December 4, 2013

Slices of Life: Iraqi woman relates tale of her ‘rebirth’ in America

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Zina Bhaia shares conversation with Lynn Holley before the two leave for another day on UI campus in Urbana, Ill on Tuesday, April 21, 2009.

Heather Coit/The News-Gazette

Zina Bhaia shares conversation with Lynn Holley before the two leave for another day on UI campus in Urbana, Ill on Tuesday, April 21, 2009.

By Zina Bhaia — So many lights!

I knew that America would be big, but as I looked out my Royal Jordanian Airline window at the sprawling nightscape of Chicago and the towering cityscape of its downtown, I thought, “Oh, my God, it is huge. And Lake Michigan, why do they call it a lake? It is like an ocean.” I had flown into Baghdad at night many times, and Baghdad was but a speck of light compared to this glaring city below me.

“What am I getting myself into?” I thought. “I will never find my way around.”

My unlikely journey to America had begun nearly a year earlier. As a 28-year-old woman working in the United Nations human rights office in the Green Zone and living with my father and mother in a Shia and Christian neighborhood in central Baghdad, I had seen too much in the four years since Saddam Hussein’s fall began: The terrible U.S. bombing; my looting neighbors stealing computer monitors, believing they were TV sets; people giving cookies and tea to the U.S. troops as the tanks bellowed past. Then came the car bombs; the bloody bodies in the streets; my Shia family being driven out of our mostly Sunni neighborhood and our house stripped bare of even its windows; the kidnappings for retaliation or terror or ransom, even my own beautiful, happy, spoiled 16-year-old brother – kidnapped and never seen again, breaking my parents’ hearts forever.

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This story was written by a University of Illinois journalism student in Professor Walt Harrington’s Literary Feature Writing class taught in collaboration with The News-Gazette. Funding for the class, which was taught at the newspaper’s headquarters in downtown Champaign, came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation. The story was part of an occasional series titled “Slices of Life” that ran in the newspaper’s Sunday Living section. All the stories in the series are also collected in the book “Slices of Life.”