Last week, I spent some time talking with a young woman — I’ll call her Adab — who had just arrived in Syria from Iraq the previous day. Unlike most of the Iraqis I’ve met here, she hadn’t exactly fled, and she wasn’t exactly a refugee. Instead, she’d come to Syria to participate in the Iraqi Student Project, a Damascus-based effort to get qualified young Iraqis out of a war zone or the limbo of exile and into colleges in the United States.
In some respects, then, Adab came to Syria for less than typical reasons. In other ways, though, her story was all too familiar. Halfway through high school, for instance, she left Baghdad (and her family) and went to Basra to finish studying there. Why? Because during her sophomore year, a militia and the U.S. Army got into a massive gunfight at her school. Militia violence at schools is tragically typical in Iraq, but this particular incident was so bad that the school actually shut down. (In a sense, Adab was lucky, not only because she survived the gunfight but also because she was able to continue her education. Many Iraqi kids I talked to had stayed home from school — had, indeed, barely left their homes — for months or years.)
Adab was fifteen when the gunfight happened. By then, she told me, she had already come to school more than once to find decapitated bodies on the doorstep. (After the first time her then-six-year-old sister witnessed that, Adab told me, she didn’t speak for a week.) On other days, the entrance was splattered with — here she had to ask me for help with the word in English — innards.
I supplied the word, but who can really translate the experience? This is the question I’ve been grappling with throughout my time in the Middle East. In fact, Adab and I talked about it, too, because it turns out that she wants to become a journalist as well. As she put it, she wants to spend her life covering important issues and bringing the truth about them to the world.
“The truth” and “the world” are the kinds of concepts you look at a bit skeptically after a decade or so as a practicing journalist. As often as not, both are way too complicated and multifaceted to be reduced to that single unitary “the.” Still, Adab’s sentiment was an honorable one, and in one form or another, it is the underpinning of conscientious journalism. The reality about the Iraqi refugee crisis is that no one but Iraqis will experience it firsthand, and precious few people will experience it even secondhand, as I have. Much as I often want to, none of us can bring the world to the truth — meaning, bodily drag every person on earth over for two or twenty or two million cups of tea with the two million Iraqi refugees. As a result, those of us who have had the privilege of meeting some of these people bear the responsibility of bringing a part of their reality back home with us (since we also have the privilege, as they do not, of going home). As the old and rather apt saying goes: if Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, the mountain must go to Mohammed.