Posts Tagged ‘children’

Great Expectations

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

I’ve never been pregnant so I don’t know what it feels like to wait and prepare for the arrival of a baby. I imagine it must be a wonderful time, full of anticipation, anxiety, joy and the heavy knowledge that you are about to do something life-changing. While certainly not on the same level as bringing a person into the world, delivering the fruits of the Iraqi Voices Amplification Project to New York City and beyond has non-the-less brought a lot of sleepless nights.

For the last two years, I have been working to bring No Place Called Home into the world. The play, based on interviews with hundreds of Iraqi refugees across Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, is an unexpected love story. It tells the true story of an American woman and an Iraqi man, a story about one refugee and 4 million, a story that isn’t supposed to be a love story.

It’s also the fulfillment of a promise. A promise I made to the countless Iraqi refugees I’ve met over the last two years who asked me to tell people about their suffering, to try and help them move on with their lives, to get a new home, a new start and a chance at a real future.

The first time I ever meet an Iraqi was in Lebanon in 2008. My colleague Eduardo Vargas and I had been sent to observe the situation on the ground for Iraqis living in exile. In meeting after meeting, the plea that emerged over and over again was that the Iraqis were stuck in a holding pattern—unable to return, unable to get resettled and unable to put down roots in their host countries—they were languishing in urban cities out of sight (and mind) of the whole world.

After I returned home, I couldn’t get the faces of the people we’d met out of my mind. The young mother whose son had been kidnapped out of her front yard when she’d gone into the house to get him another glass of milk. He was returned three days later, after she paid $5,000 in ransom, but he had been beaten and taught to smoke—four years old. Or the mother of five children whose husband had been missing for months and she still wasn’t sure if he was dead or alive or what to tell the children.

Amid all the cups of tea, the tears and the story-telling, the question that hung heavy in the air was– “what can I expect for my children now?” With no options for legal residency or employment, limited access to education and no end in sight to their situation, the future that these mothers could offer their children was uncertain at best. And yet these women were certainly not giving up on their expectations for their children to have a normal life.

Perhaps the fact that No Place Called Home is ultimately a love story is not so unexpected after all. It was a love for all the people in this world regardless of race, religion, country or creed that motivated this project to begin with. It was a love of the arts and a belief in their power to change the world that motivated eight American artists to spend three weeks soaking in stories of survival, torture, perseverance, heartbreak and pride. And it is the Iraqis love for their children and their continued hopes for a bright future that makes this a story that simply must be told.

Photos by C. Eduardo Vargas, Amikaeyla Gaston and Alissa Everett

Reflections upon return

Monday, November 2nd, 2009
An Iraqi refugee child.

An Iraqi refugee child.

So … one week post-Middle-East-Iraqi-refugee experience. I feel lost … a bit like a refugee myself. A bit.

Trying to wrap my brain around the experience is not easy. New York looks different. My friends seem new. All I have seems shocking. And after only three short weeks! I’m trying to spend each day growing back into my skin without losing the skin I have acquired from the Iraqis we met. I don’t want to lose what I experienced in their skin. This urban refugee crisis screams for attention, although the refugees are not screaming. They are quietly waiting … for something to change … six years later…

The refugees, social workers and children swirl around my head. I keep thinking about Peter and his four beautiful children, and his brother who was shot and killed in the passenger seat right next to him. And I think about the once-famous boxer and artist who came from a family of artists, now scattered all over the world. I think about his need to tell his story on his terms, the way he wants it heard –– the threatening letters, the dismembered bodies, his inability to create anything artistic anymore, the disclosure that he feels like a bat, only coming out at night. I think about the woman whose husband abandoned her and her daughter in Damascus and who wouldn’t let us take her picture, not because of fear of persecution, but because she no longer feels beautiful. I think about the poet we met, who also was a victim of intense torture, and who chose to share a love poem with us. A love poem.

I think about the artists displaced in Damascus because art is dead in Baghdad. And I think about the hopeful Iraqi teens and young adults who are brave enough to believe in a future with education, a future of college in America. And I think about the children, always the children –– who look up at me with empty, confused eyes that have seen what children should never see.

This is what I think about now that I am back. These people who did nothing wrong but survive and flee — becoming refugees of our choice, OUR country. This is the face of our war in Iraq. This is the fallout. I feel the weight of responsibility to tell their stories as a call to action. After all, this is our mess to clean up.

final thoughts from Syria

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

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.

2020 Vision

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

2020 visionWhat will this situation look like in the year 2020? What will become of this lost generation?

I’m not sure. Nobody is. No one can really see beyond Iraq’s elections early next year. Certainly, the refugees don’t know. “I don’t know if I’ll even be alive,” said one 12-year-old.

But let’s look at the ingredients. Start with millions of displaced people. They are angry – and that anger is mostly directed at the US.

They are poor. They live in over-crowded dingy apartments. Most do not work. Either because it is illegal to do so, or they are afraid to go out of their homes. Or they cannot find jobs. Or, they cannot deal with the indignity of going from, say, a doctor to a ditch digger.

They are not healthy. They suffer from post traumatic stress and depression. One woman talked about committing suicide as her 5 year-old daughter sat drawing  by her side. Several have stressed-induced diabetes. They have been maimed both physically and mentally.

They are disenfranchised. Even with the ability to vote in Iraq’s upcoming elections, many will not. They are confused by different conflicting information and don’t know who to trust. Often, they have to pay bribes to get anything done.

Youths and young single men are affected the most. They are disconnected and unanchored.  They can’t assimilate – and often watch TV for 12 hours a day. Their inability to work makes it difficult for them to date and get married.

They have fallen so far behind in their new foreign schools that they often drop out. We are told by the UNHCR that the illiteracy rate is near 20%. Many get menial jobs to support their family at the age of 13. And because they have no legal status, their employees can decide not to pay them – without facing any consequences.

They are hopeless.  Desperate. “We don’t have dreams anymore,” one said.

These ingredients add up to a festering situation of our own making. These are good, hard-working people with very few places to turn.  Unfortunately, one of the few places to turn is to extremist groups, like the Taliban and al Quaeda.

Ransomed Son

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

The greatest fear for many Iraqi refugees is receiving news that a loved one has been kidnapped back home in Iraq.


Sunday, October 11th, 2009

Yesterday I got to spend the day with children, which I really needed. I didn’t plan it and it wasn’t on the itinerary. While our team met with Iraqis at the Caritas Center near the Italian Hospital in Amman, I played with three Iraqi children while they waited for their mom to finish receiving services at the center. They didn’t speak much English and my Arabic is only good enough to tell them that I’m from America and to find out their ages and that they were from Baghdad. But that didn’t stop us from having a good time.

Family small for the blogWe played tag, hide and seek and I tried to teach them Miss Mary Mack. They climbed all over me and played with my hair. And in the end it struck me that if we could do only one thing for the Iraqis, one small thing to try and make up for some of the destruction we’ve caused, it would be to do right by their children.

Now I realize that the situation is incredibly complex and that there are many things we really need to do in order to facilitate a positive solution to this crisis. And I also know that children can only have a bright future if their parents are secure and able to provide for them. So I in no means intend to take the focus away from the very real needs of the parents. But I also know that the Iraqis value their children above all else. We have heard this time and time again. “The only thing that matters is that my children have a chance at a good future,” “My life is over now, but my children must have a chance at an education,” “I’ll leave Iraq when my children say it’s time, they are just starting their lives.” And the list goes on…

Childhood is interrupted by war and displacement.  Children must leave their house, their friends, their old school and in many cases, their extended families back in Iraq. They have lost loved ones, witnessed daily violence and for some, experienced the terror of kidnapping themselves. Many struggle to be integrated into the school system here in Jordan, experiencing harassment and facing an educational system that’s vastly different than the one in Iraq. The children are often way behind their Jordanian counterparts, partly due to differences in the curriculum and partly because many had been sequestered in their homes for months before the family fled.


These 5 month old triplets live with their mother, father and aunt in a one room apartment where they share a bathroom and kitchen with another family.

But it’s not too late. Their parents are standing by ready to do whatever it takes to give them a brighter future. We must stand with them. The price of doing nothing is just too great.

To learn how you can help Iraqi children, visit or

Music As Medicine – The Power of Laughter, Love, Story and Song

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

Music is my medicine
It heals my aching body
Soothes my shattered heart
helps my soul to fly…
Dance is my muse, makes my unheard voice seen,
Gives my pain wings, gives me back my identity.
The joy of singing
My exultation to the heavens above,
Lets my spirit soar & reminds me of who I am
When I sing my ancestor song.
There are too few words to truly express how I feel
So I shape my being into these gifts of art
& share my hope-filled love
Through my message drummed into the earth –
I want my life
I want my love
I want my heart
I want my home

Inspired by the stories of Iraqi refugees

1_handssmallThese are just some of the sentiments that we have gathered from the many stories shared with us from the Iraqi refugee families that we have met.  All of them have been poignant.  All painful.  All waiting…hoping…wishing for home – to start life again in a place that offers the promise of peace & tranquility as well as a means to care for themselves and their families – if they still have one.

Yet through these stifled voices, I heard most loudly the deafening silence from the children.  The ones that are seen but never heard.  The ones often asked, no required, to forego school either because they need to work to bring home money for the family, or because they must remain in hiding so that they would not be found, kidnapped, and persecuted again.

It was the speechless, somber children that met me at the start of each and every workshop I gave, their large beautiful eyes staring and wondering who this new person was with the strange clothes and curious hair…but gratefully, they gave me a chance – and their silence quickly turned to cacophonous song and belly-filled laughter through the universal therapeutic heart-opening power and blessing of music, dance, play & song.

1_eyes3smallThese beautiful souls just starting out on this life journey – all of whom have seen and heard atrocities I cannot even begin to imagine – these are the ones that slowly began to smile from ear to ear as they merrily played the drum with me, giggled when we danced the hokey pokey, and cackled uproariously when we tried with all of our might to learn from them how to say drum, shaker, bells, eggplant, & pumpkin in Arabic.

1_eyesncutssmallThese sweet little ones are the key to keeping this culture alive.  They are the ones that hold the delicate thread of their ancestry, their traditions, and their culture, and although many of them have yet to receive these gifts because it is too painful for their parents to recount, they still carry the desire to play, laugh, learn, & mostly – LOVE.

1-happy drum smallAs our music & dance workshop with the kids at the health clinic came to a close today, I heard them continuing to sing the songs that they had learned with eager ease. All of the parents and the clinic social workers were amazed at the way that all of them stayed so attentive and  joyful – particularly one child in a wheelchair, who normally remains disengaged due to his physical condition, but bounced and rocked with glee today as we all danced around him, gave him instruments to play, and included him in the fun.

1_happykidsfullsmallAll in all, to quote my colleague Eduardo Vargas, one of the co-directors of this trip, “No matter what else happens today, the smiles alone on the faces of these children, makes it a mighty fine day”.

Never truer words were spoken.  Shukran.

Iraq and a hard place

Monday, October 5th, 2009

I met a pair of sisters this afternoon — I’ll call them Amira and Farrah* — whose lives, even in thumbnail-sketch form, capture much of the complexity and tragedy of the contemporary Iraqi experience.

Amira, the younger of the two, is 53 years old.  In Baghdad, she worked for an investment bank and raised her four children alone.  (Her husband died before the war.)  Her eldest son, Samir, was trained as an electrical engineer but started working as an interpreter for the U.S. Army when the war began.  Within a year, the threats against his life had escalated to the point where he had to leave the country.  Now he lives in Florida and works at a gas station.

Back in Iraq, the insurgents who had threatened Samir were undeterred.  They kidnapped his younger brother Ali instead and beat and tortured him, leaving his genitals so badly damaged that he will never be able to have children.  His mother fears that he will never overcome the psychological problems he developed after the kidnapping, either.  Today, Ali lives with his mother and sister in Lebanon, where their lives are in limbo until they can join Samir in Florida.

Amira in Beirut, awaiting resettlement in Florida, where she will be reunited wtih her son for the first time in three years

Amira in Beirut, awaiting resettlement in Florida, where she will be reunited with her son for the first time in three years

Meanwhile, Amira’s sister Farrah  still lives in Iraq.  She is only in Lebanon temporarily, to undergo radiation therapy for breast cancer.  (Cancer rates among Iraqis are alarmingly high, most likely from the use of depleted uranium munitions by Americans during both the 1991 Gulf War and the current one.  A similar trend appears to be emerging among U.S. troops who served in Iraq.)

Farrah is married with three children, and her life in Iraq is extremely difficult.  Her husband goes to his job as a schoolteacher every day, but otherwise, the family leaves the house only when absolutely necessary; the streets of Baghdad are simply too dangerous for all but the most crucial errands.  When I asked Farrah whether she wanted to stay in Iraq or, like her sister, resettle somewhere more stable, she replied that it was up to her children.  If they wanted to go, she would go; if they wanted to stay, she would stay.

It takes money to get out of Iraq, and leaving your homeland out of necessity is an acutely unwelcome prospect: frightening, exhausting, lonely, sad.  Still, even with the financial and emotional difficulties of leaving, it’s hard to imagine, at first, what could possess people like Farah and her family to stay in Iraq.  But consider this: her son just finished medical school — a famously rigorous six-year training program that entitles him to enter a well-paid, well-respected, meaningful profession.

So here is the dilemma facing Ahmed — and by extension his whole family, and by analogy the whole of Iraq.  He can stay in a country where his cousin was kidnapped and tortured, where violence remains so omnipresent that his own life has narrowed almost to the walls of his house — and where he has a newly-minted degree in a prestigious and lucrative field that he loves.  Or he can leave Iraq, wait in limbo in Lebanon or one of the other refugee holding-pins around the Middle East for eight to ten months (the average length of time a refugee resettlement takes, according to the U.S. State Department), after which he can go to Florida and live in safety — and file away his medical degree and his dreams to work with his cousin at a gas station.

Idiomatically, this is called a Morton’s Fork: a choice that consists of two equally bad options.  For Ahmed and millions of other Iraqis, it appears, for the time being, to be the only kind of choice they have.

* All the names in this post have been changed.