To get a more complete understanding of Iraqi refugees, I turned to a more personal story of an Iraqi who was forced to leave her home. Written by the a young Iraqi woman from 2003-2007, the blog “Baghdad Burning” provides a first hand account of life in Iraq during the chaotic aftermath of the invasion and the journey of an Iraqi family to become refugees in Syria. “Baghdad Burning” is a beautifully written, valuable insight into the struggles faced by many Iraqis, including the struggle of not wanting to leave your home, but finding it unbearable to stay.
We are choosing to leave because the other option is simply a continuation of what has been one long nightmare- stay and wait and try to survive.
On the one hand, I know that leaving the country and starting a new life somewhere else- as yet unknown- is such a huge thing that it should dwarf every trivial concern. The funny thing is that it’s the trivial that seems to occupy our lives. We discuss whether to take photo albums or leave them behind. Can I bring along a stuffed animal I’ve had since the age of four? Is there room for E.’s guitar? What clothes do we take? Summer clothes? The winter clothes too? What about my books? What about the CDs, the baby pictures?
The problem is that we don’t even know if we’ll ever see this stuff again. We don’t know if whatever we leave, including the house, will be available when and if we come back. There are moments when the injustice of having to leave your country… is overwhelming.
Riverbend, as she calls herself, was not the victim of targeted violence. She comes from a mixed Sunni/Shia family and, although her English is impeccable, she resents the US occupation and avoids the soldiers. She struggles with the occupation and her vulnerability in her country.
Females can no longer leave their homes alone. Each time I go out, E. and either a father, uncle or cousin has to accompany me. It feels like we’ve gone back 50 years ever since the beginning of the occupation. A woman, or girl, out alone, risks anything from insults to abduction. An outing has to be arranged at least an hour beforehand. I state that I need to buy something or have to visit someone. Two males have to be procured (preferably large) and ‘safety arrangements’ must be made in this total state of lawlessness. And always the question: “But do you have to go out and buy it? Can’t I get it for you?” No you can’t, because the kilo of eggplant I absolutely have to select with my own hands is just an excuse to see the light of day and walk down a street.
Riverbend’s voice evolves with every passing year. At the beginning of the blog, every trial of life in an occupied country brought a fresh sense of heartbreak. By the end of the blog, every offense and injustice renews her outrage. She loves her country, but every post is thick with hatred for Iraq’s new status quo.
Here we come to the end of 2006 and I am sad. Not simply sad for the state of the country, but for the state of our humanity, as Iraqis. We’ve all lost some of the compassion and civility that I felt made us special four years ago. I take myself as an example. Nearly four years ago, I cringed every time I heard about the death of an American soldier. They were occupiers, but they were humans also and the knowledge that they were being killed in my country gave me sleepless nights… I actually felt for them… Today, they simply represent numbers.
The author only wrote one post about her new life in Syria, published on Monday, October 22, 2007. In it, she describes the unfamiliar mountain that towers over her new life, the surprise of finding so many Iraqis in Damascus, and the cultural shock of regaining a long-lost sense of security.
The first weeks here were something of a cultural shock. It has taken me these last three months to work away certain habits I’d acquired in Iraq after the war. It’s funny how you learn to act a certain way and don’t even know you’re doing strange things- like avoiding people’s eyes in the street or crazily murmuring prayers to yourself when stuck in traffic. It took me at least three weeks to teach myself to walk properly again- with head lifted, not constantly looking behind me.
As a refugee, Riverbend’s new life comes with both pros and cons. Yes, she is safe, but she lacks legal status. Legally barred from working, her family lives off of their savings and is constantly threatened with expulsion from Syria, back to Iraq.
Grasping my passport in my hand like my life depended on it, with two extra months in Syria stamped inside, it hit me how wrong I was. We were all refugees. I was suddenly a number. No matter how wealthy or educated or comfortable, a refugee is a refugee. A refugee is someone who isn’t really welcome in any country- including their own… especially their own.
With ever worsening conflict in Syria, it makes you wonder what might have become of Riverbend and her family in Damascus. Like many Iraqi refugees, they may be caught in a dilemma: remain in Syria and be caught up in a conflict like the one they escaped from, or return home to a still-unstable Iraq. As Riverbend herself mentions, if they were to return, there is no guarantee that her house would still be available.
Riverbend is unfailingly proud, hopeful, and independent: she never gives up on herself, Iraq, or her fellow Iraqis. Riverbend’s blog takes you on a journey through the life of one who has lived through, in her own words, a nightmare. Despite all the loss, fear, and injustice that she has experienced, her journey ends on a note of hope. I’d like to tell you about it here, but if I did I would be depriving you of the experience of Riverbend’s blog. So if you want to know what it is, you’ll just have to read it yourself.
In my next post, I will discuss the refugee admissions process for those who wish to relocate to the United States, problems, and some of the proposed solution set forth by some of our partners.