Yesterday was probably one of the best days that I have ever had as a teacher, and it didn’t even happen during the school day. Yesterday was a deadline for students to turn in missing work and test corrections so of course I had a ton of seniors who are panicking about graduating and some freshmen who have suddenly realized they don’t want to be freshmen again next year hanging out in my classroom and trying to figure out mathematics. By 4 everyone had turned in their stuff and left except for Omar. Omar is a senior in my Algebra 2 class and he has been in this country for four years. He came from Iraq via Syria and ended up in the United States.
I should mention that the school I teach at is a magnet school for non-English, non-Spanish speaking students. We actually have a program geared towards helping refugees acclimate to life in the U.S. and get a high school diploma by the time they turn 21. The school is absolutely amazing. We have students from over 60 countries who speak 40 different languages so teaching every day is a roller-coaster ride of strategies to teach English language learners.
But back to Omar. Omar is the most polite young man that I have ever met. He is 18 years old and works incredibly hard. Someday he hopes to be a petroleum engineer and possibly move to the UAE, but not back to Iraq. Omar and I have built up a pretty good relationship over the year and he loves to hang out in my room after class and just talk. We are both type 1 diabetics and so I think it has really helped him to talk with someone who has dealt with all of the emotions that come along with that as a teenager. But today, while Omar was working he didn’t want to talk about diabetes, he wanted to tell me about his trek to the U.S.
So we sat, and I listened for an hour to the most amazing, heartbreaking, strong, story I have ever heard and he is a young man that I respect now more than just about anyone. His family was very wealthy in Iraq and did a fair amount of government work. They lived about 6 miles from the largest military base in the Baghdad area and on March 19, 2003 the bombings started. Omar told me about the endless stream of explosions. The family learned that if you didn’t leave all your windows open they would explore from the air pressure of the bombs in the surrounding areas.
He told me of the atrocities that he witnessed, family members murdered. Omar estimated that approximately 1/3 of his immediate and extended family was killed through a combination of military actions, suicide bombings and what he called mafia killings. The mafia killings were what eventually caused his family to flee Iraq. His uncles body had recently been recovered after a year of missing. They were only able to identify him by his clothes. And then one day someone came up to his father in a cafe and told him that he needed to leave because his children were going to be taken by the mafia and held for ransom and then likely killed. So Omar’s father went home, told his wife to pack and the family escaped to Syria, where they lived for a year before obtaining a green card for entry into the U.S.
Omar talked to me about how much he hated the United States and Iraq for bringing this into his life. But he made sure that I understood that when he said this it wasn’t the people that he hated. He hated the people who made these decisions. Iraqis and Americans are amazing people who care and love and want only the best but the decision makers often just think their way is the only way that is right. They do not believe that people should be allowed to hold different opinions or follow different sets of what is right and wrong.
All Omar wants is to love his God and his family and live a happy, healthy, successful life wherever he ends up. Right now that happens to be America and he loves it here. He loves the people (for the most part) and the chance to do and be anything that he can dream. But he also loves Iraq, for all of its horrors and chaos at the moment, Iraq is still his home and someday, when the world begins to be more normal he hopes to go back and help his home country become a successful, integral, part of the world once again.
I wish that people (yes in general) could understand what Omar does. That people do not always model the practices and beliefs of their government. Omar understands that if you love your God, and your family, and try to do something for yourself the world can throw lots of horrors at you but in the end you will be alright. He is a young man that I hope that I get to know over many years and I am sure that he will change the world in amazing ways.