Taking Refuge

Life With Al-Qaeda

May 11, 2015

Maryam's father put on his shoes and walked out the door of his home in the Al Amrya neighborhood of Baghdad. He left to deliver his monthly payment for use of the local power generator - just as he had done so many times before. This night, however, in November 2006, it would be his last.

No sooner had he left his house than he was captured by al-Qaeda terrorists. Tortured and then murdered in cold blood, his lifeless body was left for show in the street.

"It was like a punishment for letting his sons work with the U.S. forces," Maryam explained, regarding her two brothers who had served as interpreters for the American troops in Iraq.

They couldn't get hold of my brothers because they were at the American base, so they got my father. And then, they sent us a letter saying that we all would be beheaded soon.

Three years earlier - in March 2003 - President George W. Bush had declared war on Iraq. U.S. forces were sent in to disarm the country, dismantle the government, and depose Saddam Hussein. Nine months later, they accomplished that goal, capturing Hussein in his hometown of Tikrit.

Though many Americans cheered from afar at the time, in retrospect the cost of the Iraq war proved high. Analysts note that an estimated 190,000 lives were lost, $2.2 trillion spent, and 1,428,308 refugees left stateless.

Moreover, the downfall of the Iraqi government left a power vacuum in its wake, paving the way for the rise of al-Qaeda terrorists across the country - and ultimately, the murder of Maryam's father.

I was [only] a teenager...I left school for about a year because I couldn't deal with life and I was just seeing the scene [of my father] over and over again and thinking that I would be facing the same fate.

Depression consumed Maryam. Her life became a series of moves from one place to the next, always fearing detection - and death - by local terrorists.

But, even before her father's death, Maryam felt resentment towards Iraqi society - as a woman, Maryam was restricted in ways that her male counterparts were not.

My life wasn't as colorful as many girls all over the world because I'm a female. So, I couldn't go out by myself - never. And, if I went out with my family, there would [still] be harassment.

Remembering a day from middle school, Maryam told me:

One time when I was in junior high school, we were going to school and the way we do it is that there would be a mini van and a driver who would pick up like fourteen girls to take them to school. It has to be a trusted driver and we pay him monthly. That's how we do it. So, one day, he was driving us to school and, as he stopped to pick up the last girl, there were terrorists who knocked on the windows and they broke the windows of the van. They were like 'why are you taking them to school to get education?' It's like something shameful that we're going to school - girls should stay at home. So, that was terrible. I thought they would kill us all that day, but then girls started to scream and people came out of their houses and then the terrorists just ran away. So, we got lucky. But, that's how it is. It's not in all neighborhoods, but neighborhoods where terrorists are in control would be like this. It's very dangerous to go to school. It's very dangerous to go out of the house.

Gripped by fear, Maryam lived in a constant state of anxiety and despair from November 2006 to May 2010 - the time it took to receive asylum. Maryam, her mother, and brothers struggled for nearly four years, preparing paperwork, undergoing interviews and medical checks, and proving that they were among Iraq's innocent.

At age twenty-one, when Maryam learned that her family had finally been granted permission to leave Iraq for America, Maryam experienced hope for the first time in several years. She can still feel the excitement she experienced when her flight touched down in the United States, and the subsequent amazement as she looked around at the cleanliness, greenery, neatly arranged houses, and - most importantly - absence of overt violence. It was like "living in a cartoon," according to Maryam.

But, her happiness was transient.

That feeling lasted two days and [then] I was back to my depression - not because it’s not great - it's great. But, because I found this place to be huge and everyone is talking English fluently, including my brothers because they worked with the U.S. forces for six years.

Overcoming the language barrier proved an emotional battlefield for Maryam, who admits, "I just wanted to go back - anywhere. If not to Iraq, then to any country that speaks Arabic." She wrestled with her situation for months, convinced that she would never learn the language, go to school, or build a successful life in America.

"But," said Maryam, "my brother helped me, encouraged me to go back to school…that's when my life changed."

Not only did Maryam successfully graduate high school, but now she is working toward her bachelor's degree. She'll be starting at UC Berkley Haas School of Business as a transfer student this summer, having won multiple scholarships and awards for her academic achievement. With a transfer acceptance rate of just five percent, you can only imagine Maryam's excitement.

If you ask me about my life or my feelings [now], I would tell you that the most amazing thing that happened to me was coming to the United States. I can't even wait to get my citizenship, which I will get at the end of this year.

In addition to education, Maryam also takes refugee in volunteering, dedicating her time to organizations that feed the hungry in her neighborhood. "I love this," Maryam told me. "And, that's why I want to be a social entrepreneur. [It] keeps me going and gives me energy to do what I’m doing."

And, while Maryam is improving lives in her community, she hasn't forgotten about her own family.

Maryam's mother still speaks very little English. Maryam does everything from helping her to fill out her timesheet for work to taking her to doctor appointments and grocery shopping. Maryam joked, "Sometimes, I would be like, 'mom, I just want to comb my hair.'" Nevertheless, she says, "It’s also amazing to help my family…I want to be a social entrepreneur, so if I can't take responsibility for my family, how can I take responsibility for social causes?"

It's very hard, but I feel good…I volunteer a lot for many causes. I'm looking forward to my bachelor's degree. I [now] have my husband, my mom, my brothers. I don't know what [more] to ask. I have everything. I’m so lucky.

Maryam shared two recipes with me - Iraqi falafel and Muhamarra. I can personally say they are both delicious, having made them for a potluck dinner just this weekend. Her favorite American foods include hamburgers and pizza, and she loves dining at the Cheesecake Factory.

Maryam attributes her success to her father. She said, "He instilled in me all the moral values I hold today." Then she added, "I hope in the future we will not see as many Iraqi orphans as we see today. I don't want people to go through what I've been through and lose one of their parents or maybe both - for no reason."

For most of us, 'war' and 'terrorism' are things that happen 'over there.' It's hard to imagine coming face to face with conflict. But for Maryam, war meant death, dropping out of school, and, eventually, becoming an Iraqi refugee. It took years to overcome her depression and evolve into the inspiring young woman she is today. And, even so, the brutal murder of her father by al-Qaeda terrorists is a scene she will never forget.

*This name has been changed to protect the individual's identity.

Falafel ingredients.

Muhamarra ingredients.

Iraqi Falafel
  1. Put the chickpeas in a large bowl and cover with water by 3 or 4 inches - the beans will triple in volume as they soak. Soak for 12 to 14 hours, checking once or twice to see if you need to add more water to keep the beans submerged.
  2. Heat the oven to 375 ° F. Drain the chickpeas and transfer them to a food processor with the garlic, onion, cumin, herb, 1 teaspoon of salt, pepper, baking soda, and lemon juice. Pulse until everything is minced, but not pureed, stopping the machine and scraping down the sides if necessary. Add water tablespoon by tablespoon if necessary to allow the machine to do its work, but keep the mixture as dry as possible. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, or cayenne as needed
  3. Grease a large rimmed baking sheet with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Roll the bean mixture into 20 balls, about 1 1/2 inches each, then flatten them into thick patties. Put the falafel on the prepared pan and brush the tops with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Bake until golden all over, 10 to 15 minutes on each side.
  4. Meanwhile, whisk the tahini and remaining salt with 1/2 cup water in a small bowl until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning and serve the falafel drizzled with the sauce.

Muhammara is a hot pepper dip originally from Aleppo, Syria. It is most often found in Levantine and Turkish cuisines.

  1. Place 1/4 cup torn flatbread and 1/4 cup water in a small bowl. Let sit until the bread is softened, 2-3 minutes
  2. Transfer the bread/water mixture to a food processor. Add walnuts and the next 7 ingredients. Puree until smooth, adding water by the tablespoon if too thick to blend. With machine running, add 2 tablespoons oil. Season with salt and pepper
  3. Transfer to a small bowl. Garnish with parsley, drizzle with oil, and serve with flatbread and crudites.