Leaving Oppression: A Secular Rescue Story


September 9, 2020

Matthew Cravatta is coordinator of Secular Rescue, a program of the Center for Inquiry that identifies those writers, activists, and everyday citizens in countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Iraq who live under the threat of violence and death and provides financial and diplomatic assistance to help them escape to safety.


Jana (an alias) is a twenty-eight-year-old Iraqi ex-Muslim. Like nearly every girl in Iraq, Jana was raised as a Muslim, specifically a Shia. She was forced to adhere to its strictures, teachings, and basic rules—as well as its unwritten ones. Jana followed these beliefs and rules but eventually found her faith waning. She sought to understand what she was taught to believe without question. Muslim children and teens who question their religion receive swift punishment. Islam and the Qur’an are not to be questioned.

Jana suffered unprintable horrors as a child, including sexual abuse and regular vicious assaults. As Jana grew up and became a young woman, she continued to be on the receiving end of various beatings from family members. She was even stabbed by her brother. She boldly pushed forward and began to express her doubts. She began to question the Qur’an. “Some things were just not reasonable,” she told Secular Rescue. “I kept telling myself that I can’t have doubts.”

Gender-based inequalities associated with social and religious norms began to stir anger in Jana. Her family threatened to kill her. Her mother and brothers beat her repeatedly for questioning the status quo. “When I saw there is no way out for me, I tried to kill myself many times over the years. … I was depressed and hopeless and began to think only death could save me.”

“One day I saw some online posts about some girls who managed to escape their families … and it gave me hope.” Jana sent a message to one of the girls and asked how she was able to get away. “She said if you really want to do it, you can do it, but you’ll need money.”

Despite her mother stealing some of her funds, Jana eventually saved up the money she needed and procured her passport, which her mother had hidden away. With the passport in hand, Jana applied for an electronic visa to an undisclosed country. “I couldn’t believe I’d actually do it,” she said.

The very next morning, Jana met with a travel agent and booked the flight out of Iraq. “I really thought they wouldn’t let me board [the plane], but I got the go-ahead,” she told Secular Rescue. “I was so happy I threw away my black abaya [a robe-like dress] at the airport. I still couldn’t take off my hijab as it’s not allowed there. … But as soon as I got out of the airport, I took it off,” she said. “I felt happy and free, like I didn’t have a care in the world.”

However, Jana was not out of the woods yet. Being on her own was drawing the attention of hotel staff in her new location. They started asking questions and wondered why she was not wearing the hijab even though she was wearing it in her identification photo. She quickly relocated to a different hotel in a different city, where she was arrested and held for two days without food and her phone. Then, out of the blue, they finally released her.

Jana soon contacted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to request asylum, but she was told to go see immigration officials instead. Immigration told her they would not accept such requests from Iraqis. “We don’t help Iraqis, only Syrians,” they told her. She left, but when she returned later with a lawyer, they gave her an appointment for an asylum interview. She still needed money; she was exhausted, needed a place to stay, and was on the edge of homelessness.

In the nick of time, she received a text from someone who wanted to provide her some money. Although at first resistant, Jana finally relented. She got herself a hotel room and food. She then borrowed more money and was adamant that it was a loan. She used this advance to get an apartment.

After seeking help from other swamped humanitarian organizations in the region with little assistance available to her, Jana reached out to Secular Rescue. With little time to lose, Secular Rescue sought out their contacts in the region and vetted Jana’s claims. Finding her atheist-persecution report to be true, precarious, and urgent, Secular Rescue reassured her that she is not alone and they could provide her with financial assistance.

Meanwhile, Jana was forced to move around to different cities, which reset her asylum case with each relocation. This tactic forced her to spend nearly all her money, which was all borrowed. She was again on the cusp of homelessness, which reignited her despair. And this is when Secular Rescue’s emergency aid was transferred to Jana, which brought an immense sense of relief. The aid package helped her meet many basic needs as well as some urgent medical attention that she required but had previously set aside.

“I’m happy and relieved I don’t have to think about how to pay,” she told us. “Before, I felt awful. I even thought, I’m alone with no support … I thought to end my life, but Secular Rescue … gave me hope,” she said. While Jana’s asylum case crawls its way through an excessively lengthy review process—all too typical these days—Secular Rescue will continue to stand by her. Our aid has allowed Jana to dream, have hope, and look to the future with energy, bright eyes, and a sense of purpose.


Matt Cravatta is the coordinator of Secular Rescue. This article was originally published in Freethought in Action (Fall 2020).

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