Dr Layla al Roomi

Dr Layla al Roomi

All over the world, ordinary women, men, and children are fighting for the rights of their communities. Dr Layla al Roomi campaigns on behalf of Iraq's Sabean Mandaeans. She spoke to MRG's Preti Taneja.

Layla al Roomi has never forgotten what it means to be Mandaean. Although she left Baghdad in 1966, being a member of one of Iraq’s most ancient minorities means the ties that bind her to her homeland are strong. Mandaeans pray in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, they follow the teachings of John the Baptist and their religion dates back centuries in Iraq. They once numbered 70,000 but since 2003, Iraq’s minority communities including Mandaeans are being targeted for murder, abductions and threats from extremists. Layla’s friends have been subject to kidnapping and physical abuse, fleeing their homes and businesses; her own cousin was killed.

“The Mandaeans have no place to worship”

Among the Sunnis, Shi’a and Christians, a growing number of Mandaean refugees bear witness to the fact that soon this community may be eradicated from Iraq forever. But right now they have more pressing concerns. As minorities and refugees, the specific needs of Mandaeans are getting lost in the confusion of the current situation - they cannot even bury their dead. Layla said, ‘The Mandaeans now have no place to worship and no cemeteries. When people die, family members try to hire a fridge to keep the body inside and then after five days try to take it back to Iraq.’ When she heard about the Mandaean refugees suffering in slums near Damascus, Layla decided to go there to meet them herself.

On the crumbling outskirts of the city, she met families of eight cramped together in one room with no electricity or running water. She met a Mandaean woman who had been raped by four men in front of her husband in Iraq because she would not wear a veil. She met nine year old Mandaean, Selwan, who had half his body and face burned when his parents could not pay his kidnapping ransom quickly enough. All are traumatised, with no support mechanisms to help them come to terms the horror they have experienced.

Turning the world’s attention to Iraqi refugees

For Layla, the situation of the children is particularly hard to bear witness to. For 30 years, she worked as a paediatrician in Glasgow, Scotland. Now she is fighting to turn the world’s attention on Iraqi refugees, and highlight the dangers of the situation for the Mandaean community within the broader tragedy. She says: ‘I have been against the invasion of Iraq by the Americans since the beginning. However I, like most Iraqis I was hopeful that after Saddam things would be better. The nightmare it has turned out to be is far from what most Iraqis dreamed of.’

Her campaigning spirit ignited young. Layla was born in Iraq and began to study medicine at Baghdad University. But in 1963, her final year, there was a coupe and the Ba’ath party came to power. Under anti-communist slogans, thousands of people were killed. Layla, an active member of the Iraqi Democratic Organization of the Student Union was jailed for thee years. Today, despite any personal risk, she keeps on campaigning so the voices of Mandaeans are not lost forever and so one day they might be able to return home. 

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