While growing up in Iraq, the United States seemed more like a far-off idea than a country that I pictured myself ever living in. But by the time my airplane landed in San Francisco in 2005, most of my family had already left my hometown of Baghdad.
I remember how shocked I was when one of my cousins called a few months after the fall of Baghdad in 2003 and announced, “We’re leaving.” But that soon became a familiar refrain as more and more of my friends and extended family began to lose hope and make the wrenching decision to leave behind their homes and move from Iraq. It was the first quarter of 2004 when I decided it was my turn to leave: life in Iraq had become impossible.
A few months after I left, my mother, a civil engineer who had graduated from the University of Baghdad, had just returned from work when a gang of four stopped her at gunpoint as she opened the garage door of our house in Baghdad. They stole the car, but we were ecstatic that she was not harmed. Family and friends called to congratulate us on her safety, as if she had just won a car in the lottery, not had hers stolen.
In retrospect, we were among the lucky ones. The numerous stories of other Iraqis who were killed and injured at that time made us feel like we shouldn’t be upset about a car. In fact, we felt we shouldn’t be upset about any material insecurity, such as the lack of electricity and water in our homes, or the collapsing healthcare and education systems. We should be thankful just to be alive.
A relative from my mother’s side had to leave his home with the rest of his family. He is Shiite, married to a Sunni. Sectarian militias linked to some ruling parties ordered them to evacuate their house. They moved to another neighborhood and lived with one of their friends. On my father’s side of the family, the experiences are similar. One of my dad’s cousins, a Sunni who is married to a Shiite, had to leave his house because other sectarian militias, linked to different ruling parties, threatened to kill his family. He was himself imprisoned in Abu Ghraib for over a year at that time because he was a “suspected insurgent.” Both of these families had to move to other neighborhoods until the situation was “back to normal,” as they told me. I’m half Palestinian. When my father’s family had to flee the West Bank town of Jenin in 1967 because of the Six-Day War, they also thought they’d be back in no time. I was hopeful but skeptical that things would go back to normal soon.
A few months later, my younger brother Khalid didn’t come back from school one day. A senior student at Al-Mustansiriya University’s environmental engineering department, Khalid’s plan was to graduate and join my parents in their water treatment company. My mother and I had already left for Jordan, so my dad had to search for him on his own.
I spent the first morning after his disappearance trying to remember whether I said goodbye in a proper way the last time we talked, and whether I hugged him long enough the last time I saw him.
My dad went to police stations, then to Iraqi army stations, then to the U.S. Army, then to the Ministry of Interior, then to militias’ offices, then to every other place that was suggested in the process. He called us every 15 minutes to say that he had no news, but it sounded like good news because at least it meant my dad was still okay. After a week of searching, he decided to start looking for Khalid in hospitals and morgues.
The first time I saw my dad after Khalid’s disappearance, he looked like he had aged a decade. Looking for your son among dead bodies isn’t an easy thing to do, especially when many of them look like him: young, strong, healthy men with a bullet or shrapnel wound that stole their future.
We likely owe Khalid’s life to a guard who secretly allowed him to make a call to my dad two weeks after he had been imprisoned in the Iraq Ministry of Interior. He was staying in a narrow room with two of the walls touching both his head and his feet, which he shared with dozens of other prisoners. With his location now known to us, my father spent thousands of dollars to ensure that my brother moved beyond indefinite imprisonment to a court trial. The judge dismissed the charges against him and released him.
Khalid came home to my dad, a hot bath, and a taxi waiting outside to take him to Jordan. He arrived in Jordan less than ten hours after being released, where we awaited his arrival with family and friends who were again congratulating us on our happy luck.
Everyone was loud and joyful, but Khalid sat alone in the corner, silent. I couldn’t stop looking at him. I wanted to cry and hug him. I thought weeping over his ordeal and the Iraq we had all lost would have been less painful than this silence. I felt that the sound of bombs falling on our neighborhood during the “shock and awe” campaign was easier to bear than his silence. I wanted to ask him what happened in prison. Was he tortured? I wasn’t sure he wanted to talk about it. I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to know.
Now, ten years after moving to the United States, I barely know anyone remaining in Iraq. All of my cousins, uncles, aunts, colleagues, friends, and neighbors have left or are dead. Everything I had in Iraq was lost or stolen; even my memories are fading away.
Iraq has been destroyed, and we haven’t seen the worst of it yet. U.S. bombs are still falling; Iraqis are still dying; and the country continues to disintegrate.
We’re still considered among the lucky ones. We lost our country, our friends, and many of our belongings, but we didn’t lose our lives. Khalid’s second child was born earlier this year in Jordan, and my second was born a few months later here in D.C. I don’t imagine our kids will visit Iraq in our lifetime, let alone live there. But if they ever did, they would be going to a different country from the one I left.