By Heidi Hochstetler
It is rare that we catch a glimpse into the universe of another person’s life, to understand their experience.
One of the adult Sunday School classes at First Mennonite Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, had been studying Mary Pipher’s book, The Middle of Everywhere, to learn about the challenges faced by refugees and immigrants. Zainab, an Iraqi refugee, visited one Sunday to share her experiences as a girl in Iraq and her journey to the United States as a young woman. As she described living through the first Gulf War, I was confronted with how different my memories of that event are from Zainab’s.
On the night of January 16, 1991, in the moments before Operation Desert Storm began, I knew that something big was about to happen. That evening a sickening knot tightened in my stomach. Had Congress declared war yet? It was all so far away, but this was a war I would live through, not one that I would read about in my fourth grade history book.
In Basra, Iraq, 15-year-old Zainab was also watching television. The word was that the Americans, coming to liberate Kuwait, would attack Basra first. They would gas everyone, rape and kill the women and children.
That night, I saw grainy footage of smart bombs annihilating their targets. Desert Storm was presented as a miracle of technology: quick, clean, clinical warfare. In Iraq, Zainab heard that Americans would gas and rape women and children.
Zainab’s family, all 12 of them, slept in the living room that night. Her father piled mattresses on top of them to provide some protection if the house was damaged. But the house was made of concrete; mattresses were unlikely to help in the event of serious damage. Zainab had spent the evening cutting towels into squares and using elastic to create gas masks. Basra had been a war zone for most of Zainab’s life, but this was the worst bombing yet.
That night, I saw grainy footage of smart bombs annihilating their targets from the safety of my family’s tiny kitchen. Desert Storm was presented as a miracle of technology: quick, clean, clinical warfare.
The family first fled to Najaf, the holy city where they had purchased a second home to escape the bombing during a previous war. Money was extremely tight; it was difficult to feed such a large family. Several of Zainab’s brothers surrendered to the U.S. Army even though they had never been soldiers, becoming prisoners of war for protection. Zainab, her parents, and her sisters eventually ended up in a refugee camp, an open swath of desert with tents. There was no running water, no trees, little food.
Three years later, Zainab finally received permission to come to the United States. She left her entire family behind in the refugee camp and moved with her husband and baby to Lincoln, Neb. While I navigated my freshman year of high school in Shickley, Zainab, a mere 80 miles away, was also struggling through her first year in an American high school—in a new country, using a language she could not yet speak, and while taking care of her growing family.
As someone who comes from a refugee tradition, I feel a kinship with Zainab. My ancestors moved frequently across Europe and eventually to North America, seeking freedom and safety. Zainab’s family is seeking the same thing. The real difference is the date.
And now she stands before me, beaded dress and hijab shimmering under the lights in the fellowship hall. Zainab is proof of how far removed I am from the actual results of foreign policy, proof of my luxury of ignorance. I want to tell her that, even though I am American, I don’t agree with everything my government does. But she already knows that. My country is her country, too.
Heidi Hochstetler is a member of First Mennonite Church, Lincoln, Nebraska. This article appeared originally in Scattered Seeds, the publication of Central Plains Conference http://centralplains.mennonite.net/Publications