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Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmed: From refugee to the First Lady of Iraq

Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmed: From refugee to the First Lady of Iraq
10 min read
17 April, 2024
The New Arab Meets: Politician, writer and current First Lady of Iraq, Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmed, whose humanitarian efforts hope to bring change and unity to Iraq.

Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmed was just 10 years old when a series of events following the 1958 military coup forced her family to flee Iraq.

Her father, the eminent Kurdish jurist and author Ibrahim Ahmed, had already survived one assassination attempt after serving time in Baghdad’s notorious Abu Graib prison on trumped-up charges of insurrection.

His novel Jani Gal, written while incarcerated, was widely viewed as a call for Kurdish independence during a time of violent upheaval in Iraqi politics. Her novelist mother, Galawezh, refused to leave her husband’s side and, along with their eight children, they fled to Iran.

The family returned to Iraq in 1966 where Ibrahim Ahmed continued to fight for the rights of the oppressed. They were forced into exile once again in the late 1970s when the internecine conflict forced Ibrahim Ahmed’s family to be torn apart, with Shanaz taking refuge in Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Syria and finally the UK.

Meanwhile, his eldest daughter Hero joined the resistance against Saddam Hussein in the Zagros mountains alongside her husband Jalal Talabani.

Caught in the crossfires of assassination attempts, coups, rebellions and a series of regional wars throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Shanaz never imagined she would one day stand beside her husband, Abdul Latif Jamal Rashid, as he was inaugurated the ninth president of Iraq in 2022.

While the road to Salam Palace has not been easy, Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmed is now blazing a different – perhaps more difficult – trail as First Lady in a country where the role has never been formally recognised – at least not in the Western sense.

In Middle Eastern countries, the role of the First Lady has often been controversial. Consider Egypt’s Jehan Sadat, whose pioneering work on women’s rights, education, social justice, and poverty relief in the late 1970s was far eclipsed by the policies of her husband, President Anwar Sadat. 

Shanaz says she does not model herself on icons past or present, because the many years she spent in exile among various Arab communities in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, “has taught me how to adapt to different cultures, while at the same time understand what unites the women of our region, and how the fundamentals really are the same.”

"Women in Iraq, like elsewhere in the region and the world, want to live in dignity, security, and equality and they aspire to a brighter future for themselves and their families," says Shanaz, in an interview with The New Arab at Salam Palace.  

"They want opportunities to pursue their own dreams, and they want to protect their loved ones from violence, substance abuse and other dangers.”

Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmed has been keen to use her position to assist families 

Twenty years after the US-led invasion, Iraq continues to face immense challenges. Economic prosperity, political stability and security remain elusive. And every Iraqi community, regardless of ethnicity or religion, harbours emotional wounds stemming from decades of repression, war, terrorism and trauma.

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“Iraq has been through so much in the past 45 years. A lot of hatred has built up between communities, ethnic groups and political forces. We must now work on building trust so that this can lead to tolerance and peace,” says Shanaz.

As an ethnic Kurd, Shanaz understands the need to remember past wounds alongside an urgency to build the foundations for a better future in Iraq for generations to come.

Her many projects include accelerating the excavation of the remaining mass graves scattered across the country to ensure all Iraqi victims of the former regime, regardless of religion or ethnicity, receive dignified burials and their loved ones are given closure. 

More than 200 mass graves have been excavated so far and tens of thousands of victims — killed by the regime of Saddam Hussein in atrocities against Shia activists and Kurds — are thought to be in these mass graves, although many more are believed to exist.  

“I am passionate about justice,” she says. “No doubt I get that from my father who risked his life for his convictions. If I am now in a position to cast the spotlight on the suffering of these families and make sure their stories are told to a wider regional and international audience, I will do my utmost to help make it happen.”

Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmed with King Charles during his Coronation 

Shanaz is also keen to use her position to assist families afflicted by other tragedies. Following the devastating earthquakes in February 2023, Shanaz wasted no time launching a nationwide campaign to collect aid and use diplomatic channels to expedite their delivery to hard-hit areas in Syria and Turkey.

Shanaz is not new to the humanitarian file and is adept at navigating restrictions. Although she never took part in the armed resistance against Saddam Hussein like her sister Hero and brother-in-law Jalal Talabani, Shanaz was integral to the efforts from abroad through fundraising, lobbying, raising international awareness and organising political rallies.

While her husband was among the leading figures of the Iraqi political opposition in exile, Shanaz took the lead on the humanitarian efforts.

Following the 1991 Kurdish uprising, the first Gulf War and the imposition of sanctions on Iraq, Shanaz co-founded Kurdistan Children’s Fund (KCF) in the UK, and later Kurdistan Save the Children (KSC) with her sister Hero in Sulaymaniyah. 

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Today, KSC is the primary sponsor of a children’s activity centre at the Arbat Camp on the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah, which shelters nearly 10,000 refugees, half of them children, who fled ongoing violence in neighbouring Syria since 2013

“At the time, the international community had imposed sanctions on Iraq and Baghdad had, in turn, imposed sanctions on the Kurdistan Region so the Kurdish cities had it doubly hard,” says Shanaz.

“KCF was the only mechanism through which we could bring in any aid. In those days, there were many children in the country whose families were torn apart by war, so one of our first projects was to initiate a child sponsorship programme for people living abroad to help.”  

Education is another file she takes seriously, saying it is “the lightness in the dark”. As such, she channels significant efforts and resources into ensuring children, especially high-achieving students, have access to the right education to put them on the path to success in their chosen careers.

“Partly as a result of my father’s political activity, we often had to move around, and my education was repeatedly interrupted,” she recounts.

“I had wanted to study medicine and become a doctor, but this proved impossible. For this reason, I never want to see a child in this country denied the right to an education.”

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In 2001, through KSC, she and her sister Hero established the Shahid Jabbar Exemplary High School in Sulaymaniyah. It is an institution reserved for high-performing students and the entrance exams are rigorous.

“We must invest in the next generation if we truly want to see Iraq reclaim its former glory and live up to its reputation as the cradle of civilization,” she says.

Last year, she supported a unique initiative aimed at orphaned boys in Baghdad called the Baghdad Gate. Operated by an energetic director, the latter mentors boys and young men so they learn how to earn a living rather than get drawn into a life of petty crime.

Shanaz and her husband, President Abdul Latif Jamal Rashid, have also been keen proponents of restoring Iraq’s cultural pride.

They have championed the cause of returning Mesopotamian and Assyrian artefacts mostly looted or borrowed from Iraqi museums over the decades. For instance, following an official visit to Rome last June, they brought back a 2,800-year-old cuneiform tablet dating back to the Assyrian era.

She is also spearheading the preservation and restoration of heritage sites, some in partnership with UNESCO, which include the rehabilitation of the historic wall on Mawlawi Street and the Sulaymaniyah Sara (Palace) as well as one archaeological dig.

“When I returned to Baghdad for the first time after the 2003 war, I was deeply upset by the destruction of so many historical sites,” says Shanaz.

“Later, we witnessed further desecration of Iraq’s ancient heritage by Daesh (Islamic State group) terrorists. We have a responsibility, a duty, to preserve our history regardless of what political ideology governs this country.” 

Among regional art specialists, Iraq’s President and First Lady are noted for their private collection of Iraqi and traditional artworks, some of which are on display at the presidential residence in Baghdad, Zamwa Gallery and Latif Rashid Gallery in Sulaymaniyah. The Zamwa Gallery was, in fact, Shanaz’s childhood home, and was converted into a gallery and salon for artists.

“I am very passionate about art, and its power to allow people to express themselves, or convey vital messages, whether about trauma or war,” she says. “It is our duty to encourage this country’s artists because artists are witnesses, and their works are a record of our times.”

Shanaz is also a keen proponent of sports, and sponsors national teams and individual athletes, supporting them in matches and competitions both in the country and abroad.

“Sports are very important, not only for physical wellness, but also for social cohesion, community-building, and tolerance,” she says.

When she is not overseeing her myriad humanitarian and cultural projects, Shanaz enjoys scouring the bazaars for antiques or overlooked little treasures telling tales of bygone times.

Over the years she has collected many items, from silver platters engraved with the coronation date of Faisal II, to inexpensive but unique knicknacks. For Shanaz, it is important to ensure such items are salvaged and preserved as testaments to various chapters of Iraq’s tumultuous history.

“When I look at an old necklace, I think about how the original owner must have valued even the simplest of beads,” she says.

“When I pass an old road or crumbling house, I imagine all the stories kept under each pillow or soaked up by every brick, all the memories created, good and bad. I wish walls sticks and rocks could talk, as more truths about our history could be told.”


In Iraq, the role of “First Lady” is ill-defined and often questioned by detractors. While it may be an uphill battle, Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmed has drawn from her own experiences as a refugee and found a different niche.

In contrast to her senior position in Kurdish regional politics, at the national level, she avoids the rough-and-tumble of Iraqi politics, budgets, and party squabbles, rather, finding a role in the critical world of humanitarian efforts.

For a country that has experienced decades of trauma, this is a role that must be filled, both in this government and those that will follow.

Tanya Goudsouzian is an Istanbul-based Canadian journalist who has covered the Middle East for over two decades. Noted for her interviews with leading political figures, she is currently Executive Producer of TRT World's "One on One" show. Previously, she was the Opinion Editor at Al Jazeera English

Follow her on Twitter: @tgoudsouzian