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Growing up as a British Iraqi with IgE-mediated food allergies

By Ayah Wafi (she/her)

Hey, I’m Ayah Wafi, I am 23 years old and consider myself a British Iraqi. Iraqis come from various ethnic and religious groups such as Arab, Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians, Armenians and many more who are from Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Yazidi, Mandaean, and many more religious backgrounds. I come from a majority Iraqi Arab background. My dad actually came to the UK to study in August 1975 and ended up settling in the UK bringing along some of my family who were living in Iraq during the war.

I was born in Birmingham and studied an integrated master’s degree in Genetics at the University of Manchester. My Master’s research project was based on the genetic determinants of IgE-mediated food allergy. (You can read more about what food allergies are in my me and my friends’ resource)! I now work as an Allergen Risk Assessor/ Higher Scientific Officer at the FSA (just a disclaimer that my views are my own not the organisation I work for).

At 3 months old I was diagnosed with atopic dermatitis, at 3 years old I was diagnosed with having food allergies and hay fever, at 19 years old I was diagnosed with asthma and at some point I am not sure when, I was diagnosed with oral allergy syndrome. I have very severe food allergies to tree nuts, peanuts, sesame seeds and Kiwi and these reactions can result in anaphylaxis. I also have oral allergy syndrome to a variety to fruit and seeds depending on the season.

Having all these atopic conditions can be challenging at times. I have noticed that my eczema is exuberated by stress and heat especially. During my education journey every exam period that past my eczema would become unbearable. I can often cry from the stinging pain when taking a shower and have lost count of how many nights I have not slept due to my skin inflammation and the associated itching.

There have been times where I have mistakenly eaten something I am allergic to and this has resulted in my tongue tingling and my throat swelling and breathing difficulty. Sometimes just the smell of nuts or sesame can cause my breathing to change, my eyes and lips to swell and a rash to develop on my skin. I have to be extra careful with what people are eating around me. This is especially challenging coming from a middle eastern background. Middle eastern culture dictates the use of nuts and sesame seeds as a starter snack when you enter someone’s house. Furthermore, nuts and seeds are used frequently in many middle eastern dishes for example hummus or baklava. As a child, nearly every time I would go to a family friends’ party or gathering I would come home with a swollen face, just from the surrounding smells or from greeting family friends who have eaten these snacks. Iraqi greetings are either a firm hand shake or two kisses on the cheek. Not wanting to be rude I would often go along with this tradition then swiftly make my way to the bathroom to wash my hands and face. Nevertheless, the surrounding air was filled with allergens and so I would nearly always have to take my medication secretly off course as I did not want to cause a fuss!

Growing up in Britain where food allergy is commonly known about has made things easier.

I am grateful that now the majority of the British Iraqi community, our family and friends understand the severity of my allergies and take actions to minimise their use of nuts and seeds in their dishes. I remember feeling incredibly happy when I went to my friend’s sister’s wedding. She had told the staff of my allergies and this allowed them to make allergy safe foods for me to eat. This was one of the first wedding’s where I was able to truly relax.

My allergies can make me extremely anxious at times. I remember when going abroad to visit family in Iraqi, Syria, Jordon or Qatar and going to family or friends’ houses where they would offer me baked good covered in nuts or sesame seeds. It is considered a sign of disrespect in my culture if you do not eat the food that has been offered to you. Therefore, when I would decline their offer I would feel extremely guilty. They would persist and keep offering me the food and I would often have to explain to them I have an allergy and I can die from eating this food. Food allergy is not really known about in Iraqi culture. I remember once going to a family friends house in England who was British Iraqi and another guest saying that they were shocked I had food allergies as ‘only white people get food allergies’.

I sometimes get upset that I cannot eat in certain restaurants and I have been turned away from a few restaurants in the past that said they could not accommodate my allergies. However, I would much rather this than getting a reaction. I have to be constantly aware of my surroundings and what I am eating and this can be exhausting at times. Sometimes I will break out in a rash or my eyes will swell and I do not know what I have touched or eaten to cause this. I get very anxious at times because of my allergies and I believe this has resulted in panic attacks in the past and over worry.

My asthma is well controlled. I remember having breathing difficulties when I was younger but my Birmingham GP’s never investigated this. When I went to Manchester I had the most amazing GP’s who really looked after me with regular check-ups with an asthma and eczema nurse. I felt medically safe in Manchester because of the GP service I had. My asthma nurse gave me a steroid inhaler which I still to this day take twice a day and have been taking it for five years now. This has really helped with my breathing. I have to make sure that my asthma is well controlled because badly controlled asthma, as my allergist told me, can increase the severity of my food allergic reactions.

Overall, growing with all these atopic conditions as a British Iraqi has come up with its up’s and down’s but overall, I am grateful to be who I am!

If you would like to find out more please be sure to check out my podcast Allergies with Ayah available on Spotify, apple podcast or wherever you get your podcast and be sure to check out my website:

(Originally published 26/2/1)

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