Katy Balls Katy Balls

Nadhim Zahawi: how I escaped Saddam’s Iraq

One night in December 1977, when Saddam Hussein was deputy leader of Iraq and already the strongman of the government, Nadhim Zahawi’s father was tipped off that Saddam’s secret police were after him. Zahawi, a Kurd working in Baghdad, decided to leave right away. He phoned the office to say that he was travelling to the north of the country for work and quickly set about his escape. The Baathist secret police did come for him that night, but by the time they arrived at his house, he was at Baghdad International Airport with a ticket to London.

An 11-year-old Nadhim nervously saw him off at the airport with his mother and sister – it would have looked suspicious if the family hadn’t so they stood at a viewing platform where you could see passengers walk to the aircraft and go up the steps. It meant he was watching when the plane was intercepted by the military. ‘Just before take-off, an army truck drove to the plane,’ Zahawi says. ‘We were all terrified. We were convinced they were going to bring him down off the plane: that’s what they do. But they brought a different man down.’ It was the man sitting behind Zahawi’s father. Shortly after this escape, the rest of the family flew out and met him in London.

This is the story Zahawi hinted at when winning ‘Minister to Watch’ at The Spectator’s Parliamentarian awards last year. ‘When I stand in the mirror shaving,’ he told guests, ‘I have to pinch myself. How did a boy from Iraq, who ended up on these shores at the age of 11 without a word of English, become Secretary of State for Education?’ He didn’t say any more than that – this is the first time he has told the full story about his journey to the UK.

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