Ban Jamil Katto grew up in Baghdad and for the majority of her life she lived under the rule of Saddam Hussein. She was a religious minority, a Christian in a Muslim country. After growing up in what she fondly remembers as a privileged household, she decided she would become a lawyer. Both of her parents were extremely supportive, something she does not take for granted. In Iraq, she explains, law school is selective and rigorous, especially for women. In addition to the academic pressure, community values weighed on her heavily.
You are seen as a woman, not a human being.
“A female working? Why?” Women were supposed to be in the home and serve their husbands. This sentiment, Ban says, was one of the “biggest challenges” within her community. “I can’t say it was an easy life – it was not,” she recalls. Iraqis answer to members of their family, and perhaps even more so to the members of their community. As a woman, she says, you are seen “only as a woman, not a human being.” But despite this, her strong and independent nature carried her forward. “I don’t listen to anyone!” she jokes.
Once Ban graduated from her studies and became a lawyer, she saw first-hand how the legal system in Iraq operated. “The corruption was there from the beginning,” she says. The laws in existence legitimized rape, discredited victim testimony, and rewarded judges for participating in bribery. But no matter how much she fumed, she was unable to criticize any government-run mechanism. What would happen if one tried? “End of discussion,” she says. “You and your family will be disappeared.” So, she faced corruption among the judiciary “in [her] own way,” which, unsurprisingly, brought its own problems.
After Saddam was taken down in 2003, she recalls being hopeful. The international community started to make its presence known in Baghdad, championing liberal values and democracy. Ban saw this as an opportunity to get involved in organizations that matched values she believed in but was never allowed to express. One of these organizations was the Assyrian Women’s Union. The organization focused on empowering women to be independent, work for themselves and know their human rights. After starting work as a volunteer, she quickly rose up in management positions.
During the political transitional period in Iraq, Ban formed a “great relationship” with the country’s chief executive authority at the time, American diplomat Paul Bremer. Along with other women’s organizations, Ban recalls the development project that came to be drafting a new constitution for Iraq. Their focus was to establish a new legal system that championed the international community’s values for good. Workshops popped up around the country to inform citizens of their rights and how and when they should vote. Things seemed to be looking up.
“When you fight for something, it’s not just about going to war,” she says. It’s also about “fighting peacefully…against a political system.” But their fight seemed to be in vain. The final draft of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution to be voted on, she says, was significantly different from the draft her and her colleagues pored over.
We will kill you and your family.
Shortly after 2005, Ban starting working in the Ministry of Human Rights, where she received death threats from anonymous callers. She recalls one that threatened, “If you take one step inside the Ministry, we will kill you and your family.” She remembers the prevalence of ISIS and “critical” civil unrest. By 2010, churches were being regularly targeted and bombed by terrorists.
The church she belonged to was one of those specifically targeted. “They started killing everyone one by one,” including the priest she had a close relationship with for many years. The death threats to her family increased. At that point, her and her husband decided to leave the country. “You don’t know whether you will live every day.” She recalls telling her husband and co-workers “good-bye” at the beginning of each day, just in case.
Freedom means responsibility.
After fleeing Iraq, Ban and her husband lived in Jordan through the IOM. Feeling safer, she had both of her sons in the country. But she dreamed of America. And after five years, her and her family applied for refugee status to come to the U.S. through the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). Since coming to the U.S., Ban has come full circle in her realization for liberal values and democracy. “Freedom means responsibility,” she says. “Your freedom [depends on] respect[ing] other freedoms.” And with this realization, she continues to fight for the rights of minorities in Iraq, in a place where she feels her voice can finally be appreciated.
Ban has since completed her Master of Laws degree at University of San Diego School of Law and lives in El Cajon, San Diego among a large Chaldean community.