BY CALUM FRASER
Taban Shoresh is a child genocide survivor who escaped Iraq after her father was poisoned by Saddam Hussein’s spies. In 1986 she and her family were held in prison for two weeks where she could hear the screams of Kurds being tortured. Saddam nicknamed the genocide ‘Anfal’ – after the triumph of some of the first Muslims over pagans in 624AD. It was killing on an industrial scale, using chemical weapons, mass graves and firing squads.
Taban managed to escape with her family and settle in South London. More than 25 years later, witnessing the atrocities in the Middle East unfolding, the Clapham Common resident quit her city job as an investment banker and started a charity to help refugee women fleeing the violence. She is now one of 25 candidates put forward in a campaign to build more statues of women in the UK.
The 35-year-old said: “I cried when they called me up to tell me I had been nominated for a statue. I was humbled and honoured. I didn’t understand why they had chosen me – there are so many amazing women out there.”
As many as 200,000 Kurds may have been killed between 1986 and 1989 during the Iran-Iraq conflict, according to Human Rights Watch. Taban’s father, as a poet and freedom fighter, was one of many Kurds on Saddam’s most wanted list. She remembers regime thugs coming to her door and arresting her family when she was four. The single mum said: “Saddam’s tactic for capturing wanted men was to capture their families.
They took us to an ethnic prison with other Kurds and interrogated the adults. “After two weeks we were lined up and our names were called out. At that time it was known that they would bury people alive whose names had been called out.” The family were bundled into a transport vehicle.
“I don’t know exactly what happened,” Taban said. “But a deal must have been made. We were driven out and then the truck stopped. Two Kurdish men opened the door saying they were here to help us. “They said we had to pretend to be dead. Then they put us in another vehicle and drove us away.”
The family passed from one contact to another through a network of underground rebels until they made it to a camp in Iran. By that point Taban’s father had been poisoned by regime spies.
Amnesty International heard about his condition and flew him to the UK where the family were later brought out as refugees in 1988. Taban still remembers her first days in school when she arrived in South London. The 35-year-old said: “Everything was completely different. We had been forced out of the place we knew and away from the people we loved.
“Children can be quite mean, especially if you’re different. I remember a moment where I couldn’t speak English and one of the kids in the lunch line said, ‘Your dad is Saddam Hussein.’
“I understood the words dad and Saddam Hussein. I felt all these emotions in me that I couldn’t verbalise, so I reacted physically and pushed the girl. Then I burst out crying.
“I just kind of stopped talking after that and started to block out the past.” It wasn’t until August 2014, working for Investec Asset Management, when she saw the humanitarian crisis escalating in Syria, that she felt an overwhelming desire to return to the middle east. She joined a relief mission with the Rwanga Foundation and helped free Yazidi families trapped by ISIS. She returned to the UK 15 months later and made the first steps towards opening the Lotus Flower charity centres for refugee women.
She said: “I felt a sense of guilt and shock. I wanted to give back in some way. Everything started from my living room in Clapham. There was one donor who completely believed in the cause and we kicked on from there.” The Lotus Flower now has three centres in refugee camps across the Middle East, helping around 2,600 women.
Taban said: “These are all traumatised women. Some have been raped, imprisoned, sold on the sex trade by ISIS or witnessed family members being killed. “Our centres try to provide a safe social centre for them. We focus on mental health, education, well being, gender equality, physical health – for most of them, it is the only place where they can get some exercise.”
The campaign to get a permanent outdoor statue of Taban erected is being led by the Put Her Forward (PHF) and the None Zero One groups (NZO). A spokeswoman for PHF and NZO said: “There are 925 public statues in the UK, yet there are only 25 of non-royal, non-mythical women. There are more statues of goats. There are more statues of men called John. But together, we can change all that.”
They have constructed 3D printed models of the statues to get the ball rolling. There are no general rules for statue commissioning – it is up to individual councils to erect them. Cat Harrison, lead artist for PHF and NZO, said: “We are honoured to have Taban Shoresh put forward. We were hugely moved by her nomination, which talked of her astonishing selflessness and 100 per cent commitment to supporting women and girl survivors of conflict.
What Taban has achieved in a matter of months with The Lotus Flower is quite simply incredible and we’ve no doubt that she will continue to support many more thousands of women and girls in the future. “We are yet to finalise plans for where the statue will go long-term.”
A statue of Taban Shoresh is due to be erected in central London as one of 25 women honoured for their impact on the world as part of the Put Her Forward initiative commissioned by Heritage Open Days to double the number of statues of non-mythical, non-royal women in England. Taban won the Hearst Bravery Award in 2014, was a finalist in Red magazine’s prestigious Women of the Year awards in 2016, and was highly commended for her work. Winning a Peace Award by the Universal Peace Federation, Taban delivered a keynote speech at One Young World in Bogota alongside Sir Bob Geldof, the late Kofi Annan and other notable world figures in 2017.
Photo: Taban Shoresh, wearing a T-shirt with her charity’s name on it, with a scale model of the statue
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