“I saw a man die,” Amina says as she explains why she’s not smiling in her passport photo. We are sitting in the teenager’s modest living room — which doubles as a bedroom and dining room — in Damascus, to where she and her family fled after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
I have joined Abdullah, whom I met in Baghdad in 2003 just before the war, and his teenage daughters at their spotless, spare two-bedroom flat that they share with his elderly father and sister. Before leaving Baghdad, Abdullah’s father gave away all their furniture, beds and appliances. Now, mats on the floor serve as chairs, beds and tables. One bedroom has two hard, ratty couches and the other has a double bed that isn’t much more than a thin mat on a precarious frame. Clothes are tucked neatly in suitcases. The kitchen is a sink, a propane hotplate and a small refrigerator.
I have come for lunch and to accompany the girls to a United Nations warehouse for donated school supplies. Lolou, 13, greets me with an exuberant announcement, translated by her father, that she’s decided she wants to adopt my cat whose photos she’s seen on my computer. Over roasted chicken and mint salad shared family/picnic-style on a cloth on the floor, 15-year-old Amina declares she wants to be an engineer, tossing her lively turquoise-scarved head assertively.
Abdullah brings out the girls’ “papers:” Report cards and exclusive “French-press” passports, which are difficult to forge and, therefore, taken more seriously by countries they long to permanently settle in.
While I thumb through the passports, Amina says she wasn’t smiling in her photo because it was taken in Baghdad and she wasn’t happy there. The sole stamp shows a border crossing last year, which the girls made specifically to get these valuable passports. Later this month, they will travel back to the border to get their visas renewed so they can start another year of Syrian school. If Abdullah didn’t have children in school, he’d have to travel to the border to renew his visa every two months. It’s a grueling bus trip that requires a 12-hour day in an overcrowded hall and costs about a week’s salary. “It’s all lines,” Abdullah says.
Abdullah and I try to decipher the girls’ report cards, adorned with the official, ubiquitous photo of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. I can (sort of) read the Arabic numbers of the grades. We start reading down through the subjects: Religion. English. (“14 out of 15? You girls should be speaking English to me!” I say to widening eyes and vigorously shaking heads as their dad translates.) French. (“French? I speak French! Ooh-la-la, escargot, chocolat. … No, no, no, it’s not bonjour. It’s booooon-jour,” I sing, my voice rising like Mary Poppins on a springtime morning. “No, it’s not je taime,” I correct. “It’s jhhhhe taime,” I vamp over my shoulder, smoldering my glance and dropping my voice to Louie Armstrong octaves. The girls crack up.)
Science. “So are you as good as your father?” I challenge. He has studied animal husbandry and horticulture. The girls’ enthusiasm spills over, trying to outdo each other in proving their scientific creds. They speak of microscopes and germs.
“Ask me anything!” Amina’s smile widens, confident. Not knowing my germs, I punt, and explain that when I took biology in school we dissected a worm. I illustrate their father’s translations by scrunching my nose.
Amidst the girls’ appreciative squealing, I tell them about dissecting a frog. I drop my head to the side, loll my tongue listlessly out of the corner of my mouth, feigning death, and limp-wrist my arms open, as if I were being dissected while Abdullah translates, running his index finger down his chest. Squeals broaden to laughter.
I tell them we dissected a baby pig, looking at the lungs, and heart, and stomach, and intestines, “and liver,” adds Abdullah instructively.
“I saw a man die,” Amina interrupts suddenly. Words spill out as I look on, not understanding her Arabic story. Abdullah finally translates, his jaw tightening.
Amina had been out with her mother. They saw a man attacked by three other men with guns. They called the police to help the man, but he died.
This was the second time she had witnessed this.
It was the first time her father had heard this.
I lean over and kiss her forehead, more to hide my own emotion than to comfort this stoic child. It feels selfish to be more dramatic than everyone else in the room who had actually experienced these horrors. Amina had been 12 years old.
This encounter was in August 2009, during a summer in Damascus when I volunteered with Iraqi refugees. Two years later, when civil war in Syria broke out, Abdullah again uprooted his family and fled to the only country that would have them: Iraq.
Kelly Hayes-Raitt will see Amina and Lolou this August when she returns to Baghdad to put a human face on the U.S.-led invasion and occupation. Support and follow her trip at www.AreWeReallyOutOfIraq.com. Supporters get access to exclusive pre-trip interviews and blogs directly from Iraq.