Refugee Lessons

Last week in Damascus, I accompanied a teenage Iraqi friend — the sister-in-law of a former translator of mine — as she enrolled in a private school for girls in the Old City. The occasion should have been cause for celebration. Zamzam and her family are refugees from Baghdad, where for over a year it’s been too dangerous for her to attend school. And because they’d arrived in Syria about three weeks before, they’d missed the beginning of term. But the school we visited that day made an exception for her case, and now she might dare to think again about studying medicine and becoming a doctor. Not only that, but under Syrian law, families with a child enrolled in school are legally entitled to live in the country. So theoretically they won’t have to worry about being deported.

But the day was an excruciating one for Zamzam, a 17 year-old, a refugee, a New Girl. She bristled when the headmaster lectured her from behind his grand desk in an ornate turn-of-the-century Ottoman reception room. “This is a good school,” he said. “You have to do what your told.” Later, I stood with her in the school courtyard filled with a busy swirl of girls wearing gray smock-like uniforms and playing games under a mural of the Pink Panther and a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. I had hoped that what little glamor I have as a tall foreign journalist might rub off on Zamzam and make her adjustment to the new school a little easier. But an unsympathetic crone, clearly the school disciplinarian, practically cackled, “No make-up and no jewelry,” as she pointed at Zamzam’s simple gold necklace and her bit of blush. Once we had left the building, Zamzam blurted out: “I’m a smart girl, why should I have to beg to go to school? If they are mean to me I’ll just bomb them.”

When I told Zamzam never to say that again, she explained that all her friends in Baghdad talk that way now. Apparently, American teen-speak standards such as “Whatever!” or “Talk to the hand!” translate into Iraqi as “Shut up or I’ll cut your head off!”

If this sounds as horrible to you as it does to me, think about what other options you have when are young and defenseless and Iraqi and when militias regularly dump headless bodies into your street. What else can you do but turn death and dismemberment into a sick joke? What other options do you have than to take semantic control of the situation and say “I’m going to bomb you!” or “I’m going to cut your head off!” when in fact the reality is that you are the one whose days are numbered?

Clearly Baghdad humor is going to be lost on most of us, but perhaps it is we who are tone deaf not Iraqis like Zamzam. There is an humanitarian crisis on our hands that we’ve done much to create and little to solve. A couple million displaced inside Iraq. A million in Syria. A million more in Jordan. More on the way every day. So what’s more dangerous, raw truth or polite conversation and denial?

I’d like to think that life is going to get better for Zamzam and her family now that they’ve left Iraq, now that they’ve rented an apartment in Damascus, now that she’s in school. But Zamzam’s doubtful. “It’s going to happen here too,” she said. “Just wait.”

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