By Abdullah Al-Hadeethi
It was 12:05 a.m., 15 minutes before the storm.
It was quiet outside, except for the sound of bullets going off every now and then, and the hopeless barks of street dogs. There was no light in the house. No electricity, to be precise. They said that the generators were affected by the previous storms.
There were four families in the house at this time. All of them were relatives, of course. All the sisters had come together, along with their kids and husbands. I was one of those kids. The mothers were in one room, trying to put us to sleep before the storm arrived, while the men were outside, desperately looking for positive signs. They saw none.
The kids finally fell asleep just in time, except for me. I was 11 years old. The only time I felt cursed for being older than the other kids. They were too young to understand what was happening. I wished that I didn’t know either. I was old enough to take it all in, or at least most of it.
There weren’t enough beds for all of the 6 kids, so I was lying on a light blanket on the floor next to my mother. She was trying to comfort me, telling me happy stories, but the only thing I thought of was time. I couldn’t even understand a word of what she was saying. I just wanted it to be 12:20 already. The waiting was too stressful; so stressful that my nose bled.
The time finally came.
I blocked my ears, hugged my mother, and cried. There was no way out; I was able to hear the powerful sound of the jet fighters approaching. Dogs barked louder.
My family, like most Iraqi families, suffered tremendous losses after the war in 2003. The people’s will to go on with life was destroyed after losing loved ones, homes, jobs and even the right to education. However, for me, the worst loss of all was the loss of my country.
It was 2005. The situation hadn’t gotten any better.
I was 13. The past two years were hell for me. The cities were burning. Everything seemed to be destroyed. The sight of burnt cars on the roadsides became the norm. Military checkpoints were only 100 meters away from each other. Every now and then we would spot an explosion on our way to school. On one occasion, we got very lucky; a bomb exploded less than two minutes after we passed it. Our schools didn’t look like schools anymore. We had no lights in our ceilings. No glass in our windows. No cushions in our chairs. Our playground was covered in burnt tires and cement bags. Our walls were decorated with bullet holes. It became a hobby to collect empty bullet shells; I found eleven of them in one of the classrooms.
That’s not how I wanted to end my childhood.
It might have been around 6 in the morning. I don’t quite remember exactly. It was a cold mid-November day. My mom had just finished her morning prayer and asked that we also pray.
The bags were packed. Boxes were put on the side of the living room and labeled accordingly. We labeled them so when we came back we would know where things were. My father said to pack only our clothes and the things we needed the most. There wasn’t enough space to fit all of our belongings. He received a call; the ride was 5 minutes away. We moved our suitcases to the front yard.
My one-year old brother was sleeping on his little bed as my three-year old sister stood next to his bed not knowing what was happening. She had her favorite pink pajamas on and held her little Cinderella backpack in her hand. My father had all of our passports in his briefcase. As we sat down in the car, my father said that we would come back soon.
We never did.
There was a long line. Hundreds of cars were lined up at the border between Iraq and Syria. They said the border had closed at 5 p.m. We had to spend the night in the car. It was not until 5 a.m. the next day when it reopened.
To me, this wait was another chance for us to reconsider what we were about to do. I am certain both of my parents were wondering the same thing, too. But we had no other options at the time.
It was 7:30 a.m. We were officially in Syria.
Friends and relatives who left Iraq before us described how hard it was leaving the country and everything else behind. I could not imagine how hard and real it was until the moment my family and I crossed the final borders into Syria. I felt like escaping from Iraq was the right thing to do in order to save our lives.
That was selfish, I thought. By leaving, we simply agreed that our country be destroyed and divided into pieces while we enjoyed our safe stay in Syria. The feeling of leaving a friend, whom I had spent all my childhood with, was too much to handle. The idea of leaving a house in which I lived my entire life, and my bedroom, where I enjoyed playing with my friends, without knowing if I would ever go back to it or not was continuously cutting up my beautiful memories.
I felt scared, sad, and useless.
Useless: how I felt the day my grandmother received that phone call.
She was told to evacuate her house immediately, so it could be used as a military base, chosen for its isolated location. It was so simple and quick that no one had time to really assimilate what was happening. I remember seeing my grandmother’s shining tears gather in her eyes, then slowly slide down her white cheeks as she watched men in military uniforms force their way into her house.
They were fully suited and armed as if they were going to fight us. Their vehicles parked outside by the farm where the olive trees used to be. I could see in her eyes the pain she was going through, not because of the lost furniture or other belongings, but rather as a result of seeing years and years of her cherished memories, with her eleven children, disappearing in mere seconds.
After that day, she never stepped foot inside her house again.
It is 2014. The memory of my bedroom is starting to fade away. The names of my friends no longer match their faces; I don’t even know if some of them are still alive. The last time I saw my cousins was in 2003.
I can barely recognize the country that was once called Iraq. Even its rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, that once gave rise to Mesopotamia, seem to have stopped supplying life. Everything seems to have changed from good to bad.
Everything, even memories.
Abdullah Al-Hadeethi was born on May 10, 1992. He grew up in Baghdad, Iraq until 2005 when he and his family moved to Syria as refugees to escape the escalating war in Iraq. Shortly after returning to Iraq in 2008, he was accepted to the United World College (UWC) program in Canada where he received his International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. Abdullah is currently a Senior at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, majoring in International Studies and Business Administration.