Saturday, November 8, 2008

Portrait #59: Crazy... Two young Iraqis whose mother's job changed their lives forever

How can a teacher be a war criminal?

She's a Shiite from the south of Iraq and she is deeply in love with her husband. He's a Sunni from Baghdad. They were studying together at university and became good friends. Then they decided they wanted to be more than friends. So as their university years ended, he approached her family about the possibility of marrying her. And she talked to her father and to her brother and to her mother. Her brother was furious and beat her up. He said there was no way. But when the man she loved stayed faithful and kept trying in a respectable way, he eventually came around.

They got married and that same night she became pregnant. And the next day he left for his military service, to fight in the war with Iraq that ran throughout the 1980s. She had their baby and stayed living in the South with her family. His barracks were nearby so every month he was able to come for a few days to visit.

When his military service ended, he was able to get a good job back near his family in Baghdad. He wasn't from just any old Baghdad family. His family lived in the same neighbourhood as most of Saddam Hussein's extended family. And the two families ran in the same social circles.

But it was actually through her Shiite family that she got her job. Her sister married a man who was a decorated pilot in the Iraqi army, and her sister got a job as a secretary for someone who was well-connected. So when her sister learned through the Baghdadi elite grapevine that Saddam Hussein's cousins were looking for someone to teach their children, she immediately thought of her sister, the woman I met. She had completed her university training as an educator but because she was busy being in love and convincing her family to let her marry the man of the dreams, then watching her husband go to war and raising their baby... well, she had never had a chance to build her career as a teacher.

This was her golden opportunity. And a truly amazing opportunity it was. She got to be a private tutor for children, focusing on their basic educational needs, in an atmosphere where she could concentrate her energies on teaching and not have to worry about discipline. Plus, there were the perks. She got an amazing salary, a private car, and invitations to events in high society. This well-spoken, kind-hearted woman could be an influence in the lives of the future leaders of her country.

She enjoyed her job and was able to be a teacher while raising her own children. Things were going well until she started feeling some funny headaches. She went to a doctor and learned that she needed treatment for a potentially serious neurological problem. So the Iraqi government paid her expenses to go to Jordan's world-famous doctors for treatment. This was 1998, and the treatment took a couple of years. She came with her two children and her husband.

When the treatment ended, she and her husband started discussing their options. They'd been living in Jordan for two years now and the pressure on Iraq was beginning to mount. Something in their guts told them that trouble might be around the corner. So they decided that her husband would travel to Europe and get a job and start working on a way to bring his family to join him. In the meantime, she'd wait in Jordan.

But trouble did come, and her Jordanian residency was revoked. She had to leave the country before she could come back, and this entailed passing through Syria. In Syria, though, her name was on a blacklist, and as soon as she arrived in the airport, she was taken into custody. She spent 21 days in a Syrian jail before she was deported to Iraq. Fortunately, her children were safe with the family. So she went back to Iraq for a year or two, but when the war started, anyone affiliated with Saddam Hussein's family could be at risk, so she quickly came back to Jordan with her children. Her husband was living in Europe at the time, travelling around from country to country depending on his work. Every year he would come to spend a few weeks with his wife and kids.

This time, they were in Jordan as refugees. They still have a comfortable savings account, but they don't have a residence visa, so the children, who are now in their early twenties, were not able to complete their education. She can't work. As an Iraqi these days, it has become very difficult to get a visa into many countries. So her husband is now working in the Gulf, but he doesn't want to leave because he may not be allowed back in. And she and the kids can't go to join him because they can't get a visa.

As refugees, they are eligible to apply to the United Nations to be resettled permanently to another country. Returning to Iraq is absolutely out of the question for this family, so they applied for resettlement. They were granted an interview with an immigration official from the U.S., but all of the questions in the interview were about her relationship with Saddam Hussein's family. They asked her if she knew details of the Hussein family gossip and about the neighbourhood where they lived. They just got word that they have been flat-out refused resettlement.

She told me her story, then she commented that she feels that the U.S., and in fact the entire refugee system, has been unfair to her children. She hasn't done anything wrong, but she understands that there are consequences for the position of privilege she used to hold. But her children were not even teenagers at the time that she was working as a part of the Hussein family. Why should they suffer for her choices? Her son can't work, can't study, has no future. Her daughter is no better off. Neither has any prospect of seeing their father or making a life for themselves, and she misses her husband whom she loves dearly. These seem to her like such unfair consequences of her choice to educate a few children of privilege.

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