Thursday, July 31, 2008

Scenario #6: What will happen to a nation?

Several of my last posts have been about Iraqi refugees here. I think this informal miniseries on Iraqis may be coming to an end now. I almost feel like I have hit a such point in depth and soberness it's now time to revert to a more palatable reality for a while. But first I am going to share the question that has been haunting me these months that I've spent with Iraqis.

What has happened to this beautiful heart of civilisation?

I recently attended a "party" held to commemorate the end of a summer camp sponsored by a local convent for Iraqi children. There were just over 200 children bussed from their homes to the largest church in town in order to watch each other perform. Pictured is the finale of a fashion show type of skit, in which a few dozen children dressed up in different types of garb, ranging from formal-wear to traditional Arab, from ghetto fabulous to karate to spiderman! All the children, audience and performers alike were well-dressed, well-behaved and fun to be around. The camp counselors were volunteers, mostly young Iraqi adults. They did a great job of teaching the kids, took their jobs seriously, and were also great fun to be around.

I sat in the back of the hall and thought, "This is a room full of refugees?" These people with a sense for fashion, impressive musical skills (at one point a dozen boys got up on the stage and showed off their breakdance moves!), ability to have fun and overall respect for each other... this is not what I tend to think of when I think of refugees! In fact, I have met very few people, refugees or not, who are overall, as a community from a given place, so cultured: hospitable and generous, well-educated and thoughtful, interesting to talk to and interested in different types of people.

When I ask Iraqis if they want to return home, most of them say no. They say no because, "Iraq is lost." Just this morning, a young woman explained to me that if Iraq could go back to what it was before, she'd be the first person on the bus home. But that won't happen, not for a long time. If it happened this year, she'd go. But it won't, so she and her family are fighting to get resettled in the United States. In its current state of instability, Iraq may feel lost, but the loss will become permanent when well-educated families like hers are finally given the opportunity to move on. Right now, they are living in limbo, waiting for that precious visa out of here. But a small part of them still dreams of returning home and rebuilding their country. As soon as that visa comes, they can start living their lives again, but Iraq will be lost.

I don't want to make a political statement, because I actually do see this war as a double-sided issue, but from the perspective of a sociologist, I am both fascinated and horrified at the thought of a culture disappearing over the course of half a decade. Doctors, university professors, musicians, painters, cinematographers... these are the Iraqis I have met in exile. They speak of beautiful spacious houses that they had to flee and delicious healthy food that they can no longer afford to eat. Their entire heritage is being splattered across the world, making life richer for all of us who meet them, but leaving their own country culturally bankrupt.

Is it really possible that Iraq is lost? What will happen to its culture, passions, tastes, history?

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