Emily Holland works for the International Rescue Committee. Here, in her second dispatch for us, she considers two groups of new arrivals from the war in Iraq: the first, a group of soldiers returning home to Fort Dix Army Base, in New Jersey, an event she covered for CNN; the second, Iraqi refugee families the IRC has resettled in Phoenix, Arizona. For security reasons, some names have been changed.
Fort Dix Army Base, New Jersey
It was around 11 a.m. when the buses of returning soldiers finally arrived. Their families, wearing patriotic sweaters and clasping poster boards, started cheering.
“What does this feel like?” I asked a woman named Marsha whom I had come to interview. Marsha was a prison nurse. She wore a fetching red sweater, and her hair and lipstick were immaculate, even though it was cold enough for a coat and she’d been up since dawn.
“I’m more nervous today than I was the day we got married,” she said, trembling with a faraway gaze.
I’d woken up at 5 a.m. to capture the homecoming of a group of National Guardsmen for CNN. Used to quick action and unfettered access, I’d come to understand that this wait was nothing compared to the one these families had already faced.
The buses came to a halt in a parking lot across the street. It took a while for anything to happen, and it was difficult to see anything through the buses’ windows.
Suddenly, an order was given. The doors opened. The soldiers disembarked, toting rucksacks. Their families went crazy but remained where they were. The soldiers resisted making eye contact. I marveled at the mutual show of self-restraint.
One by one, each soldier’s name was called. One by one, each marched to a designated spot and deposited his or her gear onto a pile. Only then did the soldiers join their families. Wordless welcomes, disbelieving gazes, and joyful tears ensued. We repaired to the Army-base rec room for a humble celebration: doughnuts, punch in plastic cups, remarks such as “How big you’ve grown,” and quiet conversations.
The Fort Dix homecoming was the most moving assignment I’d received. Little did I know that I would again confront the emotional toll of the war two and a half years later. This time, through the lens of the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.
I’m now in Phoenix, Arizona, on a shoot for the International Rescue Committee. It’s another homecoming, a very different homecoming. I’m here to interview Iraqi families who fled their besieged country and are trying to build new lives in America.
Two years after fleeing Baghdad, Omar still finds it difficult to talk about his experience. “No words can describe what I went through,” he says, sitting in the living room of his new home. In March 2006, Omar, who was then a furniture-store owner, was kidnapped, along with his brother and brother-in-law, off the streets of Baghdad by a shadowy, armed Shiite militia group.
After a sack was shoved over his head, Omar was hauled away in the trunk of a speeding car. He heard the crack of gunshots, which he assumed was the sound of his wife and son being murdered. Omar’s wife, Shatha, imagined the men would suffer the fate of hundreds of other Iraqi kidnap victims. “I didn’t believe my husband would ever come back,” she says.
Omar was tortured with whips and drills. When one of the militiamen in the group put a gun to his head, Omar believed it was all over. He remembers staring at the gun when another militiaman announced that he was to be freed. Days later, Omar learned that his release was thanks to a Shiite brother-in-law who spent every minute of the 96-hour nightmare placing phone calls to beg mercy on his Sunni family.
Playing on the floor of his family’s new apartment, Omar’s 3-year-old son looks up. He was only 1 year old at the time, too young to remember his father’s kidnapping or his mother’s vigil.
“I remember crying, and he used to cry with me,” Shatha recalls. “Whenever I looked at him, I just imagined what difficulty was waiting for me, raising him alone without his father’s help.”
What the little boy does remember are the children he used to play with in Baghdad. He asks about them every day. “I try to tell him, ‘This is your new home. This is your new life,’” Shatha says.
Since I am, admittedly, more curious about the life that Shatha fled, I ask what her last image of Baghdad was. It’s a mistake. The question is too raw; their flight, too recent. Shatha and Omar start crying. I apologize and shut the camera off, embarrassed to have crossed a line I did not see.
My next interview is easier. This family has been in Phoenix longer and has had more time to adjust. Ibrahim shares his hopes for his children, two of whom have already been elected Student of the Month at their elementary school. His older son will be a senator; his younger son, an engineer; and his daughter, a doctor.
Ibrahim had been working for an American company in Iraq. (Security concerns proscribe his telling me where exactly.) In the end, the affiliation cost him dearly. Ibrahim’s brother was kidnapped. His older son was almost kidnapped. And, on February 22, Ibrahim himself narrowly escaped death.
“Take me back to that moment,” I say.
Ibrahim nods. “As I left work, three cars followed me. I believe that they were waiting for me outside. They were six or seven people holding guns, and they began shooting at the same time.”
“I anticipated what was going to happen, and I had a plan. First, I knew that having a gun with me would be a bad idea, because it might distract me from getting away. I thought running away would be a better option and give me more of a chance of staying alive.”
I nod, unable to imagine a life necessitating such contingency plans.
He describes the shower of bullets that whizzed through his vehicle. He put his head down and drove blindly for 20 miles. “I gave up hope for a few minutes while all this was happening.” Finally, Ibrahim’s pursuers hit their mark: a bullet struck the hand he was using to steer. “I felt pain in my left arm, which was the only part of me that was exposed. And I just saw my hand fall down.”
Ibrahim credits his survival to a group of American soldiers who noticed what was happening and intervened. A passing Iraqi rushed him to a nearby hospital. According to Ibrahim, in order to save his arm, doctors performed the first operation of its kind in the Middle East. It didn’t go as hoped. He pulls up his shirtsleeve and exposes a grisly scar.
Later, sitting at his kitchen table, Ibrahim asks if he can read a letter he has written to President Bush. Fascinated, I refocus my lens and zoom in on the document.
Ibrahim clears his throat and reads aloud: “I would like to say thanks to the USA government for saving my life and future and giving us the chance to live with USA people and start a new life here.” In stilted English, Ibrahim shares his views on the terrorists who shot him: they are “cowards” and “enemies of peace.” He thanks the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, the U.S. company where he worked, and the International Rescue Committee for helping his family resettle in America.
After Ibrahim finishes, his wife thanks President Bush and talks about the U.S. as “the place we never dreamt of seeing in the movies.” I wrap up the day capturing shots of the family’s modest apartment.
Finally, there is Faeza. She invites me to take a seat on the sofa that the Phoenix Chaldean Christian community has donated to her. Most of Iraq’s Christians are Chaldeans: a branch of the Roman Catholic Church that is independent from Rome but recognizes the pope’s authority. Many have fled Iraq since the fighting began.
Once, Faeza tells me, she was an engineer in Baghdad entertaining American expatriates in her home. “We thought that when the Americans came we would have a very beautiful life—a better life than before.” Now, she is a widow and a single mother living in a condominium and interviewing for jobs at discount department stores. “It is very hard to start over with zero,” she says.
Faeza’s husband was a translator embedded with an American journalist. Both were killed. As he died, Faeza says, her husband shouted their son’s name 26 times.
There is a knock at the door. “Khattab!” she calls. Her 7-year-old son scampers into the living room. He opens the door. It’s a group of new friends that she and her son have made in their apartment community.
“It’s progress,” Faeza says. She is grateful for the welcome they have received in Phoenix, but admits that life in America is lonely and difficult. “I want to tell people that we are here in the U.S. because we lost our country, our homes, our jobs. We left a lot of things behind in Iraq.”
As I leave, Faeza pulls me aside. “I hope you understand my complaints. I am afraid of the future, because I am alone.”
Back with Omar and Shatha, I learn that after being released from his captors, Omar fled with his family to Tikrit, an Iraqi town 140 kilometers northwest of Baghdad. He spent the next month in a hospital recuperating from the torture wounds that covered his body. The moment he was able to stand, Omar took his family to neighboring Jordan.
“All I was hoping was that within two or three months Iraq would be stabilized again or in a better situation. Then we could come back,” Shatha says. “But, unfortunately, every day that went by we heard more stories of what was happening in Iraq, similar to our stories, and that terrorized us more.”
Since the start of the Iraq war, as many as 2 million Iraqi refugees have fled to neighboring countries, including Jordan and Syria. An estimated 2 million more have fled their homes but remain in Iraq, displaced by fighting and sectarian violence. The IRC and other aid organizations have called the Iraqi exodus a refugee crisis of historic proportions.
In Amman, the Jordanian capital, the family’s life was harsh. Like most of the Iraqis who have crowded into the city, they lacked residency status, were not allowed to work, and suffered from discrimination. The family ran through their savings in 15 months.
Ibrahim and Faeza share similar stories of suppression. Ibrahim’s wife begs the U.S. “to help the Iraqis still suffering in Syria and Jordan.”
The family’s only hope, it seemed, was to apply for refugee status and move to another country, such as the United States. But America has admitted less than 4,500 Iraqi refugees since the war began, a number that is tragically inadequate. Even Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military, including drivers and translators—like Ibrahim and Faeza’s husband—have found the door largely shut.
So it was something of a miracle when U.S. immigration officials informed Omar that he and his family had been accepted for resettlement in the U.S.—in Arizona, some 7,000 miles away.
The fact that they are now in America astounds the family. When asked about dreams for the future, Omar and Shatha say they want to learn English, go back to school, and give their son a better life. Still on the floor playing with toy cars, he gazes up at me from under the brim of his Yankees cap and smiles timidly.