On my last morning in Iraq, I eat breakfast with all of the Women for Women International staff at the Baghdad office. Each one of them is a hero by their own merit.
There is George, a young man who speaks fluent English and wishes desperately to leave the country. “I am afraid of being called by my name when I am walking the streets, lest I get killed because my name is George. I ask my friends to call me Amjad or something like that. It is too scary to be identified with a name that could be a foreigner.”
There is Samira, an Iranian woman who escaped Iran during the revolution, fell in love with an Iraqi man and lived her married life with him in Jordan. When her husband went back to Iraq after the invasion in the hope they may have a better life there, she followed him with their two teenage boys who were born in Jordan and grew up with a Jordanian accent. Two months after they arrived in Iraq, Samira’s husband died. Now she and her children have no place to call home as Iranian law states that an Iranian woman married to a non-Iranian man may not pass on her citizenship to her children. And since her kids have grown up in Jordan their whole lives they don’t fit into Iraqi culture either.
“My children and I are afraid to walk the streets, to talk, to have friends. We are strangers in a country that none of us belong to but can’t leave.”
As I hear Samira’s story and every part of me wants to reach out and help, I wonder how to explain to people in America the situation in which Samira finds herself. We are all seen as one outside of our region—looking the same, behaving the same and believing the same. How can I explain that we look different, that there isn’t such a thing as one Islamic culture, that we can love or hate each other and sometimes we have the both feelings at the same time. How can I explain Samira’s story, or George’s story, outside the confines of our office in Baghdad?
As we wrap up our breakfast, my colleague Nouri tells me that he just got an email about the earthquake in Rwanda and DR Congo. “Don’t worry Zainab. All the staff are OK except for one who had to go to the hospital.” Everyone else is now worried about their colleagues in DR Congo and Rwanda. My heart drops as I hear the news. I pray every day for the staff safety in every country we work in. The work comes with responsibility and having our staff safe is one of the biggest responsibilities I feel towards them.
When it was time for me to go to the airport, I kissed everyone goodbye. I don’t know when I will be able to go back to Iraq. I know I think of them all as heroes—not only for their dedication to helping the women who are the most vulnerable and marginalized but also for staying in the country.
As I sat in the airport in Baghdad about to leave Iraq, there is sadness, fear, love and anger every day coming at you in every single direction. There is gratitude, humiliation, theft, honesty, incredible hate, and incredible love all at the same time. Which one is Iraq? Which one is the full picture? I do not know.
I started talking to a man about the “death triangle”—the section of road our staff drive regularly between Baghdad and Karbala, where you could be killed just for being Sunni or Shi’ah, depending on which part of the road you were on. He told me he bribed a government official so he could get another citizenship card with a common Sunni name. This way, he would have two forms of identifications: one with a Sunni name and one with a Shi’ah name and he would present it as appropriate depending on the part of the street. When I asked him how easy it was to bribe someone to get a new ID, he answered by saying “Oh, but God had blessed us with plenty of corruption in this country. You can get anything you want my dear.”
It has been five years since the American invasion of Iraq and while the mistakes made there continue to accumulate still no one has stopped to listen to what this critical mass of the population, women, have to say about solving the problems of Iraq. As I traveled the country it became clear that women know exactly what they want and what they need to take care of their families and communities. It is time to hear what the women have to say and have the humility to stop pretending that we know all the answers.
The plane is called and I get up to leave with a sense of sadness at the loss of a country at a destruction of a nation and its people. I have no words to console me except the phrase In Sha’a Allah (God Willing). In Sha’a Allah I live to see the day where Iraq is back on its feet and is once again a prosperous country that can be filled with hope to fulfill its potential. In Sha’a Allah I can do something to help it no matter how little it may be. In Sha’a Allah there will be peace in my homeland and the home I now have in America soon. In Sha’a Allah very soon.