By Ashley Severance
Alaa’ left Florida a little over a year ago. I had full intentions of keeping a journal during her stay; however, when I found time to write, I would draw a blank. It wasn’t due to writer’s block, lack of time, or even apathy. It was because I had a mixture of emotions. It was too hard to define, too hard to narrow down, too hard to describe.
I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’m a daughter. I’m a law student. I’m a Muslim. I’m an American. I could label myself all day. But, at the end of the day, I’m a human being. So was Alaa’. So were the many people who died. And, a year later, I feel that I have a responsibility to share with others what I gained from Alaa’s visit.
When I first met her, she had just gotten off the plane. The media surrounded us. It was the chance for that perfect shot, that memorable moment. But, I didn’t reach out to hug Alaa’ that night. Instead, I muttered, “Mashallah.” It was one of the few Arabic phrases I knew. It was appropriate. While the phrase means Praise God, it is typically used to verbalize a cause for happiness. Likewise, it can be used to describe a beautiful child. Alaa’ was beautiful.
The first few days consisted of housekeeping. Due to a significant language barrier, I called upon friends to help with translating. Alaa’ arrived a week before our final exams. For anyone unfamiliar with law school, you only get one exam per class. Needless to say, it was stressful, and I’m forever grateful for those who assisted. We helped Khalid (Alaa’s father) get settled, and we began the getting-to-know-you process.
Khalid was reserved at first. Who could blame him? He was in the very country that took the lives of his two sons and almost took the life of Alaa’. Yet, he was so grateful at the same time. He continuously thanked me for helping him. I felt ashamed. I asked him not to thank me. I was later asked by a news reporter why I was hesitant to accept his thanks. I explained, as best I could: “It’s like tying someone to a railroad track, pulling them off before the train runs them over, then expecting a thank you.” I’m not sure if anyone understood my explanation, but I meant every word. I felt like it was my country that put her in that situation and I didn’t want to be thanked for my meager attempt to remedy her plight.
Alaa’ underwent several surgeries during her trip to Florida. Dr. Saad Shaikh dedicated himself to helping her see again. He and his wife, Naazli, also a retinal surgeon, worked tirelessly and without pay. At the end, they thanked me for the opportunity. It reminded me that there are good people out there.
During their stay, I learned a lot about myself. Mainly, I learned how selfish I am. My husband and I watched as Khalid prayed five times a day, consistently. We listened to him use the phrases “Inshallah” (God willing) and “Alhamdillah” (Thanks be to God). I wondered if I would still thank God. I do thank God that I probably won’t be in a situation where my faith will be tested to that degree. I listened to myself complain about frivolous things and often found that I was disappointed in what I had become. That may sound odd to whoever is reading this. But I realized that I valued the wrong things. I have never been one to judge others according to their worldly possessions, but I still found error in my ways. I realized that I was placing unrealistic expectations on myself and my husband. I realized that I needed to be thankful for what I had been blessed with.
I have a four-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. My daughter, Layla, met Alaa’. Children are so beautiful, so innocent. Until corrupted by adults, children don’t judge others. Even though neither spoke each other’s language and Alaa’ was blind, they held hands and danced. Layla brought Alaa’ toys that she had hand-selected. When local Fox News interviewed Layla, she told them,”I got her some toys to make her feel better. The monster gave her a boo-boo in her eye.” At first, I was nervous that viewers would interpret her statement as political banter coming from a toddler. The truth was, I had never explained the concept of war to my daughter. It’s an adult issue. But, there was something so wise in her response.
I have been told that I am cynical. I’ve been described as a pessimist, even as someone who’s not a “people person.” However, I don’t think this is a fair characterization. I think I’m often disappointed. We all have life experiences that make us who we are today. I try to be aware of my surroundings. I watched people react to Alaa’. I listened as some people said, “Well, that’s what happens in war.”
We can’t allow ourselves to get to the point of not feeling something when lookingat a child who has been injured in war! We should all feel something. Whether it’s anger because our tax dollars helped pay for the destruction, or because we have a child and can’t imagine telling him/her that there’s nothing we can do. The truth is that it’s okay to cry. In fact, it’s healthy. We should never allow ourselves to stop feeling for others. We should never allow ourselves to judge each other over religion or ethnicity or skin tone. It’s not “un-American” or “un-Democratic” to care about the Iraqis. It’s allowing ourselves to be human. It’s about understanding that it could have been any one of us.
We could have been born anywhere. We are not in control of our ethnicity. But, we are privileged to live in America. Let us never forget that. And privilege confers responsibility.
Alaa’ left Florida a little over a year ago. Since then, a civil war has broken out. Many children were not as lucky as Alaa’; many are dead. Many families have been destroyed. We can attempt to justify our invasion of Iraq, but I think it takes a bigger person to admit being wrong. And, what I think makes our country so great is that we have the ability to dissent. We can stand up for what we think is right.
I have been asked by many skeptics if I think it would have been better with Saddam. They don’t bother to mention that the US supported Saddam right through the worst of his atrocities. And I doubt they complained about the policy of
“support for Saddam” at the time. I’m not an oracle, but I think a fair response is that it would have been better for Alaa’. It would have been better if her home had not been hit by US tank rounds, which took the lives of her two brothers.
Alaa’ is young. Fortunately, she may not remember all that took place on that horrific day. She won’t remember having a tea party with her siblings as her home crumbled, burying her brothers in the rubble. But, she’ll always have the scars. She’ll see pictures to remind her of her two brothers that she never had the opportunity to know. And, ten years from now, my children will see pictures in their history books and only read text that whitewashes our role in the destruction.
How the story is told depends on us, and it needs to be one of truth.
Ashley Severance organized the project to help Alaa. She secured pro bono treatment in Orlando and tended to her daily needs during treatment. This article was originally published by TruthOut.org.