By: Georgia Free

Imagine fleeing your home, your friends, your extended family – everything you know, at the age of nine.

Before most kids have even learnt their times tables, Deena Yako fled her home country of Iraq to escape war and persecution.

Almost four years later, she and her family settled in Australia – but the journey to get here was long and arduous.

This World Refugee Day, Deena Yako, loyal Christian radio listener and Director of Community Engagement at the Refugee Council of Australia, shared her family’s story.

Born Into War

Born in Iraq, Deena Yako’s childhood was surrounded by war and destruction. For as long as she could remember, Iraq and the neighbouring Iran had been in conflict, causing unrest and danger for many Iraqi citizens.

By the time Deena was eight years old, the situation had become untenable for their family of four – and her parents made plans to escape.

“My parents obviously wanted a better life for myself and my brother. They wanted a place they could call home and was safe to raise a family,” Deena told me.

(Left to right) Deena wearing her traditional indigenous Assyrian costume, Deena (present day), Deena with her mum and dad in Kirkuk, Iraq, early 1980s.

“To add another layer to the complex political climate in Iraq, we were Christians. My father comes from a small religious minority known as the Mandaeans but my mum was also a Christian.

“So this added another layer of the persecution we faced.”

In November 1986, the family left their home for the Iranian border. It was a plan hatched in secrecy – without the knowledge of Deena and her brother. If the authorities found out, the whole family could face the death penalty.

“I remember my parents kissing my grandmother goodbye,” Deena recalled.

“At the time, I couldn’t really work out why my grandmother was so emotional. But I think that spoke volumes of how scared she was for our safety. But also, she knew that may be the last time she ever saw us.”

Journey to Iran

On a cold winter’s morning in November 1986, Deena and her family left their village in a taxi. The driver took them as far as possible, before they had to travel through the snowy mountains on foot to get to the Iranian border. A journey that should have taken them three days, took fifteen.

“My memories of that journey were mostly of the cold and darkness,” Deena said.

“We ended up being stranded in the middle of nowhere… the paths and roads that led to the border were completely covered in snow.

For about a week, Deena and her family survived on dry bread and drinking tea in a remote village, before continuing their journey to the border.

“It just got colder and colder. We weren’t given the appropriate clothing to wear. We were just relying on the hope that we would make it through,” Deena shared.

“And we made it. I believe in miracles, and I think that’s the first time that I experienced a miracle in the making.”

A Waiting Game

After arriving in Iran, Deena and her family were classed as war refugees. After intense interrogation, including her father sharing details of arrest and torture in Iraq, Deena and her family were placed in a detention centre.

“I found it really difficult to comprehend [the stories] of what my father and some of our family members had been through,” Deena recalled.

The only viable option available to Deena’s family was applying for a humanitarian visa to seek resettlement in a foreign country. Once the application was lodged, all there was to do was wait.

“The conditions in the detention centre were really, really difficult,” Deena said. “We were locked up, surrounded by barbed wire, unable to move freely. There was no running water. There was no education or employment. And we were given very limited rations to get by.”

After eight months, Deena’s family was relocated to community detention. They were able to live within the wider community – but still had restrictions to education and employment.

Finally, three and a half years later, Deena and her family got the news that their visa application had been accepted – in Australia.

“[Receiving the news] was even better than winning the lottery,” Deena said. “Waiting in limbo, not knowing where we would end up… coming to Australia was a second chance at life.”

A New Life

Deena arrived in Australia in 1990, at the age of 13. Soon after arriving, her parents began learning English and Deena and her brother were enrolled in school.

However, the transition was harder than Deena expected. After not attending school in almost four years, Deena found the Year 8 curriculum extremely difficult.

“None of my teachers knew about my background and what I had gone through and there were obviously no services or programs within the school,” Deena said.

“And to be honest, I just didn’t know how to ask for help.”

Five years later, Deena sat her HSC – and failed.

“That was quite disappointing for me personally,” Deena said. “I wanted to make something out of myself. And I got quite disheartened by what I could and couldn’t do.”

How Can We Help?

Deena started working and soon discovered that she had an interest in improving the settlement experience of refugees. She began studying her Diploma of Community Services and started working in the sector.

Deena is now the Director of Community Engagement at the Refugee Council of Australia – and manages a program called Refugee Stories for Change.

“The aim of the program is to work with people with lived experience and give them the platform to tell their stories to the wider public.”

This Refugee Week, Deena hopes that sharing her story will cause Australians to examine their own perceptions and biases about refugees and asylum seekers.

“Not everything you see on TV is accurate. It’s about education,” Deena reminded. “Getting involved, educating ourselves, advocating for better policies. I think that’s what we are all working towards. But also give people the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words.”

For more on Deena’s work, visit

Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.

All images supplied 

About the Author: Georgia Free is a broadcaster and writer from Sydney, Australia.