Its Christmas vacation. No school for two weeks. Aside from spending time with my family and tying strong, loving strings of fellowship with them, I’ve purposed to do a little reading. My interests are so wide but as I found myself in the library the other day, I gravitated toward books focusing on refugees. The teacher in me did this. I work with refugee students, immigrants; they are English Learners. My students were not born in America. They are from Iraq, Congo, Eritrea, Djibouti, China, Columbia, Burma, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Uganda, and the Philippines. They are the greatest kids I’ve ever met.
I’ve heard many of their stories personally, well, at least what they’re willing to share. But in Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees by Deborah Ellis, I found the stories of these Iraqi children instructive towards helping me understand my students since I have many students from Iraq. I would never ask my students anything I thought might quicken traumas. But as I read this book, I think the stories might be similar to what my students wouldn’t tell me.
Here are some takeaways from the book. It is in no way an exhaustive critique or review of this important work. Others have done a better job.
One child said, “My whole life has been war. Really, from the moment I was born. My mother was giving birth to me when a missile hit the hospital. This was during the war with Iran. It was her first time to give birth, so you can imagine how scared she was anyway, and then the missile hitting. So I came here in war, and there is still war” (p. 43).
What if this was my child, how would I feel? My children were all born in modern and safe birthing centers. No missiles.
The child continues, adding, “My mother says that all the bombing that happened while she was carrying me led to my sickness. My head did not look normal when I was born. The bombs brought many chemicals with them, and a lot of children were damaged, like me and even worse. Then came all the years of sanctions, when it was not possible for me to get treatment” (44).
What if my child was sick and could not receive the treatment they needed? How would I feel?
Because of war, children saw the unimaginable. One girl remembers, “During the war we saw dead bodies in the streets, explosions, terrible things” (p. 41). Children who loved their homeland were forced to go to countries like Jordan where many Jordanians did not like them. Families were separated. Friends were killed. Houses were bombed. Children feared American soldiers. Parents would tell them, “Be nice to them, they’ll be nice to you.” Sometimes this was true and other times it wasn’t. Educational opportunities, gone. One child said, “Jordanian teachers are mean to Iraqi children. They insult us and bully us and don’t treat us fairly. There are only two other Iraqis in my class, both girls. One day the teacher said, in front of everyone, ‘The best Iraqi was Saddam Hussein, and why did you have to come here to make trouble for Jordan? You should all go home.’ I’ve had good teachers here in Jordan, but some of them are just mean” (p. 65).
Rights and liberties for many women, gone. One girl said, “My mother is an educated woman, a professional woman. She was working at a good job in Baghdad. Now she has lost all of her self-confidence. She can’t work here in Jordan, and she doesn’t know how to protect us” (p. 92). Religious minorities such as Mandaean Sabians, followers of John the Baptist, often had to hide from persecution. Lawless sectarian violence increased. People were kidnapped, killed, left on the side of the road.
I am a father. Many fathers were killed. Upon the loss of hers, one girl said, “We have a proverb that goes, ‘The walls of the house fall when the husband dies.’ And that is true for us” (p. 46). My heart breaks. How would my daughter feel if men took and killed me, ruthlessly, without reason? Tragic.
Another child said, “The war happened because Iraq has oil. And there is a high building somewhere in America that was blown up. They thought Iraq blew it up, so that’s why they blew up places in Iraq” (p. 107).
Upon thinking about applying for asylum in America, one child said, “I don’t know how I will feel about living in America, seeing the American flag every day. These are the people who destroyed my country, and they are over there across the ocean living a good life. They destroy things, then they forget about it and have a good supper and watch television. I have nothing in common with American children. How could I? They are raised up with peace and fun and security. They have nothing to worry about. We are raised up with war and fear” (p. 24).
I’m sure that some of my students have felt the same way. One child of war who immigrated to Canada said, “When Canadian kids – the ones who have always been here and have a good life – start complaining to me about the little things that bother them, I just think, ‘You have no idea'” (p. 31).
Another child said, “I have nothing in common with American children, except if there is maybe an American child whose father has died, whose house is destroyed, and who is forced to live in a foreign country that doesn’t want them. Then he and I would have something to talk about” (p. 37).
Hand to mouth, shaking head.
One child said, “The Americans scare me. They bombed my country, and they made things go very bad. George Bush is scary because he doesn’t know about how wonderful the Iraqi people are. I always get scared when I see him on TV, because I am afraid that what he will say will mean more bad news for my country. American children should make their parents elect a kinder president” (p. 104).
One child said they saw American soldiers “beating kids, yelling at them and shoving them” (p. 64) yet also remembers them bringing “supplies to us at school – books and notebooks and pens. And a lot of them did try to be friendly. I want them to see Iraqis as people, so I have to see the Americans as people, too” (p. 64). From the mouth of babes.
On Saddam Hussein
There are Iraqi’s who despised Saddam Hussein and others whose hope was in him. One child said, “I don’t think they should have hanged him. Saddam killed a lot of people, and now he’s resting in peace. If they had put him in jail for the rest of his life, at least he would have gotten a taste of what he had done to others. A lot of Iraqi’s don’t like that he’s resting in peace” (p. 111). Another child said, “My father was a first lieutenant in the Iraqi army, but he hated Saddam. He left the army for medical reasons before the Americans came, and he was very glad to see Saddam gone and be killed” (p. 101).
In contrast, one child said, “Everyone knew the Americans were coming, but Saddam said we would win the war. Saddam was our government, and we should support our government, like the Americans support their government. We wanted to believe that our government would not let another country come in and take us over. Even up to the last moments of the war, I was one thousand percent sure that Saddam would do something to save us from the Americans. But it didn’t happen” (p. 11).
Another child said, “Saddam didn’t mean anything to us. He did a lot of bad things, but he also did good things. Iraq had a very good education system, free for everyone. Even university was free” (p. 121).
On George Bush
One child said, “I don’t know how to make the world better. It’s hard to imagine. There is so much that is wrong. I don’t know what I would say to American children, but I do know what I would say to George Bush. I’d look him in the face and say, ‘I hate you'” (p. 98).
On George Bush and Saddam Hussein
One child said, “If George Bush had a problem with Saddam Hussein, they should have both been given a gun, told to take ten steps, then turn and shoot. They could have killed each other instead of killing and hurting so many other people” (p. 115).
One child said, “I want to press delete on the last five years of my life, and erase all those unhappy memories” (p. 115).
Unfortunately, we cannot press delete but there must be something we can do. As a teacher, I can empathize and simply be there. Who was right? Who was wrong? Who is to blame? These are valid questions but if we ponder them for too long it is like standing in quicksand. If we sink, we cannot help the living.
Lastly, as I got toward the end of the book, I read something that, for me, might answer the question, “What now?” What now Zeke? So you’ve read this book, how do you apply that to the classroom? One child of war answered this for me, brilliantly saying, “I think I would like to be a teacher when I grow up, so that I can be kind to children who have had a hard time” (p. 103). I thank God I am in a position to be kind.