In 2003, the most powerful army in the world invaded Iraq. Ali al-Makhzomy was 16 at the time. He remembers the grating sound of American tanks as they rolled into Baghdad. The invasion was just the beginning. It was a warning shot for the unimaginable forces that would define life for an entire generation of young Iraqis.
At the time, its architects expected the war to be short. Removing Saddam Hussein — whom the US falsely accused of harboring weapons of mass destruction and supporting al-Qaeda — was the stated goal. Few considered the possibility that, in one form or another, the conflict could drag on for well over a decade. And certainly none of them considered the impact that 13 years of war could have on Iraqi youth.
The lives of Iraqis now in their late teens and their twenties have been shaped by years of Western economic sanctions, the US invasion, and the conflicts that were at least partly born from it: multiple insurgencies, civil war, and the rise of ISIS. The paths of young people have been altered in life-changing ways. And as Iraq’s 20 million children grow to be adults, their experiences will shape the country — for better or for worse — for many years still to come.
“There is so much research now on how it changes the brain,” says Johanna Van Grinsven, a psychologist with Doctors Without Borders based in neighboring Jordan. Studies show how exposure to trauma can rewire the brain of a child, often halting social or emotional development and the ability to learn. “I think the main part is an inability to feel safe, both in an external world and in an internal world.”
While the United States promised freedom, security and prosperity, young Iraqis have known very little of any of those things. The figures are staggering. Analysts believe more than 800,000 Iraqi children have been orphaned by conflict since 2003. Two million children are out of school and more than a million more are at risk of dropping out, according to UNICEF. Three million of Iraq’s 35 million people are now displaced inside the country — more than half of them children. The Association of Iraqi Psychologists says anxiety over violence has affected millions of Iraqi children, raising concerns about how they will function as adults.
But in some cases, particularly in young adults, trauma can also lead to resilience. Iraq is a nation of survivors.
“It’s called post-traumatic growth,” Van Grinsven says. “Every trauma we experience we learn something from it and we grow something from it. A part of you becomes more resilient.”
Baghdad in the 130-degree heat of summer is a nocturnal city. During the day, Iraqis withdraw, shielding themselves from the sun. It’s only when dusk falls that the streets come alive. Boys wearing Barcelona jerseys pour into the streets, ricocheting soccer balls off alleyway walls. They crowd behind chain link fences, admiring the young men who command neighborhood fields all over the city.
Soccer is a favorite pastime and a national passion. It is a part of almost every Iraqi’s childhood. Two years ago, Daoud Asager and his friends played a game of soccer on a July evening. He was 24 at the time. Neighborhood children lined the field as the sun fell below the horizon and the summer heat burned away.
Asager saw the car approach. The soccer field erupted in flames.
“I saw one of my friends on the ground hit by pieces of the car. Then I saw two children who were on fire. They were walking and their bodies were on fire. I will never forget that sight.”
The suicide car bombing — now a regular feature of growing up in Iraq — killed four of his friends that day. It was one of a series of coordinated bombings in Baghdad that killed a total of 27 people.
The war had finally struck too close for Daoud. Traumatized, he decided to get out.
“I wanted a peaceful life. I didn’t want war,” he says. Daoud is a tall, earnest young man with a sweet smile. He had met and married a Kurdish student while he was studying at Baghdad's Technology University. A week after the bombing, he and his wife left for Turkey in search of a country that might accept them and their infant daughter as refugees. When that didn’t work, four months later, he walked for four days from Turkey until he reach Bulgaria. He hoped to claim asylum in Europe. As he waited for a response, a new threat moved into Iraq.
For those not paying close attention, ISIS seemed to come out of nowhere. But when its fighters thundered onto the world stage in June 2014, the group had already been around for a year. Having already taken advantage of the chaos in neighboring Syria and securing the Syrian city of Raqqa as a de-facto capital, ISIS set its sights on Iraq. The group swiftly took Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. It announced to the world its intention to establish an Islamic caliphate that would stretch across the Middle East.
Made up of former Iraqi army officers and foreign fighters, ISIS was fortified with formidable expertise. The actual Iraqi army, trained by the United States, was riddled with corruption. It fell away almost instantly as ISIS advanced, leaving behind American weapons and armored vehicles. From Mosul, ISIS swept through northwestern Iraq.
ISIS suddenly held a clear path from Iraq to Syria. If few were paying attention before, the whole world was now in the thrall of this new threat.
Asager, in the Bulgarian capital, was as shocked as anyone as he watched his country fall even further into the abyss. He felt a world away from home. “I thought, ‘This is not my country, these people [here] are not my friends,’” he said. So the young man who had sought a peaceful life in Europe walked another four days back to Turkey and returned home. He joined Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces — militias and volunteer fighters who answered the call to fight ISIS, which is made up of Sunni extremists.
In the ISIS worldview, Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority isn’t Muslim at all. And that makes Shiites fair game for execution. ISIS announced that religious minorities who did not convert or pay a tax would be killed or enslaved. The group threatened Iraq’s very existence.
Within days of the ISIS takeover, Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric emerged from the rarified world of the faith’s religious scholars to issue a historic religious ruling. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa called on Iraqis to fight ISIS. Shiite militias, most of them backed by Iran and connected to Iraqi political parties, came together with tens of thousands of untrained volunteers to form the Popular Mobilization Forces.
In the summer of 2014, the administration of US President Barack Obama was still trying to extricate the United States from Iraq. Recommitting to the conflict was — at least publicly — off the table. That would quickly change. But in the meantime, Iran rushed in. Iraq’s powerful neighbor sent weapons and military advisers, playing a vital role in defending Baghdad from a potential ISIS invasion. The Popular Mobilization Forces were officially under control of the Iraqi interior ministry. But as they fought fierce battles against ISIS, Iraq's sectarian tension widended. Some of the Shiite fighters and their leaders suspected almost all Sunni communities were supporting the terrorist group. Human rights groups accused some elements of the Shiite forces for killing civilians and preventing Sunnis from returning to their homes.
Daoud, determined to make sure no one else suffered like his friends did on that soccer field, didn't think twice. He joined the Popular Mobilization Forces as a bomb defuser.
On a recent evening, Daoud and his team had just returned to Baghdad after their deployment in Baiji, a city just north of the capital where Iraqi security forces and Shiite fighters fought ISIS for almost a year. Months after it was finally retaken be Iraqi Special Forces, the destroyed city is still riddled with rigged explosives laid by ISIS. The team sat at a café on the Tigris River. Surrounded by other young men, playing dominoes and smoking shisha, the war seemed very far away.
Two years into the battle against ISIS, Baghdad has splintered. It is divided into those fighting and dying and those just trying to get on with their lives. On weekend evenings, young men celebrating weddings pile out of minibuses to dance on overpasses. On their way, they drive past the posters of young soldiers, police and fighters killed in battle that line traffic circles and concrete security walls.
Daoud and his friends, fresh from the front lines, seem disconnected at the cafe. They are polite and earnest but wary of reporters. They say they decided to risk talking to one because they want the West to understand why they are fighting.
“We have to get rid of [ISIS] and then we can start our lives,” says Ibrahim Ghanem Radam, the team’s leader. At 28, Ibrahim has more than 10 years of experience in bomb disposal. He carries a certificate from the US Army’s Task Force Iron Claw Academy for Countering IEDs — the first place he ever met an American. He is grateful for the training he received there. A devout Muslim, he says most of the Americans he served with didn’t have a problem with Islam.
“We are trying to change the picture that people have of the [Shiite fighters] — particularly in the West,” he says. Their work defusing bombs is one of the most dangerous jobs in an agonizing fight. There are dozens of casualties every day. It pains him that he and his friends, who are risking everything, are so misunderstood.
His laptop screensaver is a picture of fellow fighters in bomb disposal suits. His men rarely wear them because the suits slow them down. Without advanced equipment, when they find a house rigged with explosives, they usually just blow the whole thing up. It’s safer than extracting the bombs. Iraqi security forces and the Shiite fighters have endured thousands of casualties in the war against ISIS, and many of them were killed by explosives.
“We don’t get injured. If something happens, we die,” Daoud says. When he says goodbye to his daughter, now 3, and his wife, he wonders if it will be for the last time.
Ibrahim comes from a military family. His beard and mustache are neatly trimmed. He wears his green camouflage military uniform and carries his radio when he’s out in Baghdad. “Some people are afraid,” he says of the reaction to his uniform. “And some say thank you for protecting us.”
In Iraq, poetry is taken almost as seriously as soccer. In spite of everything he’s seen, like many young Iraqis Ibrahim is a hopeless romantic. At another café on the Tigris, fireworks from an engagement party crackle while Iraqi military helicopters roar overhead, following the path of the river. Ibrahim reads a poem he has written about a woman he once loved. She escaped to Turkey. He stayed to fight.
“In my eyes are a thousand tears and in my heart are a thousand sighs. I wish I had never known love,” part of it reads.
Mustafa Abbas Hamad, 27, is another member of their team. He wants to finish his university degree in Islamic law and work in the justice ministry. There is little justice to be found on Iraq’s front lines. Rampant corruption at the top levels of the Iraqi security forces means that many of the army’s young fighting men go months without being paid. When they return to the front, they have to pay for their own transportation.
For decades, Iraq rolled along on its billions of dollars in oil revenue. All young people who had the grades could go to college tuition-free and then count on getting government jobs and even perhaps a piece of land. Health care was free. Iraqi oil money papered over most of the country’s deep-rooted problems. That all began to change with the fall of Saddam Hussein. It came to a screeching halt when the army collapsed in the face of ISIS and oil prices tumbled. Now no one is quite sure where the money from the Iraqi treasury that is meant to pay the salaries of Shiite militia fighters ends up.
The young fighters alternate two weeks at the front with two weeks at home, where they find odd jobs to support their families. They drive taxis, fix computers, build houses.
“There are people who are a lot worse off than us,” says Dhafer Faisel Jate, 22, the fourth member of their team. He does construction work when he’s not defusing bombs. “There are people who live in tents — who are fighting and don’t have an income. They sell their wedding bands, their clothes, everything.”
Daoud believes Iraq is worth all these sacrifices. It’s why he came back to dedicate his life to facing the very thing that drove him to flee in the first place. He wants to spare his daughter, he says, from the images of the football field he still sees when he closes his eyes.
“I hope our children will never see what we have seen and will live a normal life.”
There is no normal in Iraq, at least none that would be recognized by young people in most other countries. After the invasion and occupation, the United States tried to tread lightly. But it left a huge footprint.
When American helicopters first landed near the Yazidi town of Khanasour, in the Sinjar mountains of northern Iraq in 2003, Nawaf Ashur Youssef was in his last year of high school. They were the first helicopters he had ever seen.
“Everyone was very happy. They were celebrating,” Youssef says. “We all ran toward the helicopter.”
Residents led the arriving American soldiers to the leader of their small town. But in a prescient moment that would play out often over the years in various ways, no one could understand the Americans’ interpreter. It took a local English literature graduate to step in and help. The Americans told him that they would be building a base nearby. The message was relayed. And lives were changed forever.
“In the beginning the soldiers were not scared. They were not attacked, so they would come to the village and we would just go to talk to them and hang out with them,” Nawaf says. The soldiers would throw toys and candy from their military vehicles. The children would run behind to scoop them up.
Nawaf, like almost everyone else, was hopeful as he watched the Americans build their bases. They believed the soldiers would restore electricity and fuel supplies. Maybe soon we won’t have to sleep in our cars as we wait in gas lines overnight, they thought.
In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, most adult males served in the military. Nawaf’s grandfather noticed that illiterate soldiers were more likely to be sent to the front lines. So he insisted his grandsons get the education neither he nor his sons ever had.
Nawaf’s two sisters didn’t get the chance to go to school. But he and his brothers walked five miles each way from their farm to school every day. Every year, one of the seven brothers would stay to work on the farm full-time, allowing the others to attend school.
Once the Americans arrived, so did new opportunities. For better or worse, priorities began to shift. Nawaf dropped out of high school to work as a US Army interpreter.
In many Muslim communities on the Nineveh Plains near Mosul, the Americans were seen as foreign occupiers — and the Iraqi interpreters who worked for them, traitors. It was dangerous work. For only $35 a day, interpreters risked being killed with the soldiers they were assigned to or assassinated in revenge killings when they were off-duty. So many had been killed or quit that when Nawaf started his new job, there were only 12 translators on the entire military base, where several thousand soldiers were stationed.
Nawaf found himself working for the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tel Afar, an al-Qaeda stronghold and one of themost dangerous cities in Iraq at the time. During the worst of it in 2005, 11 American soldiers were killed in two months. “Every day we would go out, we would get shot at,” Nawaf says.
His worried mother persuaded him to go back to school. Nawaf landed a scholarship at a university in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. When ISIS began their rampage against the Yazidis in 2014, more than a decade after those American helicopters first landed in the same area, he was studying business at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani.
The Yazidis are an ancient religious minority with roots in Iraq, Iran and Syria. Followers of the religion believe they were the first people created by God, who governs the world with a band of angels. In previous centuries, Yazidis fled to the mountains when they were persecuted for their beliefs. They count dozens of massacres in their history — the latest, and one of the deadliest, came at the hands of ISIS. Sinjar is part of Ninevah province, an area of mostly Sunni Arabs and minority communities. The Arab and Yazidi tribes had strong ties for generations. They began to fray as al-Qaeda, which considers Yazidis infidels, took root in Iraq after the US invasion.
Nawaf’s mother feared that even if the ISIS fighters didn’t attack the Yazidis, they would kill Nawaf because of his work with the US Army. His family stripped the house of all the military commendations and American flags. And then they left. The trickle of families leaving Sinjar became a flood. Among them were some of the Kurdish forces that had sworn to protect the Yazidis.
“There were thousands of other cars — there were peshmerga [Kurdish forces] running away with them,” Nawaf remembers. With no military forces to stop their advance, ISIS killed hundreds of Yazidi men and captured several thousand Yazidi women and children. Many of them remain enslaved today.
The brutality made world headlines. International lawyers debated whether the killing of the Yazidis was genocide. The images of trapped Yazidis helped prompt a return of the United States to the Iraqi battlefield. US warplanes again began flying overhead, this time aiming their missiles at ISIS targets.
Nawaf’s family survived, but no one was left untouched by the violence. One of his friends had five sisters who were all captured by the group. Thousands of displaced Yazidis found themselves living in construction sites in overwhelmed Kurdish cities — Nawaf’s relatives among them. For a second time, he left school. He reunited with his family and thought about joining the fight against ISIS.
“I didn’t want to go back to school because of what happened,” he says during a visit to the university where he was valedictorian last year. “You see all these things and you say, ‘What is the importance of education if at the end of the day someone who is illiterate comes to kill you or take your wife or take your sister?’”
Nawaf also writes poetry. In his first published poem, “Five Sisters,” he writes with anguish of a community ripped apart. “Over there, five sisters were left behind, five sisters were grabbed from the arms of their family to face the guns’ muzzles in a sunburnt town … none dared prevent it.”
Nawaf’s four university roommates were almost a microcosm of the country itself. Along with a Shiite student from Basra, they were Sunni Arabs from Diyala, Anbar and Baghdad. One had a father who was killed and a brother who was wounded the previous year as Iraqi security forces fought ISIS in Diyala province, north of Baghdad. Three came from families displaced by the fighting.
In the end, Nawaf decided to forgo fighting and returned to school. But for almost two months after his own family fled Sinjar, apart from attending class, he he stayed in his room and didn’t talk to anyone.
“So this friend from Diyala, one day he sat down with me and he said, ‘Nawaf, I know it is difficult for you.’ When his father was killed I was the friend who stood with him and supported him and encouraged him to stay at school.”
“He said, ‘I know maybe you hate all Islam, maybe you hate me,’ he told me, ‘You lost your home. You lost everything. I lost my father.” Living in the apartment with young Iraqis from diverse backgrounds made him realize everyone had suffered. “It changed me. It brought me back.”
For Nawaf, while the war destroyed his community, it also freed him from some of the rigid hierarchy that had existed in his society for centuries. Yazidi elders who sided with either Arab or Kurdish political forces that failed to protect them, for instance, lost much of their influence.
“Young people don’t look at the figures of the Yazidi community the same way,” he says. “We came to a certain point where whatever is being said we are questioning. And that’s a big thing.”
Even his father no longer holds the same authority.
Nawaf was a volunteer teacher in Sinjar when he met his fiancé. In Yazidi tradition, once engaged a young woman lives with her future in-laws until the marriage. “I told my father we are not ready to live together. But we want to get engaged. He didn’t get it. For them it is still something shameful.”
Nawaf, now 29, has applied to emigrate to the United States under a program for interpreters with the US military. His dream is to get a Master’s degree in business administration. Then he wants to return home and open schools in Sinjar.
“My father saw me graduate as a top student and then he found me coming back to sit at home. It was a shock because we have this idea that if you graduate you have to work to give the family some money. At one point at breakfast he said: ‘Nawaf what do you want to do?’ I looked at him and said ‘OK, maybe I want to change some things.’ He laughed at me — he said people have been in the parliament for eight years and they haven’t changed anything and you want to change something?’”
“But I insisted. I told him maybe after [ISIS] we should think in a different way. I tried to convince him that after [ISIS] I should not do things I do not want to do. I should not do things just for money. So for me — yeah things have changed. And I think if things had not changed, whoever was lost in this [ISIS] attack, their lives will have been a waste.”
Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was one of the most isolated countries in the world. Most young Iraqis had never seen a cell phone or satellite television before 2003. Ideas and information were considered dangerous and both phones and satellite dishes were banned. The internet was censored, monitored and available only in public cafes. When the regime fell, the barriers to the outside world did as well.
Those new links out inspired new interests for young people like Asala, who is now 19. But at the same time, years of war gave rise to more conservative, religious cultures. Between the expectations of their parents and of society, a lot of young women here feel unable to pursue their dreams.
Asala doesn’t have close friends in which to confide. But she chats every day online with French and Austrian friends she discovered through a Korean pop fan page. “We all got super close,” she says. It was her online friends who told her she seemed depressed.
“I said, ‘Wait, depressed? Depression — what is that?’ So I looked it up and I have the symptoms. It’s horrible. At this age you are supposed to go out and have fun. But [in Iraq] you deal with things that are so much bigger than you. You worry about how are you going to live if things get worse. You even worry about if you are going to make it to the next day. Death is pretty much surrounding you. It’s really depressing.”
Asala was 6 in 2003, which she describes as “the year when everything started getting worse.” She remembers hiding under the table at night during US airstrikes.
“Usually I’m the tough one. I don’t cry very easily and I make sure I don’t cry in front of my little brothers. I have to take care of them and not show emotions or stuff but when that happened, I was so scared I cried for hours straight.”
She says even now she can’t bear to watch the news. “I can’t look at blood or dead people or news or even horror movies, like I just feel so bad.”
There are fewer explosions in Baghdad these days. But she says she doesn’t really care about what could happen to her anymore.
“When I was a kid I was scared. I was like ‘I don’t want to die.’ But you grow up searching for a way to get out of here and you can’t find a way. So you’re like ‘Whatever, I’ll live here and die here and it’s all going to end so it’s OK. Whatever happens, let it happen. I don’t know. You kind of give up.”
She hasn’t entirely given up. Asala has dreams that have nothing to do with her family’s ambitions for her to become a doctor or an engineer, and have nothing to do with the war that is all around her. She wants to play cello.
During a rehearsal with other young musicians at a center run by Karim Wasfi, a conductor with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, she picks up her instrument and focuses on the harmony of the piece, “Someday,” made popular by the Disney movie “Sleeping Beauty.”
Traffic noise on the busy street outside, in the upscale neighborhood of Mansour, competes with the music. A table of books near the doorway includes the history of Buddhism and the philosophy of Nietzsche. The young musicians, most dressed in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, laugh and joke. Asala seems to feel more comfortable in this rehearsal space than with her family at home.
“When I try to practice my mom will say, ‘Do the dishes, do something better. This is useless. You’re not getting anywhere with this.’ And, you know, I’m not really a confident person so she always gets to me,” Asala says. “The other musicians all practice for six hours a day and I don’t practice at all unless mom is at work or my dad too and nobody is home.”
Asala was 14 when she saw the movie “Hilary and Jackie,” which is about the life of cello player Jacqueline du Pre. It was then she decided she wanted to be a musician. But when she was given the chance to study cello in Rome for six months last year, her mother refused to let her go.
“Being a musician and a female here is really hard,” she says. “Maybe it would be easier here if I were a guy. Maybe they wouldn’t control me as much.”
In her dream life, Asala says she would live in New York City and work hard and wear shorts in the summer.
“Maybe somewhere else you would be able to work at a coffee shop or a restaurant or a supermarket or something. But here it doesn’t work like that. Even if you could find a job at a supermarket they would be like, ‘Oh, she’s a girl, she’s working in a supermarket, her family probably didn’t raise her well.’ Girls here have to deal with this. Sometimes I think you can just breathe and be judged.”
The last time Zahra saw her mother, four years ago, she was 14. Her mother was about to be executed for her involvement in a suicide bombing.
Zahra lived in an orphanage after her mother’s arrest in 2006. She was 9 years old when they were separated. And while she only saw her for a few hours every month or two, she clung to the knowledge that she had a mother who loved her. On her last visit to the Kathamiya Women’s Prison, a social worker took Zahra to a small room to meet her mother.
“She said ‘Zahra, if I go what will you do?’ I said, ‘Where will you go?’ She said, ‘If I die what will you do?’ I said, ‘That’s impossible that you would die.’ I didn’t take her seriously. I thought she was just talking like that because she was depressed.”
Not long after, social workers came to the orphanage.
“They were trying to avoid shocking me but they had to tell me. They said, ‘Zahra your mother is very sick.’ I said, ‘What are you telling me?’ They said. ‘Zahra, your mother is dead.’ I said, ‘Impossible!’”
She remembers falling to the floor. Putting her hands over her ears. “I didn’t want to hear what they were saying. She had promised me not to die. I thought my mother was stronger than death.”
In an Iraq where broken homes and domestic violence are now common, her mother had been the only anchor in a violent family life. Zahra says she doesn’t have a single happy memory from her early childhood. She says her mother tried to protect her from her abusive father. She tries not to think about him. “When I remember it makes me hate him more.”
Zahra says her younger sister died in an accident, but she isn’t sure how exactly. Soon after her father left. It was just her and her mother. Her mother had never finished school and had a hard time finding work. They moved around constantly.
“My mother was not very well off. But what was important was that she took care of me,” says Zahra, sitting down to talk after replacing her school uniform with a hot pink jacket and a pink and white bow for her hair.
In 2006, as US forces fought both al-Qaeda and Shiite militias, bombings rocked the Iraqi capital. In July that year, a suicide car bomb exploded in a crowded market in Baghdad’s Sadr City — the sprawling Shiite neighborhood that before the war had been known as Saddam City. More than 200 people were killed in the market bombing.
Zahra’s mother was one of a group of people accused of facilitating the attack. Nine-year-old Zahra had no relatives to stay with and was taken with her mother to jail. A week later, the rusty wheels of Iraq’s justice system began slowly grinding.
Zahra was placed in an orphanage while her mother was interrogated. Her mother had no money and no lawyer. Like hundreds of other Iraqis sentenced to death under Iraq’s post-war terrorism laws, she confessed.
“I saw bruises on her legs. I saw her spirits were down. I saw marks on her hands,” Zahra says of one visit to the prison. “I kept asking her what had happened. She said, ‘You know life in prison is not a party. Of course if I’m in prison they are going to torture me.’”
Her mother later tried to recant the confession, claiming it had been coerced. It was too late and mattered little to the justice system. Zahra’s mother was hanged. Prison workers brought some of her clothes to Zahra at the orphanage.
“Here is your mother,” a social worker, who was there at the time, recalls them saying as they threw the clothing at her. Some of it Zahra still keeps in the locker decorated with princess stickers in her small room, including the black shawl her mother used to put over her legs when she was cold. She has her mother’s Koran and two small hearts with her name in gold sequins that her mother made for her while in prison.
Traumatized by an unhappy childhood and the death of her mother, Zahra mostly kept to herself.
“I didn’t eat. I didn’t study or talk to anyone. I didn’t have a family or sisters to talk to like other people,” she says. “I didn’t understand people and they didn’t give me an opportunity to understand them. So it was very difficult for me.”
She didn’t know until later that her mother had been executed and hadn’t just died in prison.
“My mother was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Zahra says. “Of course a woman who is beaten and electrocuted will say, ‘Yes, I did it.’ Our society is full of killers who are walking around. Is anybody going after them? Nobody. There are a lot of people unjustly accused in prison — not just my mother.”
But she says little by little, she has learned to open up. A new director took over the orphanage. Zahra resumed studying as she promised her mother she would. She began drawing and acted in a theater performance arranged by Iraq’s Ruya Foundation. Theater professionals trained in drama therapy came to the orphanage, where nine girls wrote a play called “The Girls of Baghdad,” which they later staged in a public theater.
“It freed me a little,” Zahra says. “I didn’t know how to relate to people — I had trouble expressing my feelings or what I wanted.”
The orphanage director, Iman Nasser Hasoon, is one of the only people Zahra trusts. Hasoon, wearing a stylish black pantsuit enlivened with a turquoise hijab covering her hair, leans across her desk as girls coming back from school come in to kiss her. A plaque reading “World’s Best Mom,” a gift from her own son, sits on her desk.
Zahra comes over and gives her a hug.
“Zahra’s problem was very difficult,” Hasoon says. “When I first came all the girls would say good morning. Zahra wouldn’t even raise her head.”
Zahra has recently begun telling the director things about her childhood she has never told anyone — not even her mother. For Mother’s Day, Zahra gave Hasoon two gifts — one from her and one that had belonged to her mother.
Hasoon has been looking for Zahra’s mother’s grave and has received permission to take Zahra there when she finds it. Zahra says when they visit, she will clean the grave and place a rose on it. And then she will talk to her mother.
“There are things that are painful but I need to talk to her about them,” she says. She doesn’t have a photo of her mother but she remembers what she looked like and she says sometimes she comes to her in dreams.
“They say I look like her but she was a lot prettier than me,” she says. “Even if she is gone, sometimes when I sit down I feel her presence. I know she’s in my heart and on my mind. When I talk I feel her and I think about her a lot and I feel secure.”
Although girls normally have to leave the orphanage when they turn 18, Hasoon has enrolled Zahra in an applied arts college to allow her to continue to living there. She paid for a tutor to help Zahra pass the entrance exams.
Zahra has rejected the idea of suitors who come to meet some of the other girls. “Not everything in life is about men,” she says.
Zahra is one of close to a million Iraqi children have lost at least one parent since 2003. Very few of them are placed in government care. Twenty other girls live at the orphanage with Zahra, some whose parents are still alive but have abandoned them. Zahra says she knows if she wasn’t in the orphanage she would be out in the street, like so many other girls in Baghdad.
“I thank God a thousand times for my life here. It’s not like the life I wanted. I pictured my life would be me and my mother. My mother would be with me and I’d wake up every morning and see her. But not everything a person dreams comes true.”
She says the most important lesson she has learned as someone who has survived a crisis is to grab hold of any opportunity offered by anyone and not let go.
“If someone comes and says I want to teach you soccer, I want to teach you drawing, even if it’s not part of your dreams, it could become part of them.”
“Two weeks later we received a call from his phone — the guy said, ‘We have Mohammad and we want money.’” Mohammad was a subcontractor for the US military and made a decent salary. But the $250,000 they were asking for was an impossible amount. The kidnappers agreed to accept his vehicle instead of ransom money. But they didn’t release him.
Mohammad was 29 when he disappeared. He was Ali’s hero. They shared a bedroom at the family home in Baghdad. Ali would iron his older brother’s clothes for him. “I would do anything he asked,” he says. “When I walked down the street I was never afraid because I thought, ‘I have my brother watching my back.’”
Ali’s father died of a heart attack two years before the Iraq War. After his brother’s kidnapping, Ali was the only male left in the family.
“It’s been more than 10 years and everyone says, ‘God rest his soul.’ But my mom says ‘no’ — she still believes Mohammad is in jail or something,” Ali says. “Even now in the house we try not to mention him. Sometimes she cries alone and sometimes I just go and hug her and say, ‘Don’t be sad.’”
“It’s not just my family — you can find in all the families in Iraq now there is a crisis. Either someone has gone missing or someone has been killed.”
Ali now goes out only with close friends and to places he chooses carefully. If he’s out after 10 p.m. his mother calls to ask where he is. While he was in college after his brother disappeared, she made him quit a part-time job because she was worried he would be caught in one of the bombings that were increasingly ripping through Baghdad.
In 2006, as Iraq descended into civil war, his mother was desperate to get him out of the country. When he couldn’t get a visa to neighboring Jordan, he went to Syria and then to Malaysia, one of the few countries where Iraqis don’t need a visa to enter.
“It was a complete turning point in my life,” Ali says. “I improved my English and met people from everywhere. It let me understand new concepts like volunteerism, and cultural diversity. It was really like a journey for me. It was not only an escape from Iraq.”
He came home and went back to college, where he studied political science. He was eventually offered a job at the international organizations department of the culture ministry. It paid just $300 a month, but he was lucky to have it. When his day job was over, he went to law school at night.
Iraq was one of the founding members of the United Nations — even under Saddam Hussein its education system was renowned and its literacy rate among the highest in the region. But 12 years of crippling trade sanctions — which were imposed after Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 — and then another decade of war have gutted Iraq’s schools and institutions.
In his pricate life, Ali tried to implement the concepts he learned in Malaysia — including volunteering.
“I thought like, ‘Wow, those people love their country. They do something for free.”
Four years ago, Ali started organizing trips to archaeological and religious sites for young Iraqis who had been cut off from other parts of the country since the US invasion. For many it was their first visit to museums or religious shrines outside their faith.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t Sunnis visit the holy places of Shiites and vice versa?’ I think all Iraqis should know about each other’s religion.”
On a recent weekend, he organized a commemoration of Iraqi heritage at a newly re-opened Abbasid-era palace in Baghdad. Iraqi hipsters with gelled hair, skinny jeans and sneakers wore T-shirts reading, “Our Heritage, Our Identity.” They mingled with diplomats and listened to Iraqi music.
Ali has accomplished much more than most young Iraqis. He founded a choir. And President Obama mentioned Ali’s efforts to start public libraries in cafes in a State of the Union address.
But Iraq grinds down even the most energetic and entrepreneurial of young people. Nothing here is easy. When he gathered a group of young people to clean the 13th century site of one of the world's oldest universities, the government caretaker there told him, “It will take days. Why do you want to waste your time?”
While it’s difficult to achieve even simple things now, Ali is still determined to try. “I am happy with what I am doing as a person — as a person who is doing good things for this society.”