From Baghdad to Stockholm
In an article for Maingate, the American University of Beirut's quarterly magazine, UCLA Fulbright coordinator Ann Kerr tells the story of her Iraqi-born classmate Samya, who fled Iraq for Sweden in 2006.
Published: Thursday, September 10, 2009
Maingate Connections (AUB). Republished with permission.
Ann Kerr-Adams spent her junior year at AUB in 1954-55. Her late husband, Malcolm Kerr, was president of AUB from 1982 to 1984 when he was assassinated outside his office. In the past five years Ann has interviewed six of her classmates to learn about their resilience in building fruitful lives against the backdrop of the tumultuous recent history of the Middle East. The project was sparked by a letter from Samya to Ann in March 2004.
SAMYA WAS STANDING at the Stockholm Airport waiting for us. Her erect posture, her purposeful expression and large expressive brown eyes were unchanged from the younger Samya I had first met 54 years earlier, one of four roommates from different parts of the Arab world, sharing a large room in the AUB Women’s Hostel. They became my lifelong friends.
Over the years, three wars in Iraq interrupted my correspondence with Samya, who had returned to Iraq to become a teacher. First there was the 8-year war with Iran, then the Gulf War, and then the current American-led war. Our last face-to-face meeting had been in January, 1990 in Baghdad where I was visiting to help set up a high school summer exchange program. The visit had been too brief as Samya was teaching in the school where Saddam Hussein’s daughters were studying and contact with Americans might endanger her position. We agreed to meet in the lobby of the Babylon Hotel. Our greeting in this public place with unknown eyes watching was outwardly unemotional, but I knew that our year together at AUB had given us an unstated bond of friendship and understanding.
Six months later, in August 1991, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait over a border dispute and my plans for escorting American high school students to Baghdad evaporated. My annual Christmas messages to Samya went unanswered as western sanctions were imposed on Iran, continuously weakening the country for the next thirteen years. Then one day in March 2004, after the American led invasion had ended, I opened my mail box to find a long-hoped-for letter addressed in Samya’s tidy handwriting, postmarked Baghdad with a colorful stamp covered with exotic fish and Arabic script.
“A year has passed and life is worse than before, especially for Christians . . . Now they want to give us freedom and democracy. They can rebuild a better bridge or a house, but they can’t heal the soul and character of people. It all showed in the behavior of the people in this last war. I cried only for the museum which I love, and for the books that were stolen or buried . . . we are afraid in our houses, we are afraid to drive and afraid to walk.”
Over the next five years, Samya and I communicated intermittently by letters sent with travelers and an occasional phone call when she was able to visit her brother in Germany. As the situation deteriorated, life for her and her siblings became less and less tolerable. Emigration was dangerous, expensive, and lonely, but when a possibility arose to be a war refugee in Sweden, Samya seized it, I suspect with the idea of being able to help her younger siblings join her after she obtained a residence permit. It was hard to imagine how a woman of 73 could move from the sunshine of Iraq to the cold, dark north in the middle of winter.
“Here I am safe, but it’s not my country,” Samya told me in a telephone call from Sodertalje, a town outside Stockholm filled with other Iraqi exiles. “The Swedish government is very good to us and provides us with everything even though I am too old to work, but I never understood what it was like to be a refugee before... what I miss most are my papers and addresses and phone numbers. It’s not easy to lose all my friends. I have aged—I am forgetting—it’s not natural. I am always thinking—that’s what makes me forgetful.”
Now in May 2009, almost 55 years from our first meeting, Samya met my new husband and me at the Stockholm Airport. I was expecting a stooped and wan person but there was Samya as straight and purposeful as she seemed when she first walked into our room at the Women’s Hostel. In the next two days we walked all Sodertlalje, the suburb where she and thousands of other Iraqi refugees live, and a portion of Stockholm, returning to her apartment for delicious Iraqi meals that she had prepared before we woke up in the morning. Her old vitality was evident as stories tumbled out of her, tragic ones of her later adult years, but also happy memories of her early life and college and teaching days. “AUB gave me so much,” she recounted. “I know that what I learned there helped me through many hard times.”