Taking Refuge

An Iraqi Feast on International Women's Day

March 13, 2015

Imagine being on a flight from Damascus to the United States, as you flee the cluster bombs, scud missiles, and suicide bombings that characterized your home's civil war from 2011-2012. You land in America only to learn that the fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces has now cut off access to the airport, trapping thousands of innocent civilians inside the country. You realize that you were on the last flight out.

This is the situation in which *Leila found herself on November 28, 2012 - the day she and her family boarded the final plane en route from Damascus to America.

But, it wasn't the first time Leila was leaving her home to escape violence.

Last Sunday, on International Women's Day, I met with Leila at her house in Philadelphia, where she related her courageous life story, from Iraq to Syria to America.

Growing up in Iraq, a country long plagued by sectarian strife and corruption, was far from tranquil. Though her son - admittedly only four years old at the time - has fond memories of being allowed to play "Mario" at his Dad's work, Leila recalls the more troublesome side of life.

A Shiite majority country ruled by the Sunni minority, Iraq was divided along religious lines . Sectarian strike particularly increased followed the 2003 invasion. Tensions ran so deep that "people began to obtain two ID [cards] because your name [often] indicated whether you were Sunni or Shiite." Thus, many Iraqis would obtain a fake ID card, to ensure their safety in any situation. "This is what my husband did too," Leila admitted.

Nevertheless, Iraq was the place Leila called home - that is until 2006.

In 2006, violence peaked, mounting into civil war. Around this time, a militia broke into her husband's place of work, murdering four employees. They asked for the company's manager. Leila's husband was the manager. Lucky to have loyal employees, he succeeded in escaping the worksite undetected. But, Leila knew she could not keep her family in their home country any longer. She and her three children packed their belongings and left for the Damascus suburbs. Her husband joined them later, after first securing a job in Syria.

Reunited in Syria, the family initially lived well. Leila's husband, trained in electrical engineering, found a steady job. But, in 2010, Leila and her family faced another civil war, this time in Syria. The family had enrolled with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC), but as the violence turned from bad to worse, Leila knew her family had to get out - fast.

We were packing our stuff, but we didn't know where to go. Some people even went back to Iraq.

Then, they finally got the news: Five years after registering with the UNHRC, Leila and her family were granted refugee status in the United States. "We felt like we were being picked up from death, picked up from the grave," Leila told me. After a nerve-wracking trip through countless checkpoints on the way to the Damascus airport, Leila could finally breathe. She was on her way to America.

It was only later that Leila learned she and her family had caught the last flight out. Following their departure, all other personnel - refugees and otherwise - had to travel through Lebanon in order to attempt the trip to the United States.

However, Leila soon became disappointed in America. Her husband, a highly skilled engineer, was put to work in a warehouse. Leila, a trained architect and talented artist, first found employment at a TJ Maxx, then as a caseworker. It was not the life that either of them had sought.

"We are in low-level jobs. It feels like being a semi-slave," said Leila.

When I asked Leila what keeps her going despite her disenchantment with America, her answer was definitive:

My children. We sacrifice for them [to have a better life].

And, it certainly seems like Leila and her husband are succeeding in that. Leila had given birth to her fourth child while in Syria and now all four children are thriving. Her two eldest are enrolled in their high school's International Baccalaureate (IB) program, each at the top of their class. Leila's only son, a thirteen year old, was recently accepted into a prestigious science and engineering high school. He hopes to become a computer scientist and has already taught himself well - a skill he was proud to show me and even prouder to show my computer engineer boyfriend who had joined us that day. Lastly, Leila's youngest child is a sweet five year old with impeccable English and writing skills. She took an affinity for writing in my notebook while I spoke with her mom. So, I hold the proof in my hands - perhaps she will be an author or journalist one day.

Leila misses Syria, but would be wary about going back, even if the situation were ever to be safe. Discrimination is rampant and "if you are not a citizen, there is no future." Her children would not be privy to the same type of life. As non-citizens, their economic mobility would be limited and their education poor, impeding their ability to reach their potential.

My International Women's Day drew to a close over a traditional Iraqi dinner prepared by Leila. In a room surrounded by Leila's original works of art - each beautifully constructed around a unique story, some even hiding Qur'anic verses within a mix of shapes and colors - we feasted on rice with fava beans (timman bagila), meat pie (kubba mosul), and roasted beef, followed by traditional Iraqi tea (served in small glasses with lots of sugar) along with the less traditional croissants.

Overall, I would consider it an inspiring International Women's Day, indeed.

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

Roasted Beef

Rice with Fava Beans (timman bagila)

Tomatoes, olives, and spicy peppers

Meat Pie (Kubba Mosul)

Traditional Iraqi Tea

Leila's first painting - The faces represent different places in the world, different levels in society, and different reactions to the events of life.

Set of Leila's paintings.

Set of black and white paintings by Leila.

Kubba Mosul

Courtesy of www.iraqifamilycookbook.blogspot.com

For the Dough:

For the Filling:

  1. To prepare the dough, combine the bulgur, semolina, salt, and water together in a bowl, mixing by hand. Set aside for 20 minutes, allowing the bulgur to absorb the water. Add more water, if necessary, to make the dough pliable. Then, place the dough in a food processor and pulse a few times before returning the dough to the bowl.
  2. Put the meat and onion in a bowl, then season with the salt and Arabian spice mixture. Stir to distribute the spices evenly.
  3. Assemble the dough on a flat surface. Divide it into two balls, each about the size of an orange. Press out each ball into a circle with a diameter of approximately 7 inches.
  4. Spread the meat mixture onto one circle of dough. Place the other circle of dough on top, covering the meat mixture. Press the edges to seal the dough firmly.
  5. To cook the kubbah mosul, fill a wide pot or pan with water and bring to a boil. Gently place the kubbah mosul into the boiling water. When it floats to the top - within about 10 minutes - remove it. Place it on a largely plate and slice into wedges like a pizza. The kubbah mosul is often served with pickles, salads, and/or scallions.
Timman Bagila

Courtesy of www.iraqifamilycookbook.blogspot.com

  1. Saute the onion in the oil. As it begins to become translucent (after a few minutes), add the fava beans and dill.
  2. Add the salt and pepper and then the water. Stir and let simmer.
  3. In a separate pot, bring water to a boil and pour in the rice. Let boil for 10 minutes. Then remove the rice from the stove and drain in a colander.
  4. Add the rice to the fava beans mixture. Stir well and leave to simmer until the rice grains are fully cooked.
  5. Serve. The dish is traditionally eaten with yogurt and cucumber salad.