“You know, in Iraq, there's lots of bombs,” Melia looked up at me from the couch in the apartment where she lives with her family. She has wide deep eyes and long, curling black hair that can barely be contained by the braid its folded into. She moved to Albuquerque with her family three years ago, at the age of six. Despite her age, she manages an acute understanding of things that I can't imagine. “There are groups that the police can't catch,” she summarizes in her small sincere voice.
Now 9, Melia knows a geography of catastrophe that I have no road map for. She has seen more of the world, speaks more of its languages and understands with subtlety both its cruelty and remunerations. Melia Khouri (not her real name) and her family are refugees from Baghdad, who cut a circuitous route to New Mexico amid increasing uncertainty and violence in their native city. They, as a family of only four then -- their youngest daughter, Rabia, was born in the U.S. -- applied for asylum here, a lengthy process that's widely been called “the world's most rigorous” while moving through a day-to-day life that didn't feel entirely safe or stable.
The Khouris lives have been forever altered by upheaval that began long ago, long before Melia, or even her 11-year-old sister, Amira, were born.
That upheaval perhaps was most recently triggered by the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S. and accelerated with the series of insurrections of the Arab Spring, and now, the continued threat of ISIS. To me, their home city of Baghdad was a distant name hummed through the static of a newscast, totally abstract. To the Khouris, as they share with me through memory, it is the smell of their favorite foods, the home of their grandmother, their friends, the stray cats that Melia altruistically brought food scraps to every evening. It was the epicenter of everything they lived and everyone they knew.
They slowly make all that they've lost very real to me, and Baghdad becomes not a place of abstractions removed from us far away in the west, but a city abuzz with energy and warm, wonderful people just like the Khouris. They show me pictures of their cousins at the mall, of their aunts celebrating their birthdays. They tell long stories of travels to the coast of Lebanon and laugh about how traffic flows very differently in Iraq.
We often forget that our volunteer efforts at home can be equally impactful as those abroad. Working with refugees who are abroad in my country is a reminder of how hospitality is an exchange, not a gift given from one and received by another.
My world swells through them as they teach me about Baghdad in a human way, not muted by the retelling of tragedies on the news. The Middle East doesn't feel quite so remote anymore. I recognize with a pang that what happens there surely effects Iraqis (and Afghanis and Syrians and Libyans) most strongly, but also reverberates throughout the world, and carries heft both human and political right here.
But it hasn't all been left behind for the Khouris. Every Monday night, when I come to tutor Melia and Amira, we dutifully sit at the kitchen time while the gentle sounds of worshippers making tawaf at the Kaaba in Mecca emanate from the television set tuned to an Arabic channel. Melia writes my name in long beautiful Arabic letters for me, while her father offers me a plate of pickled mangoes -- a true delicacy that I had never had before. Their mother prepares large round discs of thin bread that we tear apart, still warm from the oven.
I think of their story -- how they have struggled under repression in Iraq, and then the massive effort it took to leave Baghdad. I think of how they often suffer here -- through menial labor, bigotry, lack of support, lack of money -- and I multiply that story by thousands.
With sharpness, I realize what western intervention in Iraq has wrought -- what it meant to have for so long bolstered the Baathist regime, and then to topple Hussein's statue in Firdos Square. I wonder what my friends were doing at these times. I don't like to imagine them imposed in any of the photographs of violence or destruction I have long seen unfolded in magazines or splashed across television screens.
In the here and now, it is my task as a volunteer to help the Khouris in the small ways that I can. I assist Melia and Amira with homework and help to navigate any troubles they encounter with the English language (but that has also transmuted into navigating troubles with math and science, with friendships, with bullies, with each other). During the summer we read books, make collages, throw frisbees and settle into the couch to watch movies.
By sitting in their home and sharing my community with them, I understand the importance of opening borders and hearts to people who've been forced from their homes because of conflict. Even though I'm not 'volunteering abroad' in the traditional sense, the impact is strikingly similar -- and equally important.
While I offer a few hours of my time every week (and usually a dozen eggs from my chickens) I feel that our exchange is decidedly out of balance. The Khouris don't just share food with me every Monday evening, they fully let me into their lives, sharing memories and hardships that might make them feel vulnerable, telling stories that teach me about their homeland and hardships, and they do so with striking openness. When I walk through the door of their small apartment, I feel like I am being welcomed home, while simultaneously, my knowledge of the world outside has expanded.I feel humbled, too. The Khouris experiences -- all that they know, have seen and overcome -- their profound courage, strength, resilience, and kindness in the face of all these things makes me feel spoiled and ignorant. But I am learning, and with gentleness and patience, the Khouris teach me. It strikes me as a bit funny now that I show up, ostensibly, to teach them. Every Monday night, I leave clear-eyed. The world is full of catastrophe, yes, but triumph, too. The stories on the news are one narrative of conflict, but they are not the complete one. It is too often overlooked that these are stories with heroes, and the Khouris are among them.