By Andrea Patiño
The first time I sat down with Awatif to talk about her experiences as an Iraqi refugee, she warned me: ‘I have a good story for you…you’ll want my story.’ Her remark made me uncomfortable and cautious. In some ways that’s the last thing I wanted. As I gather stories and start my documentary project, I want honest accounts, not framed and prefabricated testimonies. But Awatif is used to talking to the media; she makes it clear to me that she knows what they want to hear. I am not the media, but I do carry a camera and I’m recording our conversations so she knows I’m looking for something. I’m alert and try to be even more perceptive than I usually am.
Awatif came to the United States with two sons and a daughter, after her third son, a 24-year-old college student was murdered in Iraq. He was working for the American and British military as a translator and was killed by Iraqi militias along with fourteen others who were performing the same job. Her family had been threatened numerous times because of her son’s connections to the Americans and Brits. After the murder of her son, her second one was tortured for days. That’s when she decided to leave for Syria, before things got more serious. They left behind everything they had—a big house in Baghdad and the life they knew—to live in a place they didn’t know and where they didn’t have anything. After a couple of years the UN finally processed their request for refugee status in the US—a process that was partly possible due to her son’s previous work with the military. Many Iraqi translators were promised visas to the US but only a small number has received them.
I can only begin to imagine her pain. The look in her face changes every time she speaks about her son. Her husband died in 1994 in a car accident, ‘but that’s ok’, she says. ‘My son, however, his murder, that’s not fair. He was my life.’ As I talk to Awatif more and more I begin to gain access to more intimate stories and to her more genuine self. I don’t doubt the legitimacy of the story she is used to telling, but I want to get past what she has already told many local newspapers. In the process my own motivations are revealed and I get to examine my work as a documentarian. What is it that I want to hear? Her life is certainly a collection of many more complex moments—not only the tragic turn that her life took in 2006. I want to learn about life in Iraq before and during the war. I want to get a sense of what daily life in Iraq may have looked like, and felt, and smelled. And as our conversation progresses and I spent more time with Awatif, I get closer and closer to that.
Awatif’s story is the story of many families that have traveled the world to a foreign place that seemed promising. ‘I don’t speak for myself’ she tells me, ‘I speak for every family here in Lynn.’ What the majority of them have found is a mix of both better and worse conditions. Most of the people that I have spoken to at the IACA have expressed feeling welcomed and accepted in the US—feelings that surprised some of them after being continuously threatened and lacked the freedom to openly practice their religion due to sectarian violence back in Iraq. But there are also numerous hardships. As refugees they face cultural and language barriers, and often have difficulties finding jobs and paying the rent. That is exactly why Awatif currently lives in a shelter in Jamaica Plain, where she took me on a sunny Tuesday the second time we met. She will live there until she is able to afford a permanent residence. We commuted for almost two hours—a trip she takes nearly everyday to attend English classes at IACA in Lynn and interact with the Iraqis who live in the area. There are nearly 60 Iraqi refugee families in the North Shore, a lot of who seek assistance from the IACA as they settle in the US.
The day I met with Awatif, her daughter had just left to live with an uncle in New Jersey. Her older son—the one who was once tortured and now works washing dishes at MIT—also left a few months ago to live with friends. She stayed alone with her 19-year-old son, who will graduate from high school next spring. The shelter in Jamaica Plain is better than the one they were placed back in Lynn, but Awatif has no friends and her TV doesn’t work. ‘It gets really lonely, especially at night,’ she says.