Najaf, Iraq, November 11, 2012
I returned from Baghdad last night. Over coffee this morning, I filled the father of my host family in on my trip. I told him it was wonderful to see everyone, but I only heard sad stories.
A few minutes ago a fierce wind rose, blowing the trees and dust and everything in its path. We hurried to close the windows, but there was no way to prevent the fine powdery dirt from entering. It covers everything. The weather seems to fit my mood somehow. There are forces beyond our control.
Yesterday in Baghdad I was able to visit with two families who both have grown children in the U.S. The parents of a third family, whom we know from Syria, met with me briefly on a quickly decided location, one of the roads that exits through the concrete walls encompassing their neighborhood.
I wanted to give them a package from the states, and they were hesitant to have me come to their neighborhood, an area which has seen much violence and conflict over the last years.
It was an emotional moment as the mother and I exited our respective car and taxi and embraced. She wept. I hope I will be able to see their seven children before I leave Iraq, but for now I am grateful for the five minutes I had with them. Thank God for the driver who is able to negotiate all these encounters. Somehow, between his little English and my little Arabic, we have been able to manage. In the other two families we visited, someone spoke English well enough to serve as a translator. Of course both families have contact with their relatives in the U.S. by internet and phone, but somehow my presence connects them physically, like a bridge.
My first task this morning is to review and resize some of the photos taken yesterday, so that I can send them off with an account to the sons and daughters in the U.S. As I look at the faces before me, I imagine how emotional it will be for those opening the attachments when they catch the wistful longing in the eyes of their family members, see how they have aged, or behold the youngest members of the family whom they have not yet gotten to meet personally.
This is what war does, no? It separates families; it destroys the fiber and lifeblood of a society. I remember as a young adult, and not-so-young adult, being separated by oceans for years at a time from my own family. There were moments when I would become so choked up to hear their voices over the phone that I was unable to speak.
My visit was anticipated, and as is the beautiful custom here each family welcomed me warmly and served me. We were able to visit unhurriedly, and I had brought a few photos of their loved ones to show them. After assuring them that their family members were working hard but doing alright in the U.S., I asked them what stories they had to tell me!
One family told of having to move to another area because there were a lot of explosions where they lived, and any young man in the vicinity of an attack was randomly rounded up. This family feared for their young sons. One mother, a teacher, spoke of the crowded classrooms, and of how fatigued teachers felt upon arriving at school after being held up at checkpoint after checkpoint in unendurable heat. “One can wait over half an hour just to go through one checkpoint.” This was exactly our experience that same morning as we made our way through Baghdad to their neighborhood.
“The children all want to be cops, and to carry guns.” The teacher spoke of the many orphans in her class and of the widowed teachers. “Everyone is exhausted from the situation. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Sometimes there are 10-15 explosions, other days there are none. With the situation in Syria we are all tense and feel insecure.” This family fled to Syria for some years and then returned to Iraq.
“I don’t think any of my dreams will come true,” said one of the sons, a bright handsome 17 year old with an easy smile. “There is nothing to do but stay home.” The parents felt that since the era of sanctions things have only gone backwards, not forward. “Young people don’t have any hope for a job here, except driving a taxi. Only if they go to another country will it be better. . . Most of our traditions have been lost, it is all about money now. You can’t do anything without bribes.”
In the other family I visited, the grandmother has bad asthma. There is an increase in asthma due to pollution, to lack of factory and vehicle emission controls, to the frequent use of generators for electricity. Even the benzene still has lead. One family member, a doctor, commented: “Nine years and no electrical system. Where is the big investment money? It is all about political decisions. The U.S. brought terrorists to our country, they came from all over the world, to fight terrorism in our country and destroy our country. I am sorry to tell you this, but it is the truth.” I told him that I didn’t disagree. We all sat together. “We are helpless and hopeless,” he said. After a long pause he added: “But we are adapting.” Two little children were playing gleefully in our midst on the carpet.
What is there left to say?
Cathy Breen co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org). She is traveling for six weeks in Iraq.