By Emily Ardell
The air conditioners dripped onto the dusty concrete as I made my way through the short maze of hallways underneath the tall apartment building to the elevator. Arriving on the 13th floor, I stepped out and was greeted with a big smile from Mais, and a giant bear hug. “Thanks for coming,” she said. “We are so happy you’re here.” It was clear by the look in her large, expressive eyes that she meant it.
I stepped into their small apartment and was greeted by Mais’ family: her husband Belal, their 20- year-old daughter Hanan and their 17-year-old son Eunice. Mais and her family are among the estimated 30,000 refugees now living in Egypt after escaping continuing violence in Iraq. As a result of the assistance her family and thousands of other Iraqi refugees in Cairo have received from CRS and its partner organizations, Mais agreed to meet with me, an American, to share the story of how they became refugees.
I sat down and on the sofa and Mais and her family sat around me on wooden chairs. “So tell me your story,” I said to Mais, somewhat unsure of how to start this conversation. There was a long pause while she looked up at the ceiling and I realized just how absurd my request must have seemed. But to my relief, Mais was not the least bit shy. Once she began telling her story, there was no holding her back.
This extraordinary woman started at the beginning, explaining that she and her husband had worked as professionals in Iraq in the fields of transportation and engineering. Their life there, although complicated at times, was one they loved dearly – one that was rich with family and community.
Their lives changed forever with the start of the war in 2003 as they struggled with insecurity and violence in the Baghdad neighborhood where they lived. However, it wasn’t until 2004 when then 11-year-old Eunice was kidnapped, drugged, beaten, burned and held for ransom that Mais and Belal started to think about leaving Iraq in search of a safer home. The following year, after their daughter was nearly kidnapped, they decided to immediately escape the country and home they loved, probably never to return. Within days they sold their belongings, said their goodbyes, rented a car and drove overland to Cairo. Less than two weeks later their home in Baghdad was destroyed in an explosion.
As we chatted, the fan clicked overhead in its weak attempt to offset the stifling summer heat. Mais explained to me that in many ways Egypt has been this family’s saving grace. “That first night when we arrived and I laid my head down on the pillow, I finally slept in peace.” During the last several years in Egypt their daughter Hanan has completed high school, and the family has been safe from physical harm.
In Cairo they connected with CRS partner St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS), which has provided them with medical care, tuition assistance, and ongoing psychosocial attention care for their son. StARS has worked to meet some of their most critical needs through its tailored approach to assistance. Eunice shows me the burn scars on his hands from his kidnapping and I wonder how a young boy copes with such a devastating experience. “I do not think Eunice would have survived without the counseling he has received for the severe trauma he suffered. Our doctor has saved our lives in many ways and for that we are extremely grateful.”
But despite the relative security they feel in Egypt, it’s clear that the political and economic turmoil here limit this family’s sense of stability. “I’m exhausted,” Mais tells me, with a weary look. “Now we hear shots and protests here on the streets of Cairo, and people are uncertain about the future. It reminds us of the life we had before.” She looks at each of her children, takes a deep breath and continues. “The Egyptians can’t find work, which makes it very hard for us as foreigners. We just cannot compete for the limited opportunities that exist. I want my children to have lives full of opportunity.” As she talks, Hanan’s eyes well up with tears. “She misses Iraq,” Mais explains, “and she’s scared about her future.”
But despite the obvious hurt and the challenges they face, Mais was hopeful above all else. Their family has a petition pending for resettlement abroad, and when I asked them about their goals, they each talked excitedly about the future they are working toward. As a result of their experience with CRS and its local partner organizations, Mais plans to work as a social worker in the future, helping refugees.
“I want to help people in the same situation we are in now. I want to remind them that even though they feel pain today, that life is beautiful, and to take time to look at the sun and the moon and the stars, and to remember that they are lucky to have many more moments ahead to enjoy.”
After another coffee and some more chatting, it was time to go. When I got up to leave they each thanked me for the visit, and when it was time to say goodbye to Mais she looked me in the eye and told me once more how grateful she was for all of the support they’ve received from CRS and its partners.
“Please come back,” she said, “and I’ll make you a special Iraqi lunch to thank you for all of the help you’ve given us. Are you a vegetarian?” I laughed and she gave me another giant bear hug before I walked out the door.
As I traveled back down the elevator and wandered back out to the scorching sun, I smiled to myself. I had nothing to do with the programs that helped Mais and her family, but today, I’m especially proud to be working with the people who did. Despite the limited media attention it receives, this refugee crisis grinds on as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who cannot return home struggle to cope with the past and to create new futures for themselves and their families. Your support helps CRS to be among the few organizations working to help these people regain their dignity, their hope, and their futures.
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