS.
At the first militia checkpoint the family went through, the militia members asked for the ID of Abdul’s son.
Abdul was then torn between two decisions: show them the fake ID that didn't look professional, or give them the real ID with his son's name on it.
"For some reason, something echoed in my head, and I say honesty is the best policy, so I gave [the militia member] his real ID," Abdul said.
When the militia member looked at the ID, he decided to let them move on.
Abdul was surprised, and he said he believes the image of a mother and her son could have influenced the decision.
"I don't know, maybe something softened their heart," Abdul said. "He's just a kid sitting next to his mom.”
The family finally made it to Baghdad, where they stayed with Fatima’s cousin in a Shia neighborhood. Fatima’s cousin is a Sunni Muslim, but he changed his children’s names to Shia names and practiced their religion like the Shia Muslims did so they would blend in.
"Baghdad was so dangerous,” Fatima said.
The family put themselves on an “involuntary house arrest” in hopes to not raise too much attention.
After weeks of interviews and paying fees, the rescue fund sent Abdul a schedule for departure.
IS was getting closer to Baghdad, and this included the airport. Additionally, Abdul and his family’s IDs indicated that they were all from Mosul, which was an IS stronghold.
There were worries that people affiliated with IS would try to leave the country through the airport. Abdul called a friend of his who worked for the ministry of transportation, and he was able to secure seats in an SUV with tinted windows thatleft for the airport at 5 a.m.
They arrived to the airport, boarded the plane and made their way to America where they would end up settling in Muncie. Abdul would go on to work for Ball State University.
Both Abdul and Fatima have family that is currently living in Mosul. The last time they were able to contact them was about two months ago.
Abdul said he believes the situation is bad, and his family tries to keep things from him because they know that he’d worry about them. The offensive on Mosul has progressed quicker than expected, and as of Nov. 1, Iraqi forces have entered the eastern edge of the city.
IS will lose Mosul completely in the future — it’s just a matter of when, Abdul said.
He said he also believes the city has been "wronged" and "mistreated" in the past, but nobody knew about it. Since IS took over in 2014, the world has started to pay attention.
“Now it's more of an international situation, it's a global situation; it's no longer [solely] an Iraqi issue," Abdul said.
He blames labels and generalizations for creating IS.
“What brought IS to this point is the fact that we were too judgmental on others with these nasty labels," Abdul said. “Whether Kurd, Christian, Yezidi, Muslim, Sunni or Shia, these labels mean nothing because, after all, they are human."
CALLING OUT I.S.
Abdul and Fatima both have a message to IS and anyone affiliated with the group.
“You are not Islamic, and you are not a state,” Abdul said.
The Iraqi academic went on to explain that IS is a “band of thugs and gangsters” whose goal is to control and be in power. He also said the group has nothing to do with Islam, and sooner or later it will be defeated.
Fatima had something similar to say.
“You destroyed Islam,” she said.
Fatima blames the group for deepening sectarian divides between the people of Iraq, and she said she hates IS members for what they did to her country.
“They make a big hole between all the Muslims, Shia and Sunni, Christians, the Yazidis," Fatima said. “Nobody can fill this hole."