I was a refugee. I’m haunted by today’s images of child refugees

This post was originally published on PBSNewshour.

I was born in Baghdad. My family was well off and we lived in a nice large home with a beautiful yard. We lived there with my three aunts, grandparents and cousins. The house was so large it fit us all. We even had a small house built in the garden for my aunt and her husband. Then one day I remember being told that I can’t go to school anymore, because we were at war.

I heard about an entire foster home being bombed. They showed it on the news. There were so many children whose lives were lost, souls who had no one to remember them. Were they even real to anyone? Did they exist at all? I remember sobbing as I heard this news. I was 6 years old.

Endless BBC radio news anchor voices still haunt me to this day. We lost our electricity. My family was glued to the radio to hear what was happening: where will they aim at next? How many will be dead? Electricity often goes out at night, to put fear in the heart of the people.

I remember sleeping and hearing bombs and rockets being shot far away, waking up at night and telling my mom I am afraid. She said, don’t worry, they’re not close by, they won’t come near us. She was wrong.

My friend Yassir’s house was bombed. It fell right into their backyard. Baghdad was now officially a target. How can we stay here? Where do we go? My grandpa needed to sort this out, and so we moved into my aunt’s house in our yard. It was new and had a strong foundation. We decided to stay there for the next few days until we figured out where to shelter. People were fleeing, neighbors left. Everything was quiet. Only the sound of air raid sirens and distant rockets, brought us back to our nightmarish reality.

Families board buses to be transported to a Berlin refugee camp after they arrived by train from Austria earlier this month. Photo by Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

We fled. My mom woke us up that morning at 5 a.m. to travel to the city of Najaf. This was apparently the safest city for now. We had distant relatives there and we stayed at their house. It was winter by then. You see, when you’re young, your concept of time gets distorted. I am not sure how long we stayed in Najaf. But I do remember the horrible conditions we lived in. There was no water or gas, so the heat was scarce in the winter. My grandpa would lug gallons of water with the help of my uncle and bring it to us so we can bathe and use it for food and drinking.

The war tore apart homes, minds and hearts. It took away dreams and realities, and happiness became an afterthought. Iraqis were physically broken, and mentally shaken. The Gulf war shook us to the core, it shook my entire family to the core. We fled, one by one. Until the only people left in our very large house, with a beautiful yard was myself, mom, sister and grandpa.

The Gulf war ended, and after a year we decided to flee Iraq. Iraq was undergoing sanctions, no food or goods could be transported in and out, nor people for that matter. We snuck away one evening, and headed to Jordan. War was over, but the desert between Iraq and Jordan was full of danger. I still remember the navy blue sky with sparkling stars. I looked at them and wondered, how can I feel so scared with those stars above me? And yet I did.

After the Gulf war, there were so many refugees fleeing to Jordan, so there was a lot of discrimination and mistreatment of Iraqi citizens there. Though now it’s totally different as those refugees 20 years ago have built their homes and are raising their families there. My sister and I were not allowed to go to school because we were Iraqi. So we missed out on an entire year of school. We stayed in Jordan for a year, waiting for our sponsorship and paperwork to finish in Canada. My aunt sponsored us to come to Toronto and start a new life.

They say once you’ve settled, and you’re living a good life, you should move on. But can one really move on from such tragic heartbreak? Can one ever move on from displacement, senseless violence, air raid sirens?

When I see images of children refugees now, I feel haunted by them. What haunts me is that these children will grow up and they will be adults who carry on the memories of their reality turned into nightmares. I sob every time I look at them, because even though my nightmare is over, theirs is just beginning. I am heartbroken that they’re suffering and don’t have a home. I am heartbroken that once they reach their new home, if they make it, they might not be welcomed there. And that terrifies me, because feeling like you don’t belong is one of the worst feelings that a human can endure.

8 thoughts on “I was a refugee. I’m haunted by today’s images of child refugees

  1. Hi Rusul, I though I had déjà vu reading this;) Congratulations on your publishing:) I am happy that you are able to write about your experiences so eloquently to connect us with the harsh realities. Your story makes me think about the sheer amount of privilege that we – especially as educators – and along many other axes ie., race, gender, socioeconomic status and more. Certainly we cannot expect refugees, who have been traumatized, suffering from war and so much more to even begin to feel safe, welcomed, and acknowledged (not forced to assimilate), unless those of us who have privilege can can recognize the stories and learn how to be inclusive and understanding and more.
    Thank you for sharing your story,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rusul, thank you for sharing your lens on this. It is easy for us to forget, as we welcome these newest refugees, that many of our colleagues, parents and grandparents may be experiencing this sense of retraumatization. I know that I never truly understood my father’s experience as an 11 year old displaced person until I watched my new students try to cope in my classroom.

    Liked by 1 person

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