I grew up in Baghdad, Iraq. It’s a beautiful city. I had wonderful neighbors, a warm family, supportive parents. I enjoyed a rich culture and delicious food. My dad normally woke me up with Fairoz music and the smell of the cardamom tea. I loved my school and had a lots of friends.
Though I was born in the middle of the war between Iraq and Iran, I don’t remember much about it. But I do remember the 1990 war between Iraq and Kuwait. I remember the darkness, and the sound of the air raid sirens. I remember my mom’s prayers and gathering in one room as a family.
And I remember when there was no war, as well. All the joy and the laughter. My school. I really appreciated my family, my friends, and my schoolmates. I appreciated every normal day.
In 2003, I was excited because I was about to go to college. But then, yet another war started. And, that war – I believe, like all the wars that happened in Iraq – without reason or justification. We were well prepared because we already knew what it was like to be in a war. My dad bought supplies and food, my brothers crossed all the windows with duct tape, and my mom put all her crystal and pottery into boxes. It’s like when we have hurricanes in Florida, but the difference is that here we have the choice to escape. In Iraq, we were not allowed to leave the country.
My sisters and I were so scared. We didn’t want to watch our loved ones die in front of us. But we persevered. I finished my B.S. degree in Material Engineering and married a wonderful man. I found my dream job and was happy because I still had my wonderful family around me. All of us supported each other. We were all either working or going to school, but underneath and normalcy, we were always at war. We would call each other every time we heard an explosion. It’s so hard to imagine a good day when you didn’t know if your family was going to be able to meet at night and eat dinner together again.
In 2010, our lives came under threat because my husband Ali was working with U.S. companies in Iraq, trying to educate both sides about the differences between our cultures and trying to reduce the death toll. He believed in what he was doing and I supported him. We loved our jobs, but had to leave to seek refuge in United States.
To seek safety, we had to leave behind our loved ones, without even being able to say goodbye to some of them.
I remember my dad was watching TV, watching the people leaving Iraq for many different reasons, and he said he would rather die than be a refugee somewhere else. But when my dad heard that my husband and were being threatened, he was the first to ask us to leave.
The process of seeking asylum took more than a year, between the registration, interviews, U.N. referral, resettlement application, vetting, security screenings, fingerprint screenings, medical screenings, cultural orientation classes, agency matchups, and travel preparation. We were lucky. Some people spend years waiting, and many people give up, die, move elsewhere, or lose their cases.
I remember the moment Ali called me and told me we were leaving in two weeks. I felt like I should have been happy that we were finally leaving, but instead, I was crying every night, sobbing in secret so my husband wouldn’t feel bad. I didn’t want to leave my family, my city, my friends, my work… I was leaving behind a part of myself.
Refugees leave their country behind and are unable to return because of persecution due to race, religion, membership in a particular social group, or political ideology.
When we arrived, I finally understood what the word refugee really means. When you wake up and you don’t hear the same music and don’t smell your family’s food. When you force yourself to smile as walk down the street to prove you’re a nice person. When people refuse to hire you. When you want a hug from your mom, but she is across the ocean.
I’ve tried to change the definition of the word refugee, at least in my mind. A refugee is a person trying to belong to a community. I’ve started to convince myself to think positively and put down roots in my community. I dedicated myself to volunteering, working, studying, and learning about my new home.
There are 65 million refugees in the world today. Every minute, 24 people around the world are forced to flee their homes. That’s 34,000 people a day who leave everything behind in the hope of finding safety and a better tomorrow. I’m one of them.