'I believe a lot of Iraqi people are happy that I'm here'

Visiting Jerusalem, Miss Iraq is embraced by Israelis, praised for her bravery

Sarah Idan, whose family had to flee Iraq after she posted a photo in which she posed with Miss Israel, is warmly received by locals at Mahane Yehuda market

Iraq’s representative at the 2017 Miss Universe pageant, Sarah Idan, left, with Israelis at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, June 2018. (Screen capture: Hadashot)
Iraq’s representative at the 2017 Miss Universe pageant, Sarah Idan, left, with Israelis at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, June 2018. (Screen capture: Hadashot)

Iraq’s representative at the 2017 Miss Universe pageant — whose Instagram photo last year with her Israeli counterpart forced her family to flee the Middle Eastern country — was cheered and hugged this week by shoppers at an iconic Jerusalem market during an extraordinary visit to Israel.

“It actually felt weird — the people look like my people. And the city looks like Damascus, like Syria, and I’ve been there, so everything seems familiar to me,” Sarah Idan said in a TV item aired Tuesday by Hadashot.

While Idan toured the Mahane Yehuda market, she encountered numerous Israelis of Iraqi origin, one of whom told her she would like to go back to Iraq.

“Inshallah,” or God willing, was Idan’s answer.

Idan was showered with praise, with one Israeli woman telling her: “Thank you for being so brave, you are an inspiration to all the women in the world.”

The 26-year-old Iraqi-born contestant lives in the United States, but her family was forced to relocate from the Arab country after a photo she posed for together with Miss Israel Adar Gandelsman went viral last year.

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A post shared by Sarah Idan (Sarai) سارة عيدان (@sarahidan)

At the time, she withstood considerable pressure and refused to remove the Instagram image.

Idan came to Israel at the invitation of the American Jewish Committee, and the AJC’s Israel chief Avital Leibovitz said it had taken “several pretty long conversations to convince her to come to Israel. She really wanted to, but was a bit afraid.”

Miss Israel Adar Gandelsman (left) and Miss Iraq Sarah Idan pose for a picture at the Miss Universe pageant in 2017. (Instagram)

From Jerusalem, Idan said Iraqis and Israelis are not enemies.

“I don’t think Iraq and Israel are enemies, I think maybe the governments are enemies with each other,” she said. “But there are a lot of Iraqi people who don’t have a problem with Israel or with the Jewish people. There are a lot of Iraqi people on my side, and I believe they are happy I am here.”

She also recalled the major backlash she received upon posting the Instagram image last year.

“I did not think it would blow up like this when I took this picture,” she said in Israel. “I lived for many years in the US, I have many friends who are Jewish or Israeli, I don’t think about people like that.”

“I cannot go to Iraq anytime soon,” she added, saying she would only feel safe traveling to her home country when it had better relations with Israel. “That’s a price I paid and also my family paid since they were forced to leave the country.”

The TV report also aired footage from Idan’s reunification with Gandelsman at Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria hotel this week.

“She was scared of me when she first met me,” Idan said of her first encounter with her Israeli friend, adding that Gandelsman had told her “I’m scared to talk to you.”

“After that, we sat down and talked for hours and hours, and the Miss Universe staff got really angry at us, telling us ‘come on, we have a photo-shoot,'” she recalled, smiling.

As reports of Idan’s visit to Israel came out, both her and Gandelsman’s Instagram pages were targeted by hackers, the report said.

In December, Idan spoke about her ordeal to CNN, recounting “scary” death threats and anxious calls to her mother back home.

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