Guest Post: Life As a Refugee

June 14, 2011

Our next guest post comes fromThaer Abdallah, a Palestinian artist and human right activist. He was born in Baghdad, Iraq and as a Palestinian, he resides as a minority. For more then sixty years, this ethnic minority in Iraq has received neither citizenship or freedom. Today, Abdallah and his family reside in Boston You can contact him through emailthaer.sheila@live.comand be sure to check out his

I would like to share with you my feelings and what has touched me most deeply as a refugee immigrant here in the United States since I came on April 13, 2008. I would like to reflect on my own experience, while including the experiences of other refugees who have come from Iraq.

“Family Tree”

Our beautiful Iraq was a nation that once enjoyed peace, security, kindness and generosity. But we witnessed many wars: the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988, the Kuwait war in 1991 and the economic blockade against Iraq for 12 years (a policy of the USA and its allies), and finally the last war, the 2003 invasion of Iraq at the request of U.S. president George Bush on the grounds that Iraq possessed weapon of mass destruction.The Iraqi people and the foreigners who lived in Iraq used to dream about a better life with dignity and peace. But due the accumulation of wars upon wars, we lost all security. Our life was contrary to the dreams of every individual in Iraq. As a result, over the past several years during all these wars, countless Iraqi people decided to leave Iraq to search for security, shelter and a better life abroad. Many of the Iraqis and their families left Iraq for neighboring countries like Jordan, Syria, or Turkey. However, especially since 2003, life in these neighboring countries has become like a way-station for unfulfilled dreams, that languish in the office of UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) as the applications for foreign asylum drag on and on. Countless refugees wait for two to five years or longer as their funds dwindle and their children miss years of education. Sometimes, after all that time, they are refused. I have heard of more than one case of refugees who died of heart attacks or other health conditions after they learned that they were refused asylum.

But even those who received asylum in countries like the USA had much to suffer.I share this from my own experience. Nothing can prepare you for it. Let me tell you a bit about myself. I am an artist and a human rights activist, and I am a refugee twice. First, I am a Palestinian who was born in Iraq. This means that although Iraq is the only country I have ever known, I am not a citizen, but a refugee with no civil rights. I had no right to vote or own land, no right to serve in the government or military or even marry an Iraqi without permission. This made for a difficult time growing up.

But now I am a refugee a second time. After the 2003 invasion, militias supported by Iran became active in Iraq, and attacked my community in Baghdad. I got involved in human rights work, helping as many families as possible escape to Syria. I wastortured in a Syrian political prison for my human rights activity, and was deported back to Iraq and threatened with death before I finally escaped again through Turkey to Greece and at last the U.S.A., where I married Sheila, the love of my life and an American peace activist whom I’d met in Baghdad. We had been engaged for two years, through all the torture and fear, and at last we overcame all those difficulties, at last we were together.But let me tell you how painful the life of a refugee can still be, even in the midst of such a fairy-tale ending to a life-threatening crisis.

As I arrived in the USA, as the plane approached the ground but even before landing at JFK airport, I felt as if the roots were yanked from the ground of my being. Involuntary tears came to my eyes, as I realized for the first time that I must face a terrible alienation from my home, family, friends and society. Even with Sheila at my side, I felt this deep loss and loneliness.Then, for a short time, as I became acclimated to the U.S. in the first month, I feltsafefor the first time in years, and I realized that I had reached out for a better life. However, after this was like a brief honeymoon period. There were other shocks to bear.

I dreamed every night, for approximately forty days, about my friends and family. The feelings of attachment for my family and friends, and the sense of consolation, safety and relaxation that these attachments bring could not be separated from my being. These dreams occurred to comfort me but also it was painful because I could not touch these people in real waking life.To my surprise, I found great difficulties in learning English. I studied at the YMCA for four hours, four evenings per week, and the pressure was tremendous. Many refugees are surprised at how difficult learning the language, especially when they are older people.

I was only 38 when I arrived, but still it is much easier for even younger people – especially children — to learn the language. We adults really struggle. I often found it difficult to really understand or communicate in discussions and to express myself clearly, speaking my true feelings as I used to in my country.

“Travel For Peace”

I also found myself dealing with computers and technology for the first time, because my family in Iraq was very poor and we never had a computer. With all the technology, I found it difficult to express what I wanted to express. I came from a country where wars, suffering, pain and loss were the way of life, and it was not easy to suddenly learn about computers, complex systems, or business when coming from this background. In U.S. culture, there are many forms to fill out and signatures to sign, and even the idea of having credit cards, bank cards, health insurance cards, auto insurance, life insurance, library cards, cards and numbers for every part of life – was foreign to me. Sometime we refugees find it overwhelming, much more than it is for those of you who grew up in this system.

In Boston, Massachusetts, where my wife and I live, I faced very cold weather, and I wondered how I would deal with it, especially since there was no snow in my own country. Again, this can be difficult for many refugees. Thankfully, I came to the U.S. in April, but I still feared the winter until I got used to it.The new customs and traditions that I had to learn sometimes caused problems and unintended mistakes. I hate to make social errors, but it was both inevitable and embarrassing when I made cultural mistakes. This too can be painful for many refugees.

Home-sickness is the deepest pain. I and other refugees miss family, friends and loved ones, as well as our own traditions. We sometimes feel as if we are lost, lost in a land of plenty. When we remember where we came from and where we lived, even in places like refugees camps or poor communities, we feel that those former places were better than where we are now, simply because even in poverty we were surrounded by family, friends, and our own comforting customs.

In 2008 when I arrived, the economy hit its worst low. I had a very hard time finding a job. I only had temporary work for two whole years, until I finally got a permanent position. Many refugees feel frustrated that they cannot find jobs. Too many from Iraq even become homeless because the rental assistance usually lasts only two or three months. They and their children wind up in the homeless shelter system. Also, sometime the refugees from Iraq may feel that they hate the US government for invading their country. To go from war to homelessness may only exacerbate this feeling of hatred.

I and other refugees often feel conflict within ourselves: our feelings have ups and downs. Above all, we need time … maybe two or three years … to get to a stable place where we feel that we can speak English, find a job, process our immigration papers, and engage in the community. Most of all, we feel happy when we see family or friends from our own countries, as we know they feel the same suffering and we can share our feelings with each other. This was my experience. Although I had a wonderful wife, many new friends, and wonderful in-laws, I often felt lost and alone during my first two years in the U.S. I needed time, patience, and perseverance.

From my own experience, it can be helpful for refugees to get advice and assistance from special organizations dedicated to care for refugees. I found immense support at the International Institute of Boston, as well as from many dear American friends who understood the struggles I was facing. Also, although it may not be part of our home culture to seek psychological support, it can really help to visit a counselor or psychiatrist, especially someone who speaks the refugee’s own language.

“Our Fate in God’s Hands”

There is hope. After three years, I am getting ready to welcome my first child – my son – into the world. I joke with my wife that he will be a citizen before I am – although I am studying hard for my citizenship exam and will take it as soon as I am eligible! Being a refugee is not an easy path, and there will always be pain and loneliness in my heart, the emptiness that is created when one’s original roots are torn out. But new roots are growing, and I want to close with these words of encouragement and hope to other refugees who might be experiencing the difficulties I describe.

Thank you very much for listening to my experiences and thoughts.

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