June 2014 is when Daesh (ISIS) barged into Iraq and took control over one of its biggest cities; Mosul. The Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) were the remnants of Zarqawi’s group, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda primarily active in Iraq. He died in an American airstrike in 2006, while attending a meeting in a safe house.

Fighters loyal to him and Al-Qaeda were fragmented, and susceptible to new extreme ideologies that would unite them. They found this in their new leader known by his alias Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

When the rebels were fighting the Syrian government, the ISI leader sent a deputy to start a branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria and fight alongside with them. In order to grow stronger, Baghdadi started to attack the Iraqi prisons to free the former jihadists and recruit new ones. After gaining massive control in Syria, ISI becomes ISIS. By June 2014, they had established an army powerful enough to launch a military style invasion into Iraq. The Iraqi army, weakened by corruption, folds, offering barely any resistance.

Furthermore, many Sunnis were tired of the Shia-dominated and increasingly authoritarian government, and welcome or at least tolerate ISIS’s arrival. Within days, ISIS controlled a third of Iraq and a big part of Syria. I had just started working for UNICEF around that time.

It was also in 2014 when I met my friend H who had just returned from abroad. He had a beard that he grew for 3 years straight. We used to hang out together all the time, going out in Erbil and going for hikes on the weekends. He used to be harassed and called terrorist most of the times. To support him, my friend R and I decided to grow our beard together and said we would grow it and shave after 6 months. My friend R had a hard time keeping his commitment for that long and shaved it off after 8 weeks. Me on the other hand, obviously as committed as ever, grew my beard for 6 months straight.

It was a big struggle to keep growing it for that long, but I didn’t just grow it, I kept it neat and clean. Before I knew it, it became the newest trend. I’d like to think I was one of the pioneers that brought the beard back in to town, especially in a society where big beards were/are associated with Muslim extremism and not so much fashion trends.

The struggle was not only to keep it shiny with oil, shampoo, conditioners and to trim it, it was more than that. Everyone, including my mother, neighbours, friends and colleagues used to tell me I looked like an ISIS member and that I should shave to go back to my old original ‘clean’ look. Just like everyone else.

Back home, growing a beard is associated to religious beliefs, but anyone who knew me, knew that I was not doing it for religious reasons, yet I was still told to shave.

Living in Kurdistan, Iraq is not like living in London, we have security checkpoints, even within its cities. When I used to drive or walk, I would always get stopped and asked for my ID-card. Don’t get me started on the checkpoints between the cities! They have all stopped me to check my car and my ID, every time I wanted to go out of the city, which I did on the weekends to go for hiking with my friends. I have so many stories when it comes to these check points and security, if I started talking about, I’d have to start a new blog.

I was afraid of not getting my visa to UK when I got accepted to do my Master’s degree. I thought I’d be rejected and sent back to Iraq because of the preconceptions that people have. I was told by everyone around me that this was a very realistic concern.

The day I landed in London, the gentleman who was checking my documents at the airport had beard himself, which made my entrance to the UK easier than passing any checkpoint from back home.

I thought living in East London, with a big beard and long hair would make me stand out like a black sheep. I was wrong, and so were my family and friends. If you’ve ever been in East London you know what I mean. I have received so much compliments on my beard for the past couple of years while living here.

It went as far as modelling for renowned grooming and beard product companies such as Murdock London! I have gotten the opportunity to inspire others to grow and groom their facial hair.

Living in a conflict zone, makes it hard to be yourself, to do what you want or to be who you want to be. It’s not only the war, but the religion, society, community and social norms that will withhold you from your passions. I have learned to recognize and appreciate the events and people in life that have turned me in the person I am today. Even though this has all happened, I’m still able to pursue the things I enjoy in life and even do things and go to places that I deemed as impossible before!

Photos by: Husam Al-Deen

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