In her shoes: from Iraq to America

By Christine Graf
April 24, 2008

“I am an Iraqi citizen and I had to leave my country because of the war,” an Iraqi college student studying in America said.

The war in Iraq started in 2003 when she was a 15-year-old high school student in Baghdad. (Loquitur is withholding her name because she has family still in Iraq.)

“We were just kids. We went to school and hung out with our friends afterwards. Life was carefree before the war, just like kids here in America.”

When it became clear that this war with America was going to begin, she described how people started to leave Baghdad because it was a main target. That is when she realized what the war was already beginning to create.

“We (she and her friends) started writing little notes to each other telling each other we loved them, because we never knew if we would see each other again.”

She recalls when she first encountered how real this war was, as bombs were dropped on buildings close to her house.

“I remember looking out the window and seeing the light from the fire. The whole house would shake and the phone would keep ringing because our relatives from other areas were calling to see if we were O.K. or not.”

That was only the beginning of the violence she would witness as she spent the next three and a half years in constant fear living in Baghdad.

Her most prized possession was her education. For as long as she could remember she wanted to be a doctor and attend medical school. Upon high school graduation she received her wish and was one of the 250 students accepted into the school of her dreams.

“When I was finally accepted into my school I thought I was in heaven. I couldn’t wish for anything better. I had my family, my great friends, and the school I always dreamed of going to. The war didn’t matter because if I died, I finally had my perfect life.”

She lived her “perfect life” for a year as a university student, but each day was lived in “constant fear, with no sense of safety or security at all. It was just a matter of time before getting hurt.”

One thing she came to accept was that she was most definitely not invincible and although nothing had happened to her yet, she was not out of reach of the violence that she saw and heard about all too often.

Even a simple decision to go to school that day was a life-or-death gamble you had to be willing to take, she explained.

Going to school meant there was a possibility of getting killed, but there was also a possibility of nothing happening, and then she would be missing an important class.

“You would see people at school hanging out and laughing in the cafeteria, knowing that any second a bomb could be dropped over their heads. That is what happened in other colleges. Students were just hanging out and then they were dead,” she said.

She recalls a girl she drove to school with, who was waiting outside to go to school just like she did everyday. But as this girl was waiting, someone kidnapped her and nobody even noticed. It wasn’t until later that night when she did not return home that her parents realized she was missing. It was two days later when they got a call from the kidnappers asking for money. They hurt her physically and raped her.

“After that she was a completely different person. She didn’t even seem to be there. She was like a ghost,” she said.

“When I heard this happened I thought of her as no different than me, and that it could have been me. It was scary but I kept going to school because I couldn’t just sit home and wait forever for things to get better.”

“Each day was worse than the day before,” she explained. Her college was next to the main hospital in Baghdad where all the dead and injured bodies were taken. There wasn’t a day when she did not witness the effects of the war, as dead bodies and grieving family members were in viewing distance.

“I saw bodies not even in coffins but in boxes, in best cases with blankets over them and their head or feet showing,” she said.

“You could never say, oh, that would never happen to me because they were just normal people, like me.”

Finally enough was enough and the violence became too extreme for Habeb to be risking her life to further her education. Her parents decided it was time to leave the country and luckily they found a college in the United States that would accept her, and by chance she got a visa to America after the second try.

The United States is her only option if she wants to finish her education because the principal countries Iraqis are fleeing to are not allowing Iraqi students to go to school. Most of the 2 million Iraqis who have escaped have fled to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Only several thousand have been lucky enough to get American visas.

For example, “My family would never think about moving to Jordan because I wouldn’t be able go to school, my brothers wouldn’t be able to go to school, my parents wouldn’t be able to get a job, and after six months we would be considered illegal residents, so what is the point of going and sitting there,” she said.

“Iraqis are waiting for some kind of miracle to happen for another country to welcome them, because they can’t go back and they can’t stay in Jordan permanently.”

Today, she is safe in America but still has obstacles she has to overcome. First is the fact she was unable to receive her transcripts because no one could know she was going to America. Second, she is unsure if she can even stay in the United States.

The situation in Iraq is uncertain and a life-threatening one for many students like her.

“It is important to know there is a civil war, but it is not the civilians that are doing it. We are caught in the middle and have to suffer,” she said.

“If you live it for one day and have to deal with it for just one day, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy, for the worst person you know. You wouldn’t want them to go through that.”

Christine Graf

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