I had been reading about the Syrian refugees in the news, but a special eleven part series by Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York broke my heart and added a human dimension to the human suffering and tragedy that has befallen that part of the world.
Brandon profiled the stories of refugee families that had been cleared for resettlement in the US. There are millions of refugees. And the US is taking 10,000 of them. That’s it. In an interview with CNN, Brandon explains how the only people that even have a chance to be accepted for US resettlement right now are the ones who have a serious disability in the family or a PhD. “That is how selective we are being,” he says.
This is Aya’s story. It needs to be shared. These are people who need help. (Warning: she talks about the horrors of war she has seen, including death.)
“When I was a baby I came very close to dying. I’m not sure how to say the name of the disease in English, but all the water in my body started to dry. I couldn’t gain weight and I became very weak. This was during Saddam’s time, and the hospital staff told my mother that in two days they would euthanize me. But my mother refused to accept this. She called everywhere and found a clinic in Jordan that said they could give me treatment. There was an American doctor there who saved my life. We stayed in Jordan until I was seven, and then we moved back to Baghdad. One day I was playing in our garden and I heard very loud noises and the sky was really red and everyone was screaming. It’s very hard to describe. It was like there was blood in the sky.”
“This is a photo of me right before the war came. Maybe my parents knew the war was coming, but they didn’t tell me. I wouldn’t have understood. I didn’t even know the meaning of war. Bombs started falling all around us. We lived very near one of Saddam’s castles. My mother told us: ‘It will be very loud, but nothing bad will happen to us. We will all be here together.’ Many houses in our neighborhood were destroyed, but I’d close my ears and sing songs whenever the bombs came close. In the cartoon shows, the good always wins, so I thought that we were good and nothing would happen to us. Then one day I heard a big sound and I saw that my best friend Miriam’s house had been destroyed. We walked to school together every day. I went to see if she was OK and I saw Miriam on the ground. She didn’t have any legs and she was screaming and I can still hear that sound now. They pulled me away but I saw everything. I don’t think it was good for a child to see this.”
“After Miriam died, I began to have silly thoughts. I thought that I was supposed to be President of the World. It sounds funny now but I was just ten years old. I thought that if I was really clever in school and got all the best marks, I would become a leader and I could stop the war. I could just tell everyone to love each other and they would listen to me. I taught myself English during this time. I would listen to American songs and translate every word. I’d watch Hollywood movies. I’d practice talking to myself in front of the mirror every night. I’d even give gum to American soldiers so I could have conversations with them. I thought maybe if I just concentrated on my studies, I could avoid the war. It worked for two years. But one day I was driving with my father and a car bomb exploded ahead of us. I got out of the car because I thought that maybe I could save the people but there were hands and heads in the street. Everyone was dead. It was like a horror movie. It was like Titanic but it was really happening and it was in the street.”
“These things are very hard for me to remember, but I try not to cry because I want to be strong for my mother. It was hardest for her because she had children. During the war she had to worry about herself, but she also had to worry about us. It made her very ill. Her blood pressure is very high now. Her hand shakes. She has bladder problems. But she is my hero because she always protected us. One time when my father wasn’t home, a strange man entered our house. But my mother pretended to be a man and screamed downstairs in a very deep voice. And she saved us.”
“Our house in Baghdad was located near a military compound, and the militia officers wanted it for themselves. They sent three men to our house to order us to leave. When my father refused, they mailed us an envelope with bullets inside. My father was working as a library security guard during this time. The militia went to the library and murdered my father’s coworker—thinking it was him. My father became very scared when he heard this. He told us we had to pack all our clothes into bags and leave Iraq immediately. It was the middle of the night. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave my bedroom or my school or my friends. I wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye to anyone. Nobody knew we were leaving. When the taxi arrived, I held onto the doorframe and screamed that I wasn’t going. My father pulled me away and told me that we were going to live in a better place. That night we drove to Syria.”
“I was fourteen when I arrived in Syria. Those were the best two years of my life. The first day we arrived, I made my father take me to school so I could register. I was doing so well in school. I got very good grades. I got so many awards and my teachers kept telling me that I had a very bright future. They told me: ‘One day Aya, you will be the voice of refugees.’ On the weekend I was volunteering to help other refugees. I organized an entire chorus of refugees. Things were going so well. My father was working as a driver. We were very comfortable. Then war came to Syria. It began for me as a bomb threat at our school. Then people began killing each other in the street. I was studying one afternoon, and I looked out the window, and a man smashed another man’s head with a stone. Right in front of me. Our landlord told us: ‘I am leaving the country. Everyone must go.’ So again we became refugees. We put everything we had into six bags, and we left.”
“George is my refugee dog. We’ve been through many horrible things together. I found him in Baghdad when he was just a puppy. My father and I were driving down the road and I saw some teenagers holding George by the ears and hitting him. I jumped out of the car and begged them to stop and gave them all the money I had. George was so thin and dirty, and the doctor said he was very sick and he’d only survive if I took perfect care of him. And look at him now! He’s been with me through Iraq, Syria, Turkey… everything. Whenever he sees me crying, he jumps in my lap and uses his paw to pull my hands away from my face.”
“My years in Turkey have been the hardest four years of my life. When we first arrived from Syria, we couldn’t communicate with anyone. I had no friends. If we wanted an egg from the store, we had to make chicken sounds. I paid for everything in this apartment by working as an interpreter for an NGO. We started at a zero and I built us up to a six, all by myself, and I’m very proud of that. But we can go no further without citizenship. I can’t get a degree. I can’t work any other job. Turkey has taken many refugees and we should be thankful for that. And the people here were nice to us at first. Our neighbors brought us rice and food. But then more refugees came. And more. And then everything changed. Now people shout at us in the streets. They tell us to leave. But we have nowhere to go. A man recently started sending me messages on Facebook, saying: ‘Get out!’ I didn’t even know him! Why me? Why did he choose me? We’ve had to switch apartments four times because our landlord decided that Arabic people are no longer allowed. I’ve been hit by a car. My sister got hit in the face at school and lost two teeth, and now her vision is bad in one eye. Being a refugee is really hard. They blame us for everything. They blame us for no jobs. For crowded streets. For crime. They say that we are the reason for everything bad. And if war ever comes to Turkey, we’ll be the first to die. Because they’ll blame us for that too.”
“We applied for resettlement in America. We did all our paperwork. We had two different interviews in Istanbul. Then we waited for a very long time. For months I kept checking the website, but it always said: ‘Case pending.’ Then one night my friend called me, very excited. It was midnight. She told us there had been an update on the website. I ran to the computer, entered our case number, and it said ‘Case accepted!’ I zoomed in on the word ‘accepted’ and my hand started shaking. I screamed to my family: ‘Turn off the TV! We’re going to America!’ It was like a wedding. We turned on the music. We started dancing and crying and kissing each other. A new life! The United States! We couldn’t believe it! Over the next few weeks I spent so much time on the computer. I searched for schools for my brother and sisters. I found the university I wanted to study in. I found a hospital for my mother. I was searching for jobs for my father. I had everything planned. I even found extra clothes for George because I thought it might be cold. In the evenings I’d sit with my sisters and help them plan what their rooms would look like. And Christmas time was coming. We thought we would go to New York during Christmas time! We were even planning to see the big tree! For two months we dreamed like this. Then a letter came in the mail.”
“It was like a nightmare. I fell on the floor and started screaming: “No, no, no!’ I cried for days. I couldn’t go to work because my eyes were so red. I went to the hospital and they had to give me medicine to calm me down. Security related reasons? What can that mean? They don’t know my family. I know my family. My father was a train driver. Every male in our country had to do military service for six months when they were young, but he only did the radar. He swore to me that he’d never even touched a gun in his life. Our family loved America. My father always told me about America. He made us go talk to American soldiers during the war. Other people were afraid of Americans, but he told us they were here to help us and not to be afraid of them. He told us that America was a place where so many different people lived in peace. So many religions. So many communities. We loved America! Every day we watched Oprah. My father promised me that one day we would go on her show and meet her. We even wrote about Oprah for our assignments in school. Why would we ever hurt America? All of my dreaming ended on the day this letter arrived. I became a person without hope.”
“Six months ago my father disappeared. He left one morning and didn’t come home. That morning he answered the phone one time, and he said: ‘I’m fine, Aya. I’ll be home soon.’ And he never answered the phone again. You can’t imagine what this has done to my mind. I don’t know if he is dead. I don’t know if he remarried. I know nothing. All day and night I must imagine what has happened. I haven’t even told my younger sisters. I tell them that Daddy went to Istanbul to work but he will be home. They wouldn’t be able to take it. I still post old photos to his Facebook page so it seems like he exists. But it’s been six months, and they want to know why he hasn’t called. I promise he’s a good person, really. I love him so much. He loved me too. He always told me that he was proud of me and I was going to be something in life. But how could he leave me like this? How could he leave all of this on my shoulders? I’m twenty years old. I can’t handle all of this by myself. I don’t need him to work, or make money, but I need him. I need my Daddy. I can’t do this alone much longer. I’m getting tired. I’m a warrior and I’m strong and I’ve fought so much but even warriors get tired. I’ve been having crazy thoughts lately. I don’t want to do it. I’ve been through so much. I wanted to go to school and be something in life. But I can’t do this much longer. I’m alone here and I’m in a very bad place. I feel very scared. I never wanted to be the traditional Arabic girl who marries her cousin and spends all day in the house. I’ve worked so hard to escape it all. And I know it’s dangerous. But if things don’t change for me, I think I’ll have to go back to Iraq.”
Brandon started a petition, Friends of Aya, to invite President Obama to a discussion about Aya and her family and to reconsider their application. Over one million people signed the petition to support Aya and give her hope at a time when she and her family sorely needed it. The petition and attention from the HONY blog/Facebook page got the International Refugee Assistant Project on the case. They feel like Aya has a strong chance for an appeal (she worked as a translator for the US Ambassador), and are working on her behalf to get that appeal filed–and approved.
Lara Finkbeiner of the IRAP explains how difficult it is for refugees to get accepted into the United States:
“Unfortunately, Aya’s case is not uncommon. These refugee rejections can be based on extremely tangential circumstances. We’ve had clients get turned away because of a crime committed by a distant relative that they’ve never even met. One client’s case was put on indefinite hold because of his connection to a childhood neighbor that he hadn’t spoken to in twenty years. Bureaucratic decisions like these can exclude deserving refugees and leave them at risk of further harm.” (Quote taken from Humans of New York post available here.)
Think about that. Under these circumstances, would you be accepted into the US? I wouldn’t.
Aya’s story affected me in a way I wasn’t prepared for, compounded by the out of control hysteria and fear mongering that is peddled by the news media and certain presidential candidates alike. My maternal grandmother’s family were German refugees fleeing Hitler. When I lived in Oklahoma City my house was in the part of town that was settled by refugees from the Vietnam War; their children and grandchildren were my neighbors. I spent two hours one night a week this past semester as a graduate student teaching a class full of polite, respectful young men and women from Oman, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia. I would not hesitate to welcome any of those young men and women in my home. This is a nation of immigrants, and to shut the door in the face of the poor, war ravaged, desperate and starving only because they are brown and Muslim is wrong. Period.
This kept lurking around in the back of my mind, and soon I realized that I needed to have a Muslim girl in my collection. I wanted to commemorate Aya and remember her in a special way.
I do not have any delusions that having a Muslim doll will make any refugee feel better or improve the global crisis, but I felt like this was something that was needed. Collectors are always talking about diversity in AG. Girls like Aya need to be represented and given a voice. Her bravery and integrity are valuable and characteristics that I want my own nieces to emulate. Do I think AG will get near this issue with a ten foot pole? I do not, but a character like Aya can and will exist on The Mouse Lair.
I decided on a #62 for my newest character, and to wait until I was in Kansas City for the GOTY debut to purchase her.
To my surprise, #62 was almost sold out on the shelf after I loaded my bag with Lea items. There were only two dolls, and I picked the one that would be my Aya and headed to the registers.
Once I escaped the packed store, I lugged my shopping bags to a sitting area, collapsed on a couch, and texted my husband to come meet me. While I waited for him, sitting across from me was a young girl with long black hair accompanied by her mother and a younger sister. While the girl’s attention zeroed in on my AG bags, I realized that her mother was wearing hijab.
I pulled the doll boxes out of the bags. “Would you like to see the dolls I bought?” I asked the girl.
She was awestruck by Lea and her collection, and confessed that she wanted one but she was going to have to save up. Then she pointed to #62 and asked, “What’s her name?”
So I decided to tell my new friend about my plans for #62, that she was going to be a girl named Aya, after a person I admired very much–who just so happened to be Muslim. She squealed, “Really?”
“Yes, really,” I said.
Her mother and I had a nice little chat, and she very graciously answered my questions on proper attire and when it’s appropriate for a young girl to begin wearing hijab. “It can be different from family to family,” she explained. “The majority are not like the extremists you see on TV. Traditionally, it begins with puberty but we have decided to let our girls wear hijab when they are ready, but it must be worn as an expression of love for their faith. I dress them with modesty, but in our family the decision when to start wearing hijab is theirs alone.” She went on to explain that her oldest daughter (who had, with my permission, opened #62’s box to admire) had begun wearing colorful headscarves of her choosing to worship and other special occasions.
Her mother and I also discussed other things about life and the current political climate (and I tried my best to not check off every box on the “ridiculous questions white people ask Muslims” list), and when their mother asked me what I do with my dolls as a collector, I told her about this blog and gave her the address. “Whenever I can take a break from school, I post pictures and scenes with my dolls,” I told them. “I know it may be odd, but everyone has things they enjoy, and this is mine.”
I had initially planned to not make a post introducing Aya the doll at all, instead to just include her in pictures without fanfare like Charles Schultz did with the character of Franklin in the Peanuts comic strip and I said something to this effect. But then my young friend said, “No, you should write all about her, so that if any other Muslim girls read your blog they can see a doll like them, and know that someone likes us and is our friend.” Who am I to argue that logic?
So this is the post introducing Aya and the story behind her name…and a special message to F., and any other young American Muslim girls who may be reading–the same message that Brandon wrote in the Friends of Aya petition:
You are important to me.
I do not believe you are a threat.
I think you deserve to be here.
I believe that you should enjoy the same rights and freedoms as I do.
I am not afraid of you.
So with that having been said, here is Aya:
And with her best friend Lea:
And more of Aya:
For more information on the mission of the International Refugee Assistance Project, check out their website.
And as a polite reminder, all comments on this blog are moderated.
That’s all for now, friends. Over and out.