x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A brief sojourn abroad

Last word Zainab fled Iraq because she feared for her life. David Enders and Alaa Majeed witness her return.

Zainab fled Iraq because she feared for her life. David Enders and Alaa Majeed witness her return

Zainab's husband was a member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. After the US invasion, he was kidnapped and killed by anti-Baath vigilantes. Zainab and her children feared for their lives. Things got worse after her oldest son took a job with Bechtel, an American engineering firm with a large presence in post-invasion Iraq. In 2007, when he received a death threat, he decided to leave Iraq for Damascus. Zainab accompanied him, as did his youngest brother. Her pregnant daughter stayed behind with her husband.

Last August, after they had spent more than a year in Syria, a refugee resettlement agency moved Zainab and her sons to New York. It was hard for Zainab (who, at 60, had never been outside Iraq before) to move even farther away from her daughter and grandchild in Baghdad. But she wanted to help her two sons settle in America, and was afraid of what might happen if she stayed - post-invasion Baghdad is no place for the widows of Baathists and mothers of coalition collaborators.

The resettlement agency asked the family if they had any friends who could support them in the US. Zainab's oldest son provided the only US address he knew - that of an independent filmmaker from New York named Marie whom he had met in Damascus. Marie lives and works in Sag Harbor, a resort town on New York's eastern shore, a two-hour drive from New York City. By November, Zainab and her sons had taken up residence in her basement. Marie and her friends were welcoming, but Sag Harbor, a quiet town that booms in the summer with wealthy vacationers from the city, feels cold and empty in the winter.

"We were very isolated in Sag Harbor," Zainab recalls. "It was very hard to get to places. When we walked in the street, we couldn't see anybody." The family dreaded the inevitable cutting off of their government assistance checks, which covered little more than rent. Catholic Charities, the private agency that had been contracted by the government to help Zainab, cautioned the family that applying for food stamps would make it harder for them to become American citizens when their asylum period ended. After three months, the government checks stopped coming.

The family didn't own a car, and had a hard time getting to English classes at the local library. "We could only go two hours a week to school, but sometimes we could only go one hour a week because of lack of transportation," Zainab explained. "Who could learn from one hour of school a week?" Marie found Zainab's older son, an environmental engineer, a part-time job managing the tech lab at the local school where she is the filmmaker-in-residence. Zainab eventually found work as a clerk at TJ Maxx, a discount clothing chain. She also babysat a local infant. "The only reason I took that babysitting job is because I was craving to be with my grandchild who is about the same age and whom I haven't seen yet."

Zainab's younger son, who does not speak English, withdrew, chatting online with people in the Middle East, then sleeping most of the day. He worked as a house painter, but work was scarce with the holiday homes of the rich abandoned for the winter. Through his contacts with Bechtel, the older son managed to land a job outside Washington DC. In March, the family moved to Northern Virginia, where they lived in one of the apartment towers that shoot up just outside the city. Zainab's sons had high hopes that this would be better than Sag Harbor. Outwardly, Zainab agreed to give Virginia a chance, but she had already made up her mind. After less than a month, she bought a plane ticket home to Iraq. The fact that many of her new building's residents were Muslims and Arabs didn't help much - she interacted more with the pigeons she fed from her 12th floor balcony than with other people in the building.

Her sons were happier, but Zainab missed home and her husband constantly. "One day as I was carrying a box of canned food, my back started hurting me. I stopped for a minute and remembered how my dead husband would have took this. I burst into tears as I thought of him, of how my life turned upside down." "At least, when I go back, I will be close to where my husband was buried." Zainab landed in Baghdad on April 9, more than two years after she had first fled, and six years to the day after the US military entered Baghdad. Her daughter and son-in-law were waiting for her at the airport in Baghdad. When she finally hugged her grandson, she cried. At home, the house filled with relatives and neighbours coming to visit and hear her story.

"In America, I saw places that felt like heaven but it was very empty - empty of people," she told them On the phone with her oldest son, she tried to reassure him that she had made the right choice. "I am good. I am good. All of the people I love are here around me. I am very happy to be back." But after she hung up, she admitted: "To tell you the truth, I am scared to be back. I don't totally feel safe."

David Enders, the author of Baghdad Bulletin. Alaa Majeed is a freelance journalist. They are both based in New York.