The Stories You Lose When Your Refugee Family Splits Itself Up
After her entire family fled Iraq, my grandmother stayed behind because she didn't want to give up on the country she loves.
Illustrations by Denise Vervuren
This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
I've only seen my 78-year-old grandmother, Madlin, once in the past 20 years. She lives thousands of miles away in Baghdad. When I was ten months old, my family fled Iraq, but she refused to leave. She wasn't willing to let anything, not even war, come between her and the country she loves.
I really look up to my grandmother, but I recently realized that apart from a quick hello when my mom hands me the phone, I don't really speak to her enough. So I decided to give her a call to chat about her life and what it must have been like to stay behind by herself in Iraq.
"Of course it was my decision to stay in Baghdad—but, to be honest, I feel very lonely," my grandmother tells me. "I used to love cooking for the whole family and our friends—the door was always open. Now I cook every day without feeling any joy. I still make too much food because I'm used to having a big family, so I just give a lot of food away to the woman who lives upstairs."
Madlin rents out the top floor of her home to a mother and her daughter. Her upstairs neighbor visits every day and helps my grandmother with odd jobs around the house. She's become like a daughter to her. "She has a key," Madlin tells me. "If anything were to happen to me, she's right there."
My grandmother has four kids—three daughters and a son. Her eldest daughter moved to Bahrain after she got married. A few years later, her youngest daughter, my mother, got married but stayed living close by. "That was a really nice time," grandma says. "But shortly afterward, things in Iraq took a turn for the worse."
In 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait. Around five months later, George H.W. Bush took military action against Iraq. The US successfully pushed Hussein out of Kuwait. From that moment on, the US government controlled the Iraqi airspace and implemented a series of economic sanctions on Iraq.
Those sanctions hit the country hard. Prior to that, the quality of life in Iraq was higher than in most Arab countries. But Iraq's prosperity soon started to evaporate year after year, which, combined with the regular bombings and the regime's actions, made many families decide to flee the country. In 1997, when I was 11 months old, my parents decided to leave Iraq and take me and my then three-year-old sister to the Netherlands.
"It was of course painful for me when my daughter left," grandma tells me. "It's hard because you say goodbye to your family without knowing if you'll ever see them again." Even though she found it very difficult, Madlin still had her husband and two of her four children around.
However, things started to change quickly over the next few years. Iraq became less and less safe as war broke out—but Madlin and her husband decided to stay put. "Many people won't understand it, but it's not easy to leave everything, especially memories, behind," grandma explains. "But at the same time, I was thinking more about the immense distance between me and my youngest daughter. I hadn't seen her in years, and I hadn't watched her kids grow up, even though that's supposed to be a beautiful thing for a grandparent. Those were difficult years. We called each other a lot, but you can't compare a call to a hug."
Whenever we speak, my grandmother always sounds tired and often sighs deeply. I can hear in her voice that she's trying not to cry. It does makes me sad, but I know that I have to keep it together because if I cry, so will she. Being a refugee makes you way more mature than you should be from a young age. You grow up fast because of the stories you hear from your family, and the things you see on TV—it keeps you close to the war and makes you feel like you're experiencing every minute of it. It's a lot to handle for a little kid, but, in a way, it makes you stronger. It's taught me a lot about life. I know that one decision can change everything—you can lose everything you've worked for in an instant.
I ask my grandmother what her days are like. "My daily life has changed a lot over the past few years," she tells me. "During the day, I spend a lot of time in my kitchen. I have a big kitchen, with a TV and a bench. Usually, I go to the living room around 9 PM to sleep." She has multiple bedrooms but hardly uses them anymore. "I'm afraid to sleep in a bedroom because the house is big and the bedrooms are in the back of the house. I'm scared someone will break in and nobody will hear me."
This fear started during Hussein's regime. Back then, there were times when people didn't dare leave their houses at all. "We often heard bombs and gunshots; women wouldn't go out without a headscarf," grandma remembers. "People were being driven from their homes. Kidnappings for ransom happened on a regular basis. We spent long periods without electricity. We didn't feel safe in our own home."
In 2005, we decided to have a family reunion in Syria. I was nine at the time and this would be the first time I would see my extended family since we fled to the Netherlands. I've often tried to describe the feeling I had when my grandmother stood in front of me. Though I was young, I remember it very well. I recall walking from the plane to the arrivals hall, and through a window, we saw all of them standing there. Looking at my family felt strange—I knew the faces in front of me only from pictures, Skype, and my parents' stories. Now they were right there.
What I remember most of all is the way my parents reacted. I don't think I've ever seen anyone cry as much or as intensely. Being able to hug my grandparents, aunts, uncles, nephews, and nieces was so special. It's weird because you feel like you know them, but you've never actually met them before. Soon after we met, it was like we'd never been apart.
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I'm curious to hear how my grandmother remembers that trip to Syria. When I ask her, she starts laughing. "It was amazing," she says. "Everything finally felt like the way it was supposed to be. We planned lots of day trips and family dinners. I enjoyed each day so much. It was like we caught up on eight years in just a few weeks. It was hard to say goodbye. But I was grateful to God for the opportunity."
After that unforgettable trip, everyone went back to their respective countries. Then, 17 days later, my grandfather died. We all knew he was getting weaker, but the loss was unexpected, especially for my grandma. "It was so hard to accept that it had happened," she says. "I didn't want to admit it. I felt very empty during that time. I kept thinking he would come back."
A few years later, her middle daughter left for America. Madlin suddenly lost a daughter she used to see every day. Five years after that, her son, my uncle, also decided to take his family to the US.
Madlin was destroyed. "All four of my kids had left me," grandma says. "We always had a big, tight-knit family, and then suddenly, I was all alone." She had been a strong woman for many years, but Madlin started feeling weaker.
Though Iraq was still unsafe, she decided to stay in Baghdad. "Friends and family members always ask me why I didn't go to Europe or the US, but I can't do it," she tells me. "My house is full of beautiful memories and I don't want to leave it behind." She still believes it's up to her kids and their families to return to her.
Whenever my mom calls, my grandmother tells her that she wants us to come back. She doesn't realize how hard it would be to leave behind everything we've built here. My sister and I were born in Iraq, but grew up here. Of course, the other way around would be hard, too—my grandmother would find it very hard to start all over in the Netherlands.
Madlin still feels lonely, but she's finding new ways to cope. She calls her kids and grandchildren a lot. "Luckily, we have FaceTime and WhatsApp," says Madlin. "It's not the same, but it helps get me through it all." She tells me that she would love to visit the Netherlands if she can. "I haven’t seen you in over 13 years," she says. "But unfortunately, visiting isn't easy. The trip would be hard for me as I'm not as fit as I used to be. I get tired quickly and don't feel like traveling by myself. Still, I hope to make the trip some time in the next few years because the older I get, the more I realize that I have to see you all soon. More than anything, I want the whole family to be together again. That's my biggest wish."
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This article originally appeared on VICE NL.