I was mentally crushed when I first saw Aylan, the 3-year old boy who washed up on the beach in Turkey. My son is 3-years old. Every time I saw that photo on my newsfeed, I got teary eyed. I found myself scrolling as quickly as possible so that I don’t get fixated.
It was a paramount failure of human dignity.
Yet, this year, we saw an increase in rhetoric against the refugees from war-torn countries like Iraq and Syria. Some were welcomed and some were blamed – for things they had no control over.
And right when we got a chance to make it right, this happened.
On December 13, Humans of New York (HONY) posted a photo of Aya – an Iraqi refugee in Turkey.
She left Iraq with her family to become a refugee in Syria. Then, she left Syria to become a refugee in Turkey. After being approved for resettlement in the United States, she received a letter that changed her life – for worse.
This is her story.
“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.”Aya started an appeals process after she received the rejection for resettlement in the United States. No decision has been made, yet. Aya is not a security threat to the United States. Let’s not give the last word on this case to a robo-letter.
Please sign the petition asking President Barack Obama to learn about Aya’s situation and become her advocate. Let’s help Aya today so that one day, she can be the voice of refugees, all over the world.
All photos from HONY Facebook page.