World Watch List – Iraq | Growing Pains, As We Don’t Know Them
I don’t know about you, but I got away with a lot during my teenage years. Reckless adventure, a deep passion to experience novel things and emotions, the drive to create and to be different, and a good dosage of foolishness made for a good start in transitioning from childhood into adulthood. And I am grateful that no one tried to fast forward that transition. During those years I had some around me whose adolescence was speckled with dark things, but none were quite as different as the youth I was exposed to this summer: Iraqi teenagers, no longer children, not quite adults, juggling childlike dreams and adult responsibility, torn between the desire to stay young and irresponsible and the fierce determination to be an adult and provide for their families. In my opinion, the Iraqi teenagers temporarily settled in Lebanon have it the hardest. They live in a limbo within a limbo. They are suspended somewhere between childhood and adulthood, unable to grow up so quickly yet aware that childhood no longer bears their identity. In addition, they are caught between what was and what is yet to come as bureaucratic organizations process their asylum application in what is often a long-drawn-out manner. With the invasion, and the violence and uprising that followed, to graduate from high school into college became a luxury in Iraq. As family businesses were targeted, jobs lost, and life became more expensive, families could no longer support further education, especially their sons’. Besides, attending school was becoming dangerous as school buses were being blown up and children kidnapped outside schools. And so many teenage sons had to pick up jobs, usually with the American army, the one sustainable entity in Iraq throughout the war. Girls, on the other hand, were safer at home. With the move to Lebanon, the grass did not get any greener. With little savings, if any, higher rent, and a higher cost of living, Iraqi families could not afford to have their teenagers at home. This time, however, the context is even more complex. Iraqi refugees enter Lebanon legally. They fly in, get a month-long visa, and are allowed to enter the country without any questions. The Lebanese authorities know that arriving Iraqis are not tourists, but they let them in nonetheless, ever so aware of the consequences. Upon arrival the Iraqis register as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, only to become officially illegal a month later. Lebanon is not a signatory of the Refugee Convention and so authorities have little regard to Iraqis’ refugee status. What makes the context complex is that although their presence is not concealed, no one seeks them out, allowing for the Iraqis to gain a sense of false freedom. Iraqis know that any work they do is illegal and strictly seen as so with harsh repercussions, but as many get away they believe that they can too. Ironically, Lebanon’s economy is booming and so Iraqis look for work, find it, and take it. Lacking any and all rights, their wages are pitiful and days worked are long and hard. Teenagers are in demand, their strength favored over that of adults. Most of the families I met are being sustained by their teenagers, not only sons but also daughters. And so they take the risk and choose to take up work to sustain their families. Then one faithful day they come across a street patrol, are asked for their documents, are unable to provide them, and are arrested and imprisoned, indefinitely unless they are willing to be deported back to Iraq. I met a father whose two teenage sons, 14 and 17 years old, had been imprisoned. When he opened his empty fridge to offer us some cold tap water, I knew that it was out of need that his sons had looked for work. As he talked of how hard it has been for them to be locked up amongst criminals, my translator whispered that many amongst them are abused, often frail and alienated in dark, filthy, and overcrowded cells. This was sadly confirmed by Hani, a young Iraqi who had been imprisoned for five months until he agreed to be deported. Soon after his deportation, Hani returned to Lebanon and when we visited with him he was willing to share about time spent in Lebanon’s largest prison. He talked of his cell being so dark that he could never tell whether it was day or night. He said that he was brought out into the sunlight once a week for an hour and before he knew it he spiraled into depression and started to harm himself just to feel something. Hani still suffers from breathing problems and other health issues, which he blames on the filthy food and water that was served in prison. He shared how he is now terrified of being caught again but has no choice but to leave for work every single morning. Having had many conversations with other Iraqi youth, some resettled in El Cajon, San Diego, and others in Lebanon, I know the dreams they have to start life anew. Their life was hijacked at its best by a war that tore their innocence apart and demanded that they grow up, fast. Yet, they dream big, unwavering as they face many challenges, adjustments, and unknowns. Their hopeful determination is what drives them to bravely face the risk of imprisonment, believing that their courage will win the day. Their teenage spirit is not easily consumed by fear but I do wonder whether it is valiant enough to stand against the evil that roams the prison cells. I know mine would have been gravely bullied by it, but perhaps you’d stand to differ. The following pictures were taken in Zaaytrieh and Sed el Bouchrieh, two neighborhoods in the suburbs of Beirut that host many Iraqi refugees.