With Memories of War, A Young Iraqi Settles Into America

With Memories of War, A Young Iraqi Settles Into America

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Ed. Note: The Boston Marathon bombings have raised questions over how young immigrants in this country are impacted by the experience of war and trauma in their homeland. This week the New York Times reported on research that showed young people from countries racked by violence often struggle to adapt to life in the United States. In 2010, 16-year-old Suzan Al Shammari arrived in California after years fleeing violence with her family in Iraq and later in Egypt. Below she recalls her experiences, and how they have shaped her integration into life in the United States.

LOS ANGELES – Like the suspects behind the Boston attacks, my family fled violence – first in Iraq, then later Egypt. The constant moving made me feel I was neither Iraqi nor Egyptian, and even now that I am in America I don’t feel like I have a country.

But being in America is something I’ve always wanted.

I was 7 years old when I lived through the war in Iraq. When I look back, what I remember most is the violence. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night in terror, remembering the missile I heard passing my family’s home in Baghdad before hitting an electric company next door. Right then I thought I would never feel safe again.

One day my school was destroyed in a bomb attack. Fortunately we were on break. Later, my dad began to receive threats from local fighters because he was the vice president of a company that once helped identify the bodies of those killed by Saddam Hussein’s security forces.

What I remember of Iraq is the terror and violence. I still love my country, but I wished I had a normal life there.

But I also remember the American soldiers I met. I never cared what people would say about Americans. When they came by my house giving out food and candy, I would see the smiles on their faces and felt they were like superheroes. They came from a different country and were protecting strangers. I knew right then my dream was to go to America because only there could I feel safe.

We left Iraq in 2006, when I was 9-years-old, and moved to Egypt. I knew no Iraqis there, and even began to feel Egyptian. But I was torn between two countries, and two identities.

All we wanted was to escape the death in my country. Unfortunately, shortly after we arrived in Egypt I learned my cousin back in Iraq had been killed. He was Sunni, while his killer was Shia. His death and the constant violence – all in the name of Allah -- prompted my parents to begin questioning Islam. We converted to Christianity the next year.

For the first time, I felt something new. I felt reborn and at peace, even though we were at risk for what we’d done. Because of religious discrimination, we were in greater danger than we had been in Iraq. I know that people have been jailed or tortured in Egypt for converting from Islam.

So in my school I was known as Muslim, and outside I was Christian. If I told friends or classmates that I was Christian, my family and I might be put in danger.

Finally, in March 2010 we landed in LAX, arriving in the United States as refugees. It was like something you’ve always wanted and that you finally get, but you don’t believe it. Even on the plane my family couldn’t believe we were actually going to be in America. I’m thankful. Looking back to when I was in Baghdad, it seems like a really long and tough fight to have gotten here.

But even now it’s still hard to get used to the fact that I’m safe. For 8 years each day of my life I thought would be my last. So now, as good as it feels to be safe, it still seems different -- a feeling I’m not used to.

And while I’m active with social clubs and everything else in my school, I see people that are born here, people that have a normal life, and I reflect on my own past. They never moved anywhere else; they have family here, they have cousins. I feel like the only person without roots. My whole family is scattered across Europe and Iraq.

Still, I try not to look back too much because it just takes me into a deep hole. If people ask me about how I identify, I tell them I’m American. As much as I’m torn between 3 different identities, America is the country that took me in and allowed me to feel safe. My country offered me terror and violence, America offered me peace and a new beginning.

Suzan Al Shammari is a high school student in Los Angeles. She wrote this piece for Long Beach VoiceWaves, a project of New America Media.