There are times, seldom but eternally remembered, when I meet someone for the first time and, for some inexplicable reason, my heart immediately warms up towards them and I let down my defenses a bit quicker than I typically do. In hindsight, I am quick to see that first acquaintance as God-ordained, but there and then I am merely intrigued by that person’s face, mannerisms, look, voice, and interaction with me or with those around us.
Amir is one of those people. When we were greeted by him and his family outside their one-room apartment in the suburbs of Beirut, his face immediately struck me. It carried a tender look, a face adorned by the brightest blue eyes, creased by the weight of life yet smiling for Amir knew that visits paid by his Lebanese friends were a nice break in a life full of routine and isolation. Squeezing into their poorly ventilated apartment, Amir helped us get as comfortable as we possibly could and then, as is customary, offered us some Arabic coffee. He was eager to talk about life. For my sake, he talked of life in Iraq, of how things changed with the US invasion when as a Christian he was no longer able to freely worship as he had before. Reluctant to bow down to fear, his family still attended mass every now and then, and when Easter came around they were thrilled to make it. Sadly, that night was to be their last night at church. Returning home before sunset, what awaited them was an ugly scene. Their house had been broken in once again, their belongings stolen or destroyed, but this time words of hatred had been painted over their walls, calling them traitors, double-agents, and threatening to kill them all if they stayed. In Amir’s words, he did not want to give the perpetrators the pleasure of killing them. He has seen the same happen to his neighbors and knew that their message was not empty. And so they packed their bags and left Iraq. Curious as I was, I asked Amir if he though he would ever return to Iraq, but my curiosity seemed badly-timed as Amir stood up, grabbed a towel and walked out, allowing me a fleeting look of his crying face as he did so. I learned that Amir had to leave his father on his deathbed to protect his family. It was hard for him to walk away, knowing that he would never see him again. Amir eventually came back, sat down and, fiddling with a rubber band, listened as one of his Lebanese friends shared what she had gone through during Lebanon’s war in 1982. His demeanor was different now. No longer sitting straight, no longer making eye contact. Amir respectfully let her finish before he asked if was allowed to ask one question, “Why did America do this to us?” His question begged a response, yet I believe none could be ever given that would satisfy his heart, a heart that visibly struggles with the injustices done to him, his family, his people, his nation.
Similar to Amir in many ways was Daud, pictured above with his two beautiful daughters. Yet Daud travelled a different journey to Lebanon than Amir. Daud was kidnapped and ransomed for three times. His two younger brothers were killed right before Christmas. In Lebanon, he is often immobilized by fear, thinking up the worst when coming across clusters of men. He is unable to find work, physically incapable to do the jobs most Iraqis do with a back maimed by the multiple beatings that kept him under control while kidnapped. And so Daud has had to do what is perhaps the hardest for any Iraqi man to do, and pass the breadwinner role to his wife and four young sons. His heart struggles, like Amir’s, caught between too many enemies, too much evil, too little comfort. Yet, in the midst of great turmoil, I believe Daud’s heart is being touched by Love, for there is simply no other way to explain the otherwise foolish behavior of giving to others when living in so much lack. For it is truly reflective of a compassionate and loving heart the act of freely choosing to give his family’s monthly food ration to Iraqi neighbors when he has been stripped of so much.
One more trait that Amir and Daud shared was their heroic spirit. Manhood ought no longer be entered in with images of ludicrously built, heavily armed, narcissistic men, displayed on little boys’ personal computers and families’ TV screens as the lords of our time. Rather, it should be built on the lives of men who have looked evil in the eyes but are still operating in love; a selfless love that drives them to give up all they had ever lived for to provide their children with a future. For it takes the spirit of a hero to endure war for seven years, refusing to leave their nation until their family is threatened with death, leaving them with no choice but to protect their loved ones at any cost. These are men stripped of their identity the minute they part from Iraq, becoming one of many refugees, aliens, Arabs, Muslims whom we have kindly provided with asylum, given first that they swear to always protect the nation receiving them. Indeed, men like Amir and Daud are heroes, and it is their stories that little boys need to hear when put to bed.
Ghanim and his wife Nagiba: Ghanim shared that it hurts to think how the war has dispersed his family in so many different lands. He wondered if they would ever find themselves in the same place again.
Remon and his wife Nawal: Left Iraq after their shop was blown up. Life in Lebanon has been rough as they continue to wait to be granted asylum in Australia.
Hani, as he talked of how two of his children had been separated from the family and granted asylum in Canada. Hani, his wife, and their four remaining children will resettle in El Cajon, San Diego, but they will be unable to see the rest of their family until they are granted the Green Card, which would allow them to travel.
Thaqer lost one brother to the 2003 war. One of his sons was kidnapped but released when his family promised to leave Iraq. Many Christian Iraqis shared how they have been targeted by both Sunnis and Shiites, getting the worse of both ends. The aim of the latter is to drive all Christians out of the country, as they are considered to be American allies.
Adenan, Nasima, and children Valentina and Divan: Adenan’s brother was kidnapped six years ago and they never heard news of him. Adenan shared how his faith has faltered as he struggles with what has happened to his family and the unknown that lies ahead.
This blog post orginally appeared on Culture as Art, which is the humanitarian media work of Joshua Seale who works for Open Doors USA as Web Administrator. In 2010, Joshua and his wife Nathalie carried out research among Iraqi refugees in Beirut, Lebanon. Although this research was done seperate from Open Doors, it nonetheless speaks of the harsh reality that thousands of Iraqi refugee’s still face today. Story by Nathalie Borg Seale | Photos by Joshua Seale.