17 Iraqi Immigrants Arrive in Israel

In the dead of night Wednesday, a group of 17 new immigrants arrived in Israel from Iraq. The Nissan family said they have been trying for many years to come to Israel.

Relatives who have been living in Israel for several years refused the Absorption Ministry's suggestion to send the new arrivals to a Be'er Sheva absorption center and the Nissan family is currently staying with relatives in Hadera.

In 2000, Rachel Nissan and her husband Amir, both from Baghdad, secretly immigrated to Israel just days after they were married. "From the minute we got here, we started to find out how we could ltake care of the family we left behind," says 26-year-old Amir, who serves as the family's spokesman. Amir, following strict orders from Jewish Agency representatives who have been with the new arrivals since they landed, refuses to give details on how he reached Israel or how the 17 new immigrants were brought over.

The 17 include his wife's parents, Avraham and Tikva, four of their daughters, two sons and a nephew - all aged under 18. Another one of Rachel's sisters immigrated with her husband and their five children. Amir's uncle also managed to join the special contingent. None of the new arrivals speaks Hebrew and they are camped out in Amir and Rachel's house and with Amir's uncle in Hadera.

Amir's brother Assaf managed to get special leave from the army for the occasion. Assaf, who is due to be discharged from the Israel Defense Forces in six months time, came to Israel when he was 16 years old. He says that he managed to get a passport and told the Iraqi authorities he was going on holiday to Jordan. Before leaving Iraq, he got in touch with his grandmother in Israel and told her of his `holiday' plans. "I arrived in Jordan at 9 A.M. and by 11.30 A.M. I was in Israel," he says with a broad smile.

The story of how the Nissan family arrived in Israel is a complicated one. Amir says that some 27 years ago, the family left the once-prosperous Baghdad Jewish neighborhood of Bataween and moved in with a Muslim family who tried hard to hide the Jewish family's identity.

The father, Avraham, owned a prosperous garage and the family was considered well-to-do. When some of the older children, who had not managed to change their Jewish surname, applied to university, they were rejected.

Avraham says that when the war in Iraq broke out, the neighborhood where the family was living was bombed heavily since the offices of Saddam Hussein's security forces were located nearby. "Many neighbors were killed in those strikes," adds Amir.

The family, nonetheless, waited until it was certain that Saddam's regime had fallen. "Only the week after the famous statue was toppled did they flee from home," says Amir. "They were scared." He says that they left without anything and so fast that Avraham did not even manage to sell his business. The family contacted the Jewish Agency, staying awhile in another Iraqi city and were finally brought to Israel, with a stopover on the way.

"Our parents talked about immigrating to Israel ever since we were children," adds Assaf. "The problem is that every time we saved enough money and we planned to leave, a war broke out and when war breaks out in Iraq, no one can leave the country. Once it was the Iran-Iraq war, then the first Gulf War and then the second Gulf War."

Assaf says that had he not managed to escape from Iraq, he would have had to enlist in Saddam's army. "I would have tried to get out of it, though. You pay someone $500 and it would have been sorted," he says.

Amir says he has not slept a wink since the family arrived from Iraq. The media have not let them alone for a moment, and the family was taken by one reporter to a nearby mall for a photo opportunity to capture the new immigrants against the backdrop of what some consider a social symbol of the new Israeliness. Neighbors who saw the fuss over the new Arabic-speaking family were certain they were Druze from south Lebanon who had been smuggled in by the IDF.

"It's enormously exciting," says Amir. "We've been worried about them since the moment we arrived in Israel and now they are here." He says he will rent a nearby apartment for the family in the coming days. "We have not seen them for three years. That's a long time. Now we'll be close by," he says.