The author with "Sarah," whose name we have changed for her protection. Photo by Samir Amrania
I first met Sarah when she asked to take a picture with me after I spoke to her student group about entrepreneurship in Cleveland. Afterwards, I started a conversation with her and the rest of her friends from Baghdad, who were visiting America on a joint US and Iraqi Embassy-sponsored trip to "develop young Iraqi leaders." They showed me pictures they had taken on their iPhones of dead bodies laying on the streets of Iraq. "You think that's bad?" they said, almost boasting. "That's everyday shit in Iraq."
After that, Sarah and I became Facebook friends. I was only two years older than her and we would chat late into the night. We eventually made plans to hang out before she left Ohio.
On one blue Cleveland afternoon, I took her out to get coffee, playing rap music in the car along the way, which she liked. Upon seeing the cafe, she got visibly excited. "I love coffee shops!" she said. "Except you can't go to them in Baghdad because they get bombed all the time."
Sarah spoke with the maturity and humor of that comes from being raised in a shitty situation. Over coffee, she told me about the death of her uncle ("every Iraqi has at least one person in their family who's been killed"), the kidnapping of her relatives, and of the 28 women on her street who were dragged out of their homes and executed by Islamic extremists.
"It's so weird," she said, talking about the women. "It's like, I'm here in America defending my country and religion, and my religion and country are killing me?" And then she laughed, as if I should laugh with her at the absurdity of it all.
When the Islamic State (ISIS) first crossed the border with Syria into Iraq, the Iraqi army ran from the fight. "You lose your faith in your government after that," Sarah told me. And although Baghdad appears safe for now, an ISIS invasion looms over everyday life. "When [we thought] ISIS was coming," said Sarah, "we had a holiday for one week because the government was expecting them to come to Baghdad. They didn't prepare their army; they just gave us a holiday. And I went out with my brother and we were walking around the area. It was just like Call of Duty. Troops were there and the streets were so empty—I was like, gosh, this is just like a PlayStation game."
In Sarah's world, ISIS was merely an annoyance; nothing that they hadn't seen before. "One of my friends was like, 'I'm just a bit disappointed, because I wanted to watch the World Cup, and we have the month of Ramadan coming up, and exams, and now ISIS is coming. Are you serious?'"
But" Sarah added, "if you were born when there was war, you lived when there was war, you're going to get married and have kids when there's war." Over time, the constant threat of death just becomes "part of the routine."
What surprised me the most was Sarah's lack of anger. When I asked her about extremists in Iraq, for instance, she said she could see where they were coming from. "I don't blame extremists, you know why? Because if your parents were killed and you're dropped out of school—and this happens a lot in Iraq—and you lost faith in everyone… and [extremists] come and tell you, "I know who killed your parents, come with us… and the government doesn't care about you, it makes sense to join them."
"But normal Iraqis aren't extremists," Sarah told me. "They don't think everyone should wear [head coverings]. They want equality, democracy. People coming and forcing you to being an extremist? That's not the Iraqi way."
At one point, I told Sarah about the "Chiraq" nickname some Americans have given Chicago due to the prevalence of gun violence in the city. I spelled the word out for her, and she laughed. "The boys in my group would like that," she said. "They'd be glad the Americans were thinking of the Iraqis."
"But I guess people can move from Chicago, right?" she continued. "I always ask myself: is it better to stay in this war zone and try to solve it even if you die? Or should you just go somewhere else and live a good life? Because you only have one life, so what are you going to do with it? And I still don't know."
That morbid awareness found its way into much of my conversations with Sarah. She used to tell me how much she felt Iraqi and American teenagers were "kind of the same," but that changed over time. "I always imagined America to be a land of dreams and opportunity," she told me, but her tour of this country had changed that impression. "People here seem very depressed."
"What about Iraqis?" I asked.
"One thing I love about Iraqis is that they still have hope," she responded. "And they love life. And even though there are bombings happening all the time… you live while you can. And if you die, you die. And so they go and live a normal, happy life, but with that in mind."
Sarah has since gone back to Baghdad. We still talk online. We "like" each other's pictures on Facebook. She even nominated me for the Ice Bucket Challenge. Sometimes I think about her and hope she's safe. The last time I talked to her, I told her I was moving to New York. "Take me with you," she said. And then she logged off.
Follow Zach Schwartz on Twitter.