Four Million Refugees From a Liberation

Of all the 95% of humans who live outside the United States, or any of those within it for that matter, who do you think is most invisible? Whose existence, did we come to hear about it, would be the most incomprehensible and therefore inaudible?

I have a nominee: the 4.8 million Iraqis made homeless by the liberation, the people liberated from their homes, millions of them liberated into exile from their country, afraid to return and with little to return to.

These people are not the most exotic or different. They just fit so poorly into U.S. news narratives that, despite having heard or read about them several times, you probably have no real idea that they exist at all.

In 2009, a group called Intersections International took eight artists to Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria to meet Iraqi refugees. One of the artists, Kim Schultz, has produced a one-woman play about the experience called “No Place Like Home: This Isn’t Supposed to Be a Love Story.”

I’m not revealing much when I tell you that it is indeed a love story, in at least a couple of senses. And there is nothing like a love story to humanize and personalize the abstract or the foreign. This short play packs in so much that we even learn basic Arabic through the dialogue (monologue). There is nothing like shared language to make people real.

I’d seen Schultz perform part of the play before I read the whole thing, and I highly recommend seeing it. It reads very well, but nothing like seeing it performed. The play opens with these words:

“Omar was his name.

“Is I guess. Is his name. He’s not dead. I hope he’s not. (beat) And I loved him — in probably the most improbable of all probabilities: He was… is an Iraqi refugee — one of the 4 million Iraqi refugees living without a home. And I am an American — one of the 300 million, more or less responsible for that. Yup. I fell in love with an Iraqi refugee.

“Now there’s a story.”

There are a lot of stories in the play, all part of one massive story we’ve only heard one side of. And that was a side that didn’t exist. There are stories of what came before:

“Do you know, I heard one story of a couple who woke up one night to a horrendously loud noise in their home in Baghdad? They opened their eyes to find a rocket in their bed. A rocket. It hadn’t detonated but had crashed in through their walls and glided right onto the bed, pausing right between them. Both of them fine. A rocket. What can you do.”

And there are stories of now:

“I tell lie to my children. I pretend to be on the phone with their father sometimes. I have imaginary conversations with nobody on the other side, so they do not worry … and so they will behave! Since he left, my children, they do not listen to me. It make them behave better if they think their father will be mad! So I pretend. I pretend to talk to their father. I am afraid to tell them the truth, to tell them … to no longer wait, that he is not coming home.”

And there are stories of resolution that resolves nothing:

“During invasion, my brothers were both killed. One brother was in his house making dinner when the US bombed it. Accident, they say. My other brother was shot in the head in the street by American Army. Also accident, they say. U.S. sent apology letter for bombed house, not for brother shot in street. You wish to see the letter?”

And there’s love as well. There is love in the personal drama of the play. There is love in the entire project, the Iraqi Voices Amplification Project. What kind of love? Something along these lines, I think:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies. . . . If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

And how do you love the people who are not yet your own people? Maybe by asking the right questions.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

That is not quite the right question. And the answer is not “The one who had mercy on him.”

The right question is, while observing acts of mercy among the victimized, what should one do upon discovering oneself to have been one of the robbers?

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