Last night I spent Christmas Eve in the north of France (in Lille) with an Iraqi family in their beautiful new home.
Majid is the brother of my French-Iraqi friend, Kaïss. Rana is Majid’s wife. They have four children. Seeking asylum from the never-ending violence in Iraq, Majid, Rana and their kids arrived in France – from Baghdad – in October 2014. For the first few months they camped out in Kaïss’s living room. They had sold all their earthly possessions and were living out of suitcases. In 2014 Baghdad was an extremely dangerous place to be (Iraq is still an extremely dangerous place to be.) The lives of Majid and his family were in danger. A civil servant, Majid had been the victim of ISIS car bombing attempts. Another brother, Issam, was the victim of an Al-Qaeda attack a few years earlier. On a Baghdad street, he was randomly shot in the spine. Today, a paraplegic, Issam is confined to a wheelchair.
Not one single Iraqi family has been spared the violence and destruction inflicted on their country.
So Majid and Rana sought asylum in France. It required much planning and paperwork. With their children, they arrived in Paris via Istanbul. Kaïss met them at the airport, drove them to Lille and welcomed them into his small home. Eventually the four kids, not speaking a word of French, were allowed to start school. Majid and Rana took advantage of the free French lessons given by the Town Hall (in every city in France, free French lessons are offered to new arrivals.)
They eventually found themselves a teeny-tiny apartment to rent. The apartment was damp, dark, and full of mice. In the winter, the back bedroom was so damp, cold and mouldy it was declared a health risk. The kids had to move out of the back bedroom into the front room where all six of them slept. There was insufficient heating. (In Baghdad they had left behind a very nice house with a garden.) They lived in that apartment for two years while waiting for the decision from OFPRA (Office Français de Protection des Réfugiés et Apatrides) – The French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons.
Majid and Rana were summoned to the OFPRA office (based in Paris) many times for in-depth interviews. Their dossier was being studied for eligibility to be awarded the right of asylum. Due to extremely high demand, it’s a very slow process.
During this time Majid was extremely unhappy. He wanted to return to Iraq. “I don’t even want to be here,” he would say. “I want to be at home in my house with my mother and brothers and sisters up the street.” He was angry, and rightfully so. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq – when the Bush Administration decided, illegally and illegitimately, to pulverise Baghdad and remove Saddam – Majid and Kaïss lost their father. Out of the 12,125 violent civilian deaths that occurred in 2003, their father was amongst the victims.
The total Iraqi violent death toll since the U.S.-led invasion is in excess of 1.2 million. This statistic is before ISIS.
The number of Iraqis approved to resettle in the United States is shamefully low.
In the meantime and back in Lille, Rana excelled at French lessons. An engineer by profession, she was not content to follow the free French lessons at the Town Hall (overcrowded classrooms, inadequate infrastructure and non-personalized instruction). She sought and found a better language school which offers smaller classes and personalized instruction. She purchased her own textbooks, studied very hard, and today her French is near-fluent (both written and spoken.) Last night I was looking at her notes. She was explaining to me a complicated rule about French grammar.
She’s eager to find work and start earning a salary, as is Majid. (In France, while your dossier is being examined by OFPRA, you are not allowed to work.)
Six months ago the family was admitted into Lille’s social housing program, into a spanking new building located on the north-west side of the city. It’s a beautiful top-floor apartment spread over two floors with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a large outdoor terrace overlooking the rooftops of that part of the city. One of the first things they bought was a barbecue for grilling lamb chops and kibbeh – minced meat ground with bulghur wheat and spices. Iraqis love all kinds of grilled meat (and fish).
The apartment gleams, and Rana has decorated it with tasteful furnishings and knick-knacks.
So last night we sat down to platters of rice, bulghur, roasted chicken, a chick pea and lamb dish, vegetables, salad, and a refreshing yogurt drink with mint in it.
After dinner, we sat on the sofas drinking hot sugared tea served in small glasses. I admired the twinkling tree in the corner and said “It’s not often that you see a Christmas tree in a Muslim home. It’s nice.” Kaïss and his brother looked at one another and said, “Growing up in a tightknit mixed community in central Baghdad, we always shared some of the customs of the Christian Iraqis. They put up a tree, so we put up a tree.”
(Kaïss, Majid and Rana are Kurdish Iraqis.)
As I sat there sipping my tea I thought to myself, These brave resistant people – who have been through so much danger, heartache and horror – and it’s been relentless, just one conflict following the other – I wish for them, and all those like them, nothing but peace, a new life, a new hope and prosperity for the New Year (and all the future years to come) and a healing of their shattered, broken country.
P.S. Majid still hopes to one day return to his country and the family he left behind.