''On a good day, I met someone from ZOA...'' - The story of Abu Lo'ay from Mosul

It’s busy in Abu Lo’ay’s bakery in Mosul. With a big smile on his face Abu Lo’ay welcomes customers, puts his men to work, and makes sure the new flour supplies are stored in the right spot. Men, women, and children buy bread and stay around for some chit-chat with others from the neighbourhood. The baker is fond of his city: “Mosul is in my heart and in my veins. As far as I know my ancestors always lived here. I love the city with the beautiful river Tigris. With the historical old city. The mosque on the other side of the road has been here for almost 1000 years. On this beautiful location in the old city, I started my bakery 27 years ago.”

Abu explains how his bakery thrived before ISIS took over the city: ”My bakery was a great success. From all of Mosul people came to my Al-Azawi bakery to buy their bread, even from the other side of the Tigris. Every day I sold 18.000 breads. People were standing for my shop window looking at the delicious food we had. Every day, I worked from 2 AM until 10 PM in the bakery. It didn’t bother me, I loved my work, I loved to be in this old city-centre.”

There was a black cloud all over the street because of all the nikabs

But this would all change after ISIS conquered Mosul. ”In the months before the arrival of ISIS, the expanding Kaliphate was the talk of the town. But nobody realized what it really meant and that they could come to us. One day we were ordered to stay inside. The next day ISIS was walking through the streets. After three days it was ordered through the mosques to re-open all shops immediately.

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Abu Lo’ay in front of his bakery

The first year of ISIS no gunshot was fired. They wanted us to believe normal life was simply continuing. But the opposite was true. I lost many customers. Lots of people had fled Mosul. The remaining people were very economical, since many lost their income and the uncertainty of the future. When the prayer calls were heard through the city, everyone in the streets was obliged to pray in the mosque. The prayer-services were lasting almost two hours, keeping the streets empty. This Paris-like street lost all of its charms… Music was forbidden, cellphones as well and there was a black cloud all over the street because of the nikabs. Men had to wear special trousers and a full-grown beard.” Abu smiles: ”Yes, also for me: by then I had a beard and no moustache.”

I often considered fleeing the city, but I was afraid. I have two beautiful daughters. What would they do with my daughters if they capture me while fleeing?

”After the first year, ISIS became more aggressive. We had to pay more taxes. They inspected every day how many bags of flour I had. I had to pay taxes for every bag. People were executed all the time. The coalition troops came closer and closer to liberate Mosul. When they fought in East-Mosul everybody was seeking hide in the old city. So many people with no possessions hiding together was leading to famine. At that time I only sold 8.000 breads a day. I decided to bake another 8.000 to distribute among the poor. Because of the bombings it became worse every day. Nobody dared to go out anymore.”

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A look inside the bakery

The only thing I could do was praying and waiting for the liberation

Then, on a bad day the leaders of ISIS came to the bakery. ”They said: ‘You have to choose: either you will bake for us or we take over your whole bakery.’ I chose the second option. From now on ISIS was running the bakery, and they only baked for ISIS-sympathizers. I went home and did not dare to go out. The only thing I could do was praying and waiting for the liberation. Our neighbourhood was the latest to be liberated. I couldn’t wait. With my son and grandson I wanted to run to the army at the end of the street, but an ISIS-fighter stopped us. I am sure God was protecting us when the fighter received a call on his phone. He was distracted so we could run to the Iraqi army.”

ZOA listened to my story and my dreams

”The old city was completely destroyed, so we went to East-Mosul. After half a year the roads were a little bit cleaned up, so I could return to my bakery. I was shocked. It was a complete mess. A ruin. I had no money to rebuild it, so I gave up on the idea that I ever could reopen my bakery. But on a good day I met someone from ZOA. He asked me to reopen my bakery in order to provide food to the city. ZOA promised me to help me and fund the rebuilding of my bakery. As a compensation, I had to distribute my bread for free for six months. Isn’t it amazing? Without ZOA, I don’t know where I would have been now. They didn’t just provide money. They listened to my story and my dreams. ZOA made my dreams come true, they empowered me to help others.”

Click here to read more about ZOA’s programme in Iraq.