THROUGH THE EYES OF A REFUGEE
After more than a decade of struggle, an Iraqi refugee and her family finally achieve their dream of becoming American citizens.
In 2007, Hiba Ibrahim and her family were forced to leave Baghdad, Iraq. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, ruled Iraq as a dictator. All Shiites and Kurdish, who made up the majority of the population, lived in constant fear of persecution, bombings and violence simply because they did not agree with his ideology. Hiba’s mom came from a nominal, relatively open-minded Kurdish family. Once the Sunni Muslims started to kill Shia Muslims in Baghdad, they knew they desperately needed to leave their hometown. They decided to flee by bus to Syria, the closest “safe” zone, where they spent 5 years in transition. Hiba was 15 years old.
While in Syria, Hiba’s teenaged older sister got married her 38-year-old cousin. She did this out of hatred towards her abusive father and left with her husband to Sweden. It has been 9 years since Hiba and her family last saw her sister.
It is not safe for Hiba and her family to return to Iraq. Now, the situation there is even worse with ISIS, mafia, and a government even more corrupt than the one under Saddam Hussein. "Internal fighting continues between different Islamic groups like the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish," Hiba’s mother explained in Arabic, showing me pictures on her phone of the devastation caused by the Iraqi war as Hiba translated.
In 2010, the UN contacted Hiba's family in Syria and told them they had found a location for them in the United States of America. Having no family or prior connections in the U.S., Hiba's family relocated to Lexington, Kentucky, described by the UN as "a good-sized town that is safe and not too expensive." Shortly after, however, Hiba, her mom and her siblings entered a domestic violence shelter due to her father’s worsening behavior. After a 5 month process, they successfully obtained a divorce and protection order from the court. Hiba’s father stopped living with them in January 2012, and though he is still in Kentucky, Hiba has not seen him since. Hiba, her mother, younger sister, and younger brother now live in an apartment in a low-income housing area in Lexington.
While embracing American culture, Hiba and her family still strive to maintain their cultural identity. Occasionally, they pay visits to Arabic stores in Lexington such as Sahara and Ali Baba, which sell authentic Arabic spices. They continue to speak Arabic and furnish their house with Middle-Eastern cultural items.
Hiba’s mother loves to cook, and she is amazing at it. Though she would like to work or open an Arabic restaurant, Hiba’s mother has to stay at home to look after Hiba’s younger sister, who suffers from anoxia, a brain condition caused by a lack of oxygen supply at the time of her birth.
The government covers a percentage of their rent and some of their bills, but it is not enough. To help support her family, Hiba works at Starbucks during the week.
The Lord's Prayer
When I asked Hiba what keeps her going amidst challenges and setbacks, she replied, “My faith in Jesus.” She was not a Christian when she first came to the Unites States but eventually "fell in love with Jesus, his teaching and his compassion toward the needy." Hiba got baptized in May 2015 and has been actively involved in church ever since. This clock and cross, which Hiba has in her room, both have the Lord’s Prayer written on them in Arabic.
It was difficult to transition from a collectivistic to individualistic society. But Hiba and her family have realized pros and cons in both Iraqi and American culture. It has been especially hard for Hiba’s mother to adapt to an unfamiliar culture and find friends in this community who speak her language. But she is satisfied to spend most of her time at home with her family.
An American Citizen
In 2017, Hiba and her family, finally, officially acquired American citizenship after a long, arduous process.
Here, Hiba and her mother tried to pose for some "serious photos," but her mother couldn’t keep on a straight face. I love how these candid moments capture the joy in their household that is so readily apparent.
Hiba and her family were overjoyed to come to America, but they had no idea how life here would be like initially. The loss of a fatherly presence also posed a huge struggle for them, but Hiba has now found a new and perfect Heavenly Father. She is grateful to have found the true God and that she now has new friends, a car and a job.
Passing it On
Although the process was hard, "it was worth it," and Hiba believes that she can make a difference simply by being grateful, helping her family, loving others, and always being ready to help the needy. She is currently studying International Relations at the University of Kentucky and wants to help refugees with stories similar to her own.