Lara, the tattoo artist from Baghdad

When an Iraqi woman's deportation back home was stopped by protestors at Helsinki Vantaa Airport last month, it highlighted the Finnish government policy toward refugees. Oksana Chelysheva tells Lara's story, about her struggle to stay in Finland and why a return back to Iraq would be fraught with danger.

When an Iraqi woman's deportation back home was stopped by protestors at Helsinki Vantaa Airport last month, it highlighted the Finnish government policy toward refugees. Oksana Chelysheva tells Lara's story, about her struggle to stay in Finland and why a return back to Iraq would be fraught with danger.

Lara

Lara

Her name is Inas Abdusalam Mustafa. She was born in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in April 1993. A week later Saddam Hussein celebrated his 56th birthday. The celebration was pompous with the president enjoying the god-like tributes, sitting in a golden carriage drawn by black horses. Just two days after the U.S. State Department put Iraq alongside Iran, Syria, Cuba, Libya and North Korea on the list of states sponsoring terrorism.

In June 1993 President Bill Clinton ordered that U.S. warships launch Tomahawk cruise missiles against some targets in downtown Baghdad. 23 missiles were fired destroying the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service and causing collateral damage – such as the deaths of at least eight civilians.

That was the world Inas was born into.

Despite all these odds, Inas has survived. She survived the toppling of the Iraqi president, his execution, sectarian violence and the insecurity of a post-Saddam Iraq. She was growing with dreams of a life full of wonders and colours like in her drawings.

Despite all these odds, Inas has survived. She survived the toppling of the Iraqi president, his execution, sectarian violence and the insecurity of a post-Saddam Iraq

Her life changed when her father made a decision to marry Inas to his own nephew. The husband-to-be was not too old, just some 15 years older than Inas. But the girl hardly knew him and she didn’t want to become the man’s third wife.

Inas escaped. It would not have been possible without assistance. She was helped by her mother who arranged for her daughter’s flight to Istanbul. There, Inas spent two years with her mother’s relatives before her difficult trip to Europe. She paid traffickers for a seat in a boat to Greece, then she travelled on to Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria. In Austria she was again assisted when a person bought her a plane ticket to Sweden. Then Inas travelled to the border with Finland from where she was taken to Turku. It took Inas two and a half months to escape and the cost to those relatives who stood up for the girl’s safety around 6000 US dollars. There, in Turku, Inas reunited with her mother who had to escape her husband because she helped their daughter. In Finland, Inas took the name of Lara.

I met Lara in a closed section of the Metsälä detention unit. It happened just two days after the Finnish police had made an attempt to deport her back to Iraq. The Finnish immigration authorities didn’t find the girl’s situation as life-threatening. When Lara has arrived in Finland, her father and that cousin (her intended future husband) managed to track her down. She got threats, very straightforward ones.

On June 26th, after two negative decisions, Lara was put on the plane to Turkey by force. She resisted. When we met, she stated the reason, “I have two options: to die or to die”. The police officers who were taking Lara on board the Turkish Airlines plane, treated her harsher than they would any petty criminal. Finland, gaining recognition for its humanization of incarceration approach, doesn’t try to apply the same principles towards deportees who have hardly ever committed any crime. People like Lara are just trying to flee the insecurity and danger in their native countries.

On June 26th, after two negative decisions, Lara was put on the plane to Turkey by force. She resisted. When we met, she stated the reason, “I have two options: to die or to die”

When Lara was being taken on board the plane, a group of up to forty Finns – as well as a number of Iraqis – protested her deportation at Vantaa airport. They held a Stop Deportation protest in the Turkish Airlines terminal. They tried to tell passengers about Lara’s fate. One Iraqi woman passed on the appeal to the captain who had the ultimate authority over the police in making the final decision to halt the deportation or carry it out.

However, it was Lara who started screaming and shouting begging the captain to save her life. Lara told me that policemen were hissing at her to stop screaming as it wouldn’t help. But Lara wanted to live – like we all want to. She also told about that Iraqi woman who stood up for her. She remembers two Japanese passengers who expressed their awkwardness to being on the same flight with someone who was screaming she would be killed once she was taken to Baghdad.

Lara was taken off the plane on the captain’s orders and returned to the closed section of Metsälä asylum. I met Lara in a small room. She was sad but determined to fight for her life and her future. “I’ve got scratches all over my arms” she told me, “as policemen were squeezing them trying to keep me in my seat”. When asked why one of her arms was bandaged, she explained, “It hurt. One of the policemen didn’t let my arm go, holding me very tight – too tight. There was another one who tried to be nicer towards me. I asked him to tell his colleague that he was hurting me. Only then he let go of my arm”.

During our meeting guards came and took Lara away. The decision was taken fast to transfer Lara to a place far away from Helsinki. By now she has been taken to Joutseno, to a former prison. Actually, it remains a prison although its inmates are not criminals.
Being taken away, Lara told me that I have her permission to tell her story, “In my case, privacy will kill me. I have nothing to lose. I need all possible publicity to explain that I want to live and I want to live with the man I love and I want to live the life I want. If I am returned to Iraq, I will be killed”.

I have nothing to lose. I need all possible publicity to explain that I want to live and I want to live with the man I love and I want to live the life I want

Lara also explained that her first interview with MIGRI (The Finnish Immigration Office) was very poor for two reasons: she was expected to tell sensitive details about her life to a Finnish official who was male and, first and foremost, she identified the interpreter as one of her own tribe. “I got so scared that he would report me to my father who I didn’t tell the whole truth to”. Lara’s concerns were confirmed as later some Iraqis in Finland informed her father of her whereabouts.

In addition to Lara’s refusal to submit to the father’s demand to become the 3rd wife of her own cousin, Lara has a dream to become a tattoo artist. In fact, she already is one.
Lara worked as a tattoo artist in Iraq. It was not her official job. It could not be. It was her secret job in a beauty salon in Baghdad which was never advertised.

Being a female tattoo artist is a taboo for a woman in Iraq and considered to be shameful employment. Especially so since women tattooists have to come into contact with a strange man’s skin. So the beauty salon never advertised the tattoo services, and the male clients remained silent. Lara suspects that militia had a spy and that’s how she was uncovered and they started threatening her. After that she fled the country, even though the final exams in her trade school were near.

Being a female tattoo artist is a taboo for a woman in Iraq and considered to be shameful employment.

According to the Finnish Immigration Office, being a tattoo artist in an environment where it is considered to be a sin cannot be of much danger to her. The Finnish official even expressed an opinion that to “avoid danger, she just needs to just cover her body”. Now it is not only Sunni militia in Baghdad, but Finnish officials who decide what one should wear and what one should be. MIGRI also concluded in their decision that Lara has “a safety net” in Iraq to go back to, namely her father. The same father who intended to arrange for his daughter’s marriage against her will. The father who sent threats to his daughter when she was in Finland, the latest soon after Lara had escaped deportation. ”I have no one to turn to”, Lara said. She has no passport, so she doesn’t have a chance to flee from Iraq if returned, if she makes it alive from the airport where her cousin works. Iraqi women can only get a passport with approval of a male family member like a father or brother.

Lara showed me some of the tattoos she’s created. “If I had been married, they would have immediately covered me up, leaving just a hole for my eyes. But when my cousin had been tipped to my accounts on social media that I had in Finland under a different name, they got access to the images of the tattoos I made. This kind of perceived indecency can be punished by death in Iraq as my father and his nephew think I have damaged their honour”.

Lara

Lara

There are so many books about courageous young women who are not afraid to fight for their right to be free. Lara’s story is yet to be written. But if we feel compassion to Sameem Ali, a Pakistani girl married to a complete stranger when she was 13, why can’t we feel the same towards Lara?

Working on this piece about Lara, I can’t get rid of a disturbing comparison of her fate, her life and her ordeal with my own daughter who was born the same year as Lara. And thinking of how different their lives are, I can only feel deep respect towards another brave woman, Lara’s mother who didn’t hesitate to stay on the side of her daughter. “What would happen to your mother if she is deported but you stay in Finland”, I asked Lara. “They would punish her. They would punish her the way they want to punish me”, she said. On the day of Lara’s failed deportation to Iraq, her mother was standing among those people in the airport of Vantaa who protested the decision by the Finnish authorities. She was crying. But she was not silent.

I can only feel deep respect towards another brave woman, Lara’s mother who didn’t hesitate to stay on the side of her daughter

Outi Ahola, one of activists of the Stop Deportation movement in Finland, tells me “The heartbroken woman was cursing the militias and tribes in a loud voice. One Iraqi asylum seeker streamed the whole protest live and interviewed also Lara’s mother. An hour after the plane had taken off, Lara’s mother heard from protesters that Lara was not on the plane but saved and had been taken back to the Metsälä detention centre. Then she started crying tears of joy. Apparently the live-stream from the airport was seen in Iraq, since which, Lara has got new terrifying threats against her life”.

Lara

Lara

As a postscript, Lara has now been released from detention, but the fate of her and her mother are not yet decided.

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