Travel

The Shared Experiences of Teenage Girls in Iraq and Chicago

In an effort to find out how life in Chicago and Iraq might be similar beyond bullets and blood, I talked with two teenage girls who hail from those locales about everything from crushing on boys to religion and music.

by Rula Al-Nasrawi
Dec 2 2014, 9:40pm


​Art by Matt French

"Chiraq" has entered the popular lexicon as the new nickname for the Windy City. It's become so ubiquitous that some activist​s and artists have started speaking out against the term, claiming it portrays Chicago in a bad light. They blame the nickname's prevalence on everything from the drill rap made by artists like Chief Keef, to that docum​entary that our sister site Noisey made earlier this year. But the reason the name has stuck is because parts of the Midwestern city and the Middle Eastern country have both been home to a staggering amount of violence and suffering in recent years.

Iraq has long been seen as an unstable, volatile nation. The brutal Saddam Hussein regime ruled the country from the late 70s up until the 2000s, when the US invaded, overthrowing Hussein but destabilizing the nation in the process. Currently, Iraq is dealing with the Islamic State, an incompetent national army, and sectarian conflicts that have made governing the country seem impossible at times. According to the Iraq Body Count Project, ​more than 1,400 civilians met violent deaths in Iraq in November.

Chicago's murder rate peaked in 1992 wi​th 943 violent deaths. Though that number has fallen in the past few years, the third ​most populous city in the United States led the country with ​500 murders in 2012 according to the FBI. Although there are cities in the US with a higher per capita murder rate, Chicago's murder rate outpaced Baghdad's in 2012 with 18.5 murders per 100,000 compared with Baghdad's 15.79. (And that's leaving aside the city's reputation for ​corruption and police brutality.) 

The critics who've come out against the term Chiraq are mostly right: Although the nickname highlights the violence we all should be aware of, it's not fair to the real people behind the staggering statistics and menacing headlines. Even in the gang-ravaged streets of Chicago or the war-torn towns of Iraq, there are still people living their lives there with laughter, love, and excitement for the future.

In an effort to find out how life in Chicago and Iraq might be similar beyond bullets and blood, I reached out to two teenage girls, Chicagoan Lalah Smith and Iraqi Ameem Nasier. Lalah lives in the West Side of Chicago. Ameem lives in Babylon, a town about 55 miles away from Baghdad. I spoke with them about everything from crushing on boys to religion and music. Here's what they had to say.

HOME

Ameem Nasier: I'm from Babylon, but we call it "Hillah," which is the name of the town's center. It's not a big city. Baghdad, however, is a big city and I love it. I visit it sometimes to see my uncle and my grandma. But I haven't been in awhile because it's not safe there. It's not all that safe in Babylon, either—but it's home.

Lalah Smith: Chicago is a good city. It's the people who can make it look bad because of their actions. The killings, the shootings, the fighting, the robberies... It happens every week where I live. But I love Chicago. I especially love downtown, because it is so pretty. You have people walking around. There's a lot of stores. And there's the Willis Tower—you can actually go in there! There's so many things you can see and discover in Chicago.

FAMILY

Ameem Nasier: I have two sisters and one little brother. I'm the oldest. The second one is 16 years old, the other is 13, and my brother is six years old. I'm close to all of them. We're like best friends and we always hangout together. I also have a cat. Her name is Simsima and she's got little kittens.

Lalah Smith: My dad works at a school. My mom does community service, answering phones and stuff. I live with my mom. My siblings live all over. My brother is like 25 or 26 and lives in New York City. My second oldest sister is about to be 30 and lives in Minnesota. And my oldest sister lives right here in Chicago. For the holidays, sometimes we go to my grandparents house out in Las Vegas. Last time I went was about three or four years ago. My grandmother's the type of person who doesn't like to cook. She always takes us to Arby's. I got sick of that the last time we visited. And I'm gonna tell her that the next time I see her.

RELIGION

Ameem Nasier: We are Muslims—most of the families in Babylon are. Babylon is mostly Shia, but there are a lot of Sunnis, too. But my family doesn't care about that. It's not important to be Shia or Sunni, because we are all Muslims. ISIS are not Muslims, they are just using the name of Islam, because they are killing both Shia and Sunni. It's not strict like that in Babylon. We don't have to pray at school. We can do it when we're at home. But everybody likes to celebrate Eid. Especially with the whole family. We don't have gifts, we have "eideya," which is money. When we get it, we can go and buy whatever we want.

Lalah Smith: I am not religious. But God knows my heart. My favorite holiday is Christmas. The best gift I ever got was a Hello Kitty comforter. I love Hello Kitty, I'm obsessed with it.

SCHOOL

Ameem Nasier: Girls and boys have their own schools. There's only like one school in Iraq that I know where the girls and boys can go together. At school, we study mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, English, Arabic, and Islam. All of the schools teach English. My favorite subjects are English and biology. We wear the same uniform Americans wear for special schools. It's a white shirt and a black skirt. I actually like wearing it. We have no school on Fridays. Some of my friends drive to school. I learned how to drive, but my parents won't let me drive alone until I'm 18. If I get good grades, my parents might buy me a car as a reward. Right now, we have our own driver who takes us to and from school. I'm excited because I'm finally a senior and this is my last year.

Lalah Smith: I go to an OK high school. I'm getting close to my senior year. I like high school more than middle school, because at least we have more freedom and we can be on our phones and stuff. My favorite class is child development. I'm watching the baby for that class this week. It's a little irritating, because it cries all the time. It either wants to be fed or needs a diaper change. The whole thing makes me not want to have kids.

My least favorite classes are math and geometry. My least favorite teacher is old and irritating. Nobody gets along with her in class. And she doesn't do her hair in the morning and her breath stinks. We only had one substitute in her class. But I didn't like the sub either, and I got kicked out. The worst thing I've ever done in school is get suspended, because of a little altercation. It's a long story. But I'm not going to tell it because I don't want to be a part of any gossip. I hate that... I get to school on the bus, so all I want for my birthday is a new car. I always wanted a Dodge Charger, that's my dream car.

MUSIC

Ameem Nasier: I like Eminem, One Direction, Ed Sheeran, and so many others. There are Iraqi songs I like, too. There is Kadim Al Sahir, he is really popular. There are a lot of old singers I like as well. There are some concerts in Erbil and Baghdad. But here in Hillah, there are no concerts. I've never really been to a concert before. I sort of went to one here in Babylon, but it wasn't a real concert. It was more like a small party for one of the newest singers. I really want to go to one of the huge concerts with One Direction or Kadim Al Sahir.

Lalah Smith: I don't have many CDs. I've got Keyshia Cole's, Kelly Price's, and Chris Brown's—I think that's it. But I listen to a lot of music. I like R&B. I like hip-hop. I like loud music. My favorite artist is August Alsina. I've never been to a concert, but I always wanted to go to one.

FOOD

Ameem Nasier: My favorite snacks are chips, chocolate, and cupcakes. We buy things like those from a small shop at school. At school, sometimes I take a sandwich with me that I made at home. My favorite foods at home are finger chips, grilled chicken, grilled or fried fish, dolmas, and biryani.

Lalah Smith: My favorite snacks are Oreos. And probably ice cream. All I eat is Oreo ice cream and mint ice cream. I also love Hello Kitty candy. I don't eat the lunch they serve at school, it's disgusting. I bring peanut butter and jelly and small little oranges. My favorite home-cooked meal is chili—my mom's chili.

AFTER SCHOOL

Ameem Nasier: I like to skate. Or sometimes I go out with family. I also love to read. My favorite books are The Fault in Our Stars, The Ocean at the End of Lane, and some other Arabic novels by Ahlam Mosteghanemi. I also like to go on to my Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and connect with friends or text them over the phone.

Lalah Smith: At first I did not like Twitter. I was all against it because I thought Facebook was better. But then I made one and I got addicted. So I stopped going on Facebook, but I'm on Twitter every single day.

I used to be on a step team, but I had to quit because my grades were kind of going down and I didn't have time. I actually like to go shopping or to the movies. I don't really watch TV because I always have homework to do. But my favorite show is Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta. I actually just got done watching a scary movie with my sister called Annabelle. That will be the first and the last time I watch a scary movie. I will never ever watch a scary movie again.

BOYS AND FRIENDS

Ameem Nasier: One of my friends has a boyfriend. But it's a secret because of course her parents will be angry if they find out. On the weekend me and my friends can't hangout together. But the boys are allowed to get together on the weekends.

Lalah Smith: I heard that Erica Mena and Bow Wow are engaged, which makes me happy. He used to be my crush when I was little. But August Alsina is my number one, and Kevin Gates is my number two. He's so cute, oh my God. I don't like boys from my high school. Some of them are cute but their personalities are ugly. I wouldn't date none of them.

I had a best friend but we stopped talking because I moved away. When I came back, I found out she had moved too. Then I found out she got herself another best friend. She was the only best friend I ever had.

I used to go to parties when I was younger but then I stopped, because sometimes people fight at parties and I just didn't wanna get involved with that. The worst party I've ever been to was in a basement full of people. We got kicked out because the music was too loud and we were disturbing the neighbors.

EMBARRASSING MOMENTS

Ameem Nasier: A couple of days ago, I thought I heard my friend talking about the books I gave her. I thought she was saying my books are not good. So I confronted her about why she would say things like that. But she was talking about other books. [Laughs]

Lalah Smith: One time, when I was in the first grade, I got in trouble at school. They called my mom. So she took me in the bathroom and whooped me. And everybody at school heard me screaming.

Then there was the time I started my period—I was in the third grade. I went to the bathroom and I was like, What the hell is this? I went back to the classroom and I waited until the end of the day. My mom came and picked me up and I was like, "Mommy! I'm bleeding!" And she was like, "What are you talkin' about?" So I wiped myself with a tissue and I was like, "Look!" And then she was like, "Oh my God!" She took me to my auntie's house cause it was literally right down the street. I still remember that. My auntie was like, "You know what this means? You're a grown woman."

STYLE

Ameem Nasier: I love shopping, of course. My style is casual, like a bloomer or jeans and a T-shirt and jacket. I like to wear sweaters, too. I don't wear a hijab.I like decorating, because my room is my world. The bed, cupboard, and all the other stuff are pink. They all go together. There are a lot of pictures and two dreamcatchers on the wall. I have a lot of cute things.

Lalah Smith: I'm the type of girl who will pick out some pants first, then I will change my shirt, then my shoes. Because, I like to match... No, I have to match. I cannot go anywhere without matching. Blue is my favorite color—navy blue. We have to wear uniforms at school now. And people dress almost the same, nothing is different.

I love to decorate my room. I've got black dressers and I have a queen-sized bed. Half of my dresser is covered with all of my perfume bottles. And my bed has my favorite Hello Kitty cover and I have my mom's big teddy bear that she bought me for Valentine's Day.

SCARY EXPERIENCES

Ameem Nasier: About four years ago, I experienced an explosion. I was going home with my driver and a car blew up. It was too scary. But things like that usually happen here. Like while we are in class, we can hear the sound of explosions. When we first hear it, we all get scared. Then the teacher says, "It's OK, it's just an explosion, let's continue." Like it's not something strange or new.

In 2003, the bombarding stopped, and then I remember it was safe in Babylon. But in Baghdad it wasn't. In 2008, there were a lot of gangs. After that, it was safe for like six months. Then there was a month of explosions. And then six months of safety... It's random. But now the danger is ISIS. They are in the north of Babylon, and that's not good. My neighborhood is a safe place, but because I don't wear hijab, the people look at me as a bad girl. Because there is a mosque and most of our neighborhood is very religious.

Lalah Smith: One of my friends got shot. But that's not even the scariest thing. Have you ever seen The Purge movie? The movie's about criminals going to other people's houses and killing them. They have masks on and stuff. Some people out here in Chicago actually do that!

When my friend got shot, he was outside, standing on the corner with another guy. Some people drove by and they shot him. The other guy with him didn't get shot. He had a car come pick him up, like right away. My friend was there on the corner, dead. It happened last month. He was like 18 or 19. He would have been a senior this year.

THE FUTURE

Ameem Nasier: I've visited Lebanon, Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore, Jordan, Ukraine, and the United States. Next, I really want to visit Greece. I plan on going to college. And maybe I'll work in a shop or mall in the holidays while I study. Not because I need the money, but it's better than sitting at home, doing nothing. In terms of the future, I don't know. I haven't planned for that yet. I would like to be an architect or pharmacist. But my family wants me to be a doctor!

Lalah Smith: I've been to Las Vegas, I've been to Texas, and I've been to Minnesota. I want to travel to either Atlanta, Paris, or somewhere that is an island.

If I won the lottery I would go to Las Vegas and I would spend it all on a house with five bedrooms, three full bathrooms, and a three car garage. Then I'd put $80,000 in each of my kids' bank accounts. I would then buy my two favorite cars, and then save up the rest... And then go shopping!

Right now I'm in the process [of looking for work], but I'm still in school. I was gonna work at either a grocery store or the mall, but for some stores you have to be 18 or 16. Well actually, some people have permits you can get. And that's what I'm gonna do.

I'll probably go to college. But I don't even know if I really even want to go to college. I want to be an FBI agent because of Criminal Minds. And I actually wanna leave Chicago one day and explore new things.

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