Meeting and interviewing Rasha was an experience I will never forget. Rasha and her family had arrived in Denver, Colorado just 10 weeks prior to our meeting, after a four-year long process of securing a visa to escape the violence in Baghdad, Iraq. They had sold everything, rented out their home, quit their jobs in electrical engineering and education, said goodbye to their families, and bought one-way tickets… only to find out their flight was canceled. Rasha said she cried for days as they slept on the floor and figured out what to do next. They were up against time, as the travel ban threatened to take effect and their Visas neared expiration. Finally, Rasha and her husband decided to buy another round of plane tickets with the money they had saved to begin their lives in a new country, securing their spot on the next available flight leaving just hours later. They didn’t know what was in store: if they would be welcomed, where they would live, or what they would do, but they knew it was their only opportunity to give their children a better future, and so they knew the choice they had to make.
On Easter Sunday, I met Rasha in her new home – a small bungalow in a diverse neighborhood not far from my own. She greeted me at the door with a plate of cookies and lemonade, and welcomed me in with open arms. Her two boys, Ghaith (who calls himself Jay), 7, and Ali, 6, ran out of the back room eager to meet me, shake my hand and show off their new English skills. We sat down in a circle in their living room, which was furnished with donated furniture – aside from a few picture frames brought along from Iraq. Rasha’s husband Mousa had worked as a translator for the American Forces and was able to translate our conversation, and their sponsor, Susan, joined us as well.
During our hour long visit, I was moved to tears as I came face to face with a reality I cannot imagine. My gracious hosts recounted a lifetime – literally – of living through war. It has shaped their existence in ways we are lucky not to fully comprehend. When the memories became all too real, I saw Rasha and Mousa lock eyes, then look at their children, smiling gently as they told them to go play in the bedroom. Even still, the sense of relief and happiness in their home was indescribable. It was a calm happiness – the type of joy that, I imagine, comes from knowing peace for the first time. Being present in the home that offered them a new beginning, witnessing the love they have for one another and the gratitude they hold for the friends and city that welcomed them… it was a true privilege. May we all remember how incredibly lucky we are.
A safe environment and a good education is what I want most for my children. That’s it.
The biggest change being here is that it’s safe for me and my children. And the schools. Everything is great in the schools for Jay and Ali.
When my children started to go to school in Iraq, all the time I was afraid for them because the situation outside was not safe.
You don’t know at anytime, anywhere, any place…. It can be like car bomb, suicide bomber, kidnapping, fire – like shooting in the street – or sometimes the military or the police making raids in the streets, or checkpoints. Plus the traffic jams all the day. They make checkpoints to search the cars or something but this will lead to a big traffic jam on the street, so if something bad happens like a car bomb there’s a lot of people on the street. So you keep [worrying] all the time from the morning til the kids come back home in the afternoon, til you have some kind of peace and say “Ok, the kids are home now and nothing bad happened.”
There were a lot of bombs. Bombs and shooting in the air a lot for no reasons. The national team won a game, they will start shooting. If they have a wedding or a party they start shooting. And you know when you shoot, it goes up and it comes down, and you don’t know where… We [kept the boys] all the time in the house. We made sure they didn’t know what was going on, especially when they hear a bomb, especially for Jay. We say it’s like a firework or some kind of party or something, we don’t tell them whats going on because this will effect them in the future.
When you are living in fear you can’t concentrate on your job, you can’t concentrate on your life. You leave in the morning and you’re not sure if your family is going to see you again or not.
When [Mousa and I] went to elementary school there was the Iraqi/Iranian war. It wasn’t in the cities but we saw the effect of the war every day when they bring the dead people or the mortars from the battlefield. So all the time you see a war zone. Then came 1990 and there was a Gulf War. After that I think in 2-3 years there was a bombing on Baghdad. And after that in 1994 or ’96 there was a civil war or internal war in Iraq – Saddam moved his forces toward the north of Iraq. 2003 was the last war and what happened after it, like the civil war, and other things. In the ’80s, we didn’t feel the war in a direct way. We knew there was war, on the TV all the time they say there was war. But in the ’90s we saw the bombings and the economical siege and all these things. It became more visible.
The [biggest] things that affected me were after 2003 because there were a lot of dead people in the streets – especially in my neighborhood. Like in 2007, a lot of people were killed and thrown in the street. There was our neighborhood then there was a street and another neighborhood. This neighborhood had like a minority and ours was mixed – Muslims and other sections. [The other neighborhood] had a lot of militia. So when something bad happened, they go to [our] neighborhood and kill people. I saw that all the time. Me and my family, we couldn’t go outside.
I have 4 sisters. And especially when you have all girls and you have no boys or young men to protect your family, when something bad happens, there’s just your dad…. There was no one to protect us except one man in the house and he was working during the day. So during the day five girls were home with my mom. And you don’t know what’s going on, if this militia goes to the house to kidnap the girls or do something bad.
Still all of us went to school to get advanced educations. Our father drove us in his car. I never walked until I moved here.
We have felt a sense of welcoming here. From the first moment we met Susan and Steven, it was a big relief for us.
You come from another country and you don’t know what people are thinking about you. And you have a lot of things in your mind you don’t know about. We didn’t put this choice in our minds, that these people would accept us in this way, and be very welcoming and supportive for us. It wasn’t in our minds, to be honest. We didn’t think that. Maybe someone would say hello or something. But everything you think about, you’ll find it. And when we got here [and were looking for a place to live, our hosts] extended the time we were allowed to stay in their Air B&B – it was supposed to be two weeks but Susan suggest to Air B&B that it be a month, and after that they offer us to rent the downstairs while we found a house, so the kids can go to school in the same neighborhood.
The first morning after we got here, the boys started to play very happy at the park.
They didn’t do that in Iraq – never. Silly things – kids playing something normal, going to school every day, for us it was a big challenge. Before I can’t leave my home and my children. All the time I am holding their arms, looking, watching. That day was the first day we were sitting at the table at the park, chatting, without being worried about the kids. They were just playing, that’s it.
I notice that they are eating much better now, their attitude is happy, at school they are playing… because you know we were bringing everything to them in Bagdhad but they still needed to go outside. They want to run, to play, to meet other friends…. Now they are free. If they want to go outside to play in the backyard it’s ok for them. They want to go to the market sometimes with their mom or to the park, and every day when they finish their school they don’t come directly to the house. They stay playing for like 30 minutes, or an hour sometimes, every day.
I still have a little fear inside. Sometimes it becomes like a habit for you and you don’t know what is going on…. And then I remember, “I’m here, I’m ok.”
Mousa said he could have stayed in Iraq. It wouldn’t have been perfect but he could have stayed. But he said not his wife and children. His children wouldn’t have a future, they’d have to live in fear. If we come to a different country we can rebuild our lives and our boys will have this beautiful future that they can’t have in Iraq. There was a lot of corruption in Iraq. You have no rights. You cannot speak freely about anything. There was a lot of blackmailing. And I can’t think that in 15 or 20 years our country will be good or something because the corruption has roots everywhere. So for that reason we came here, to at least save the kids from that environment.
I want them to grow up in peace. Maybe for Jay he will become a doctor and Ali a pharmacist. And I want them to grow up without seeing the death we saw in Iraq. Parents in Iraq bring kids up and do everything for them and for no reason they lose them in a car bombing or something. And there is no reason.
Family is everything. Motherhood gives me love and peace. It makes me feel stronger when I’m with my boys, to keep going.