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Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

I almost punched a 16 year old boy in the face.  It was my natural instinct as he bit down hard into the flesh of my shoulder while my head was turned away from him.  I stopped my clenched fist mid-air as it was flying toward his cheekbone with malice. My mind luckily kicked in to calm my autonomic response and remind me where I was. We had been talking about America’s role in the Middle East which was perhaps an unwise topic to dive into with two Iraqi teenagers on my second day working in a refugee camp.

In a place with such diversity and limited language overlap, one of the first questions people ask is “Where are you from?” I don’t lie when people ask this and even if I did, with a backwards hat, sunglasses, and neon Nikes, most people already know.  I am apparently a walking American bro stereotype that only led one person astray so far when guessing my country of origin (they said France).

I apologized several times for my country’s transgressions in Iraq after being called out for the phantom search for “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”  “You lied to the world and destroyed our country because of it,” the older boy said.  “And then you make ISIS,” a point to which I also apologized knowing full well how America destabilized the region and in trying to destroy al-Qaeda, in fact helped promote the growth of a splinter cell who carries out atrocities that were too extreme even for al-Qaeda.

I get it, we messed up big time and the more I read on the topic, the more I understand just how short-sighted our approach was in Iraq.  But that’s how hindsight works, except it doesn’t work as a reflection on destroying a country and creating devastation that has caused a 16 and 18 year old boy to flee that you are now sitting face to face with as they unleash their trauma on you.  “I don’t like America, but I like you because I am not closed minded” the older one boasted.  “America, no good,” the younger one echoed using the little English he knew to embrace a feeling he knew well.

“You know it’s fucked up how America funds ISIS” the older one stated in a transition to larger issues.  He proudly if not haphazardly explained the theory that America bankrolls the black-flagged terrorist activities targeting the Western world while destroying the Middle East and beyond so we can justify the hatred and destruction of Islam. We reached an impasse in our only ten minute conversation as I started to express the “What do you know, you’re only 18?” attitude to counter his “What do you know, you haven’t lived in Iraq?” attitude.   We were both too stubbornly sure of our opinions formed by bias media to continue on that topic as tempers were starting to burn red-hot.

At this point it’s important to note that the feelings Iraqis have towards Americans is noticeably and understandably, a mixed bag.  Syrians, while often wishing we would step in and assist the toppling of the Assad regime with full force, tend to like America very much.

Wanting to hear more, even if it was a slew of words I didn’t like or even believe, I simply asked to hear more.  In talking about Saddam Hussein, the older boy said “He was both good and bad, but more good than bad” recounting what he must have heard from his parents and pop-culture.  This wishy-washy celebration of death spewing tyrants is exactly how most of my students in China express their feelings towards Mao Zedong.  I needed to dig deeper.  “What exactly was good about him?” I said trying to hide the slightly arrogant American tone that oozed off of the word good like puss out of a wound.

He liked that Saddam was a man of action, even if inflammatory and deranged. “When he made the plan to fire 39 rockets at Israel and destroy them, he asked other countries to fire the 40th.” In trying to orchestrate a complete wipeout of the Jewish nation, the older boy expressed how he was “disappointed” that no other countries stepped up and followed through on “such a great plan” to destroy Israel.

“But then America comes in and killed him.” I had turned my head because I didn’t know how to respond to the eighteen year old’s characterization of a war criminal who placed such little value on humanity, it didn’t make his priority list at all.  I felt a sharp pain as bicuspids sunk into my deltoid just as quickly triggering my body to jerk away and my arm to swing around in one fluid motion.  An invisible force stopped my fist mid-flight.  I wanted to hit this scrawny little kid square in the chest as he broke his slobber clenched jaw from my body, but as a child, he has already experienced enough violence for 5 million lifetimes.

The next post is the story of that kid who bit me on my second day, but now affectionately calls me Captain America and is one of my best friends in camp.

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I have around one hundred 18 year olds pass through my classroom doors each year.  I consider it an honor that some confide in me their life stories.  There are many superficial commonalities to what I hear in “I love this…I hate that” teenage jargon. However, the struggle of adolescence usually includes a few main threads: “My parents don’t understand me, I want to be accepted by my peers, I’m nervous about what the future holds.” Even teaching in China, the themes of teenage struggle hold constant with my students there.

With an at risk population such as residents at a refugee camp, there is a whole new and much more heart-breaking perspective:  “My parents couldn’t afford to flee the country with me, my friends were killed by mortar fire, and I have no clue what tomorrow holds.” While not everyone has experienced those exact situations, they are some of the unfortunate fixations that are all too common amongst displaced persons.   Hearing snippets of stories like that from the mouths of people who lived them is not just enough to make me forget about my trivial daily complaints like not having wifi or a washing machine, but to actually feel guilty I ever considered such small things real issues in the first place.

I quickly made friends with an 18 year old boy in camp named Hassam because desperately, yet understandably so, he was seeking to connect with anyone he could as he arrived the same day I did. I arrived via ferry from Athens where I had taken in cultural relics of an ancient civilization for a couple days and stayed in a hostel that overlooked the midnight glow of the Acropolis.  Hassam arrived via a small rubber boat from the coast of Turkey where he had spent two nights sleeping out in the open on the forest floor, trying to evade authorities while carrying just a handful of personal belongings.

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Hassam taking a selfie in the Turkish wilderness with other people who would share the same boat on their journey to Greece.  Photo courtesy of Hassam.

Hassam was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq, a city you may recognize only from the maps and night vision images of bombs streaking across it’s skyline that were broadcast when the US initiated its search for Weapons of Mass Destruction.  Hassam made it clear that America had thoroughly “fucked up” his country and while he doesn’t like the United States as a country, holds no ill-will towards me as a person, unlike a few other camp residents who do.  What was also crystal clear was how the country became destabilized and a hotbed of radical forces once US forces started to pullout.

When describing why he was compelled to leave Iraq, Hassam offered generalities.  “For many reasons; we have a miserable life.  Iraq has no future.”  I know enough not to pry into past trauma and in time he will share what he is comfortable sharing as we build more trust together, but he did elaborate more to say he is Sunni and was receiving Shiite and ISIS threats on two different fronts.  That fear and ever looming danger just became too much to take.  After two days of what Hassam describes as government orchestrated attacks on citizens, including explosions at a mall that killed hundreds, he decided it was time.

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ISIS claimed credit for the July 4 suicide bombings in Baghdad that killed over 200 people (to which Hassam was referring). Source: Aljazeera

He echoed an assertion I had heard many times before: that everyone is so aggressive and angry because of how hot it is.  At first hearing this, I thought of how tired I was working in the hotbox of a gravel-grounded camp under the cloudless Greek sky as I sipped my ice water and wiped the sweat from my brow.  As Hassam showed me his sleeve tan-line, the difference between night and day, I looked up to see the current temperature as a mild 32 C when he told me August in Iraq gets up to 55 C.  Naturally, I asked about air conditioning, to which he said that the government electricity quickly gets overloaded from such heavy usage, and then the much inferior city electricity will kick on as backup before everything just goes out.  All in all, he says Baghdad got about two hours of electricity per day and then everyone just sat around being “hot and angry” the rest of the time.

While the environment at Kara Tepe might provide a cooler climate, the heat of uncertainty still courses through him.  From Baghdad, he travelled to the north of Iraq to get a visa and flight to Istanbul.  There, he stayed in a hotel for two nights waiting until his smuggler decided it was time to move.  One morning at 3am when the police presence was apparently thin, the smuggler arrived and led them him and others comprising a group of 35 on a two day trek through the Turkish forest.  They slept outside without blankets, mats, or tents, just huddled with each other and a final shred of hope.  At 3am again, they awoke to begin their 3 ½ hour journey across this straight of the Aegean to arrive in Lesvos.

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The sleeping arrangements in Turkey.  Photo courtesy of Hassam

Among the 35 people crowding this small rubber dinghy, were two pregnant females.  Hassam’s cousin and his family who he now lives with in camp were seated in front of him, and other displaced persons, some from Africa were seated in back of him.  The boat driver was from Iran and would also be seeking refuge in Europe. He was the only one who did not have to pay for the crossing, as technically he was in charge of getting everyone across.  Although due to smugglers trying to make as much money as they can off the process, a cheap motor was used that cut out twice in darkness of the oversea journey. “For me, I was scared.  I didn’t have a safety suit,” recounted Hassam as he also added that he didn’t know how to swim.

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Hassam takes a selfie with his cousin giving a peace sign in the background as they get closer to making landfall.  Photo courtesy of Hassam

While everyone pays a different price to cross, Hassam was charged $1,000.  A Syrian woman from Pakistan who made the same crossing from Turkey was charged $5,000 by her smuggler who then disappeared.  Her and her mother then found another smuggler who they gave all of their possessions to, including gold jewelry, clothing, and electronics, in exchange for the voyage.  He too disappeared.  They were in Turkey for a whole year before they actually made the trek after finding a third smuggler who was miraculously from their town in Syria and had a sense of loyalty through common ties.  He charged $2,000, the accrual of which must have been what took so long in Turkey after having traded everything prior.

In a windy region that has a shocking saltwater swell, I was not surprised to hear how much the boat rocked back and forth as it made a zigzagged approach to the shoreline visible in the glow of sunrise.  As the boat was spotted, a helicopter hovered overhead to notify the shore crews and standby for emergencies.  Very often, these cheap and overcapacity boats capsize or take on water and sink.  While actually typing this piece, I received a notification that a wooden boat leaving Turkey for Lesvos at 1am capsized 45 minutes after disembarking due to high waves.  One family with two kids died, 4 people were hospitalized, and three men are still missing.  Only 2 had life vests.  Thousands have died in the journey to Lesvos in less than a year.

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Waves rock the small rubber boat that people sit on the sides of during the 3 1/2 hour journey from Turkey to Greece.  Photo courtesy of Hassam

Upon arriving, the boats are met with volunteers on shore who provide foil blankets and changes of clothes if needed to prevent hypothermia.  A bus is usually waiting that takes them from the landing point (if the typical closest point of land in the Molyvos, northern Lesvos) an hour south to be processed in Moria camp in Mytilene, which is a closed camp run by the military.  If the situation dictates it, new arrivals can move to Kara Tepe camp down the street where I work.  I’m still trying to figure out what “if the situation dictates” actually means, but I know families have first priority for coming to the much preferred and open camp of Kara Tepe.

Hassam knows he has been extremely lucky to get to this point and as his journey onward will no doubt be trying, he appears to be approaching each day with a great sense of hope and mental fortitude.  Like most residents of Kara Tepe, he actually enjoys living in the camp with a good community feel and several services offered to residents.  However, this will not stop him from trying to get to Germany, the most desired end point for displaced persons.  After Angela Merkel announced what many considered a “refugee friendly, open door policy”, word of mouth spread quickly that Germany was the friendly, accepting, gold-standard of asylum.  While borders have since been closed, these rumors still persist and because many people’s family members got in before the new iron curtain dropped, it remains the pie in the sky final destination.

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