Plaza Voices: I Am a Refugee

Our regular contributor Naghem S. writes:

A refugee is defined as a person who is forced to flee their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. 

I am a refugee because my mother and I were forced to flee Iraq to escape political persecution. 

I was born under Saddam Hussein's regime. My childhood in Iraq was not much of a childhood. Food and water were scarce and medical care was non-existent. My brother died in a mother’s arms when he was 7 months old. My father had to walk across the desert plains of Iraq for weeks to reach Saudi Arabia’s refugee camps. 

My mother and I stayed behind. A year later we received word that he had passed away. My mother mourned him for years, wearing black and never smiling. She thought herself a widow at the age of 23. I didn’t understand what was happening. All I knew was that my friends had fathers and I didn’t. Years passed until one day my mother sat me down. With tears in her eyes, smiling for the first time I could remember, she told me that my baba was alive and waiting for us. 

The next day we visited my grandparents and soldiers came looking for my father. My cousins and I hid behind a red door for hours only to have a gun pointed at our heads. My grandfather and uncles were taken into custody. When they got out, they also stopped smiling. For months whispers passed through the halls. My mother always looked behind her and we were never left alone.

Then my mother sat me down and told me I was finally going to see my father. That same night we said goodbye to everyone. My uncle, mother, and I settled into a car that would take us away from the only home I knew.  The driver seemed nice at first but he grew mean as we traveled further away from home. When the sun came up, he told my mother to hide me beneath her feet and cover me with a blanket. I thought it was a game until it grew too hot. I begged my mother to let me out and she begged the driver. He stopped the car and came to the side where we were and kicked me. He said that if I didn’t shut up he would leave me in the desert by myself. My mother put me back under the blanket and begged me to stay quiet. If you stay quiet and don’t cry, we will see your baba soon. That was the promise whispered in my ears throughout the trip. 

When we finally got to Jordan, everything was different. The air, the people, the food. The first time I ate a banana was in Jordan at the age of 6. The first time I had actual ice cream was in Jordan. Everything was beautiful there. But my cousins were not there, my aunts were not there, my grandmothers were not there. My baba was not there. 
We stayed in Jordan for 6 months.

Flying in airplane, riding in an escalator, funny-looking people who were barely dressed and talked in a weird language. My mother and I wore papers with our information and people helped us but I didn’t understand anything. 

For years, I mourned my father. Even after I learned that he was alive, I still mourned because I never had a father, or at least one I could remember. I would make up stories in my head about what he would look like and how he would sound. The baba in my dreams would play with me and pick me up when I hurt myself. The baba in my dreams would wipe away my tears whenever I would cry. The baba in my dreams kept me safe. The baba in my dreams was my best friend.

When we got off the plane, my stomach hurt. What if he didn’t like me? What was going to happen to us? I wanted to cry. But I remembered what mama told me. If I stay quiet and don’t cry, I will see my baba soon. 

There was a man waiting for us. He had flowers. My mother held my hands and ran to him. She wept in his arms and he wept too. I looked up at them until he finally met my eyes. He dropped to his knees and cradled me in his arms.

“Baba?” I asked.

“يا روح بابا" 

Those three words set my heart free. He called me his spirit, his life force. The baba of my dreams was true.

June 20 is World Refugee Day. Join us for upcoming events and read more stories about refugees these books from the Denver Public Library:

Sadia by Coleen Nelson

Children of War: The Voices of Iraqi Refugees edited by Deborah Ellis

Refugee by Alan Gratz

The Displaced edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Plazas are an open community space where immigrants from all over the world connect with people, information, and resources, building Denver’s global community. Come to practice a language, prepare for citizenship, pursue your goals, and create your future. Whatever you’re doing, we can help! Please see our events calendar for more information.

Written by Plaza Voices on June 12, 2018


Robin F. on June 16, 2018


Thank you for sharing your story with those of us who have never personally experienced such extreme hardship. Blessings to your family.

Carolyna on June 18, 2018


Thanks for sharing your family's struggles. Big hug.

Nadia R on June 27, 2018


You made my eyes tear up...


I am sorry that I made you cry but thank you for reading! Stories of immigration can be stories of heartache and great sadness but also stories of remarkable achievement and joy. 

Omar on June 27, 2018


With a lump in my throat I thank you for sharing this story! I'm proud to work next to you.

Alix Midgley on June 28, 2018


Naghem, thank you for sharing this part of your experience with us. The tenderness with which you share about your father and the journey of your family is deeply moving. It is an honor to work with and learn from you.

Yanira on June 28, 2018


Thank you for sharing your and your family's immigration story. We are fortunate that you are here with us to share your experiences and knowledge. I'm honored to be your coworker.