88: From the Mideast to the Midwest

88: From the Mideast to the Midwest

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

From the Mideast to the Midwest

We on this continent should never forget that men first crossed the Atlantic not to find soil for their ploughs but to secure liberty for their souls.

~Robert J. McCracken

My wife and I were both born in the Midwest, and that’s where we live now. But my wife spent her childhood years in the Middle East, where her parents took her to be raised. Shortly after we married, her cousin Zaid came to our town from Baghdad to attend grad school at the University of Missouri. It was halfway into the Iraq War, a time when the situation in his country was growing more desperate by the day. Zaid was eager to settle in and start the process of moving his wife and two young daughters out of Baghdad.

It took several months, but he was finally able to arrange for his family to join him in Missouri. Before coming to the United States, Zaid had experienced a taste of the Western world, and he admired many aspects of life in the West. It’s fair to say that he was extremely grateful for the opportunity to live in the U.S. and study at an American university. His wife Shah’laa, at least in the beginning, didn’t share his enthusiasm for the West. It was apparent from the first time I met her that she came from Iraq harboring some strong negative feelings about America.

Shah’laa’s attitude was something I’d not experienced in any of the Iraqis I’d met before. When I visited the Middle East, everyone treated me warmly. Shah’laa, in contrast, was initially very cold. As I would later come to understand, she had been deeply affected by the events in her country. She arrived in Missouri in a state of shock. She’d been forced to live in conditions no one ever should.

Even before I met Shah’laa and her daughters, I became aware of an incident they’d witnessed en route to the Baghdad airport, their last drive through the city before departing Iraq. At a checkpoint not far from the airport, the car in front of them was stopped. After a brief pause, one of the Iraqi guards at the checkpoint aimed his gun into the car and fired at pointblank range, killing one of the passengers.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like for Shah’laa and her girls in those tense moments, sitting behind the one that had just been fired upon, knowing that they’d soon be forced to pass through the same checkpoint. Fortunately, Shah’laa and her daughters easily cleared the security check. But the cold-blooded murder they’d witnessed was the last image of their country they carried with them onto the plane as they ventured off to America . . . the very nation that, in the minds of some, was responsible for ushering in this chaos.

Knowing what she’d been through, I was especially cautious with Shah’laa at our first meeting. I felt a certain kind of responsibility since I was the first American she and her daughters would officially meet on U.S. soil. I felt that I was representing my country, and I wanted to show this Iraqi woman a different side of America than she’d seen up to that point. Just as Arabs in the Arab world pride themselves on their hospitality, I wanted to show Shah’laa and her girls what Midwestern hospitality and generosity looked like.

As if the trauma at the checkpoint wasn’t enough, it turned out that the suitcases Shah’laa checked at the Baghdad airport were lost in transit, meaning she and her girls arrived with nothing more than a few carry-on items. Zaid had accumulated a few possessions during his months in America, but he lacked most of the things necessary to sustain a household. Luckily for him and his family, I happened to know someone who was skilled at acquiring things quickly and very cheaply.

The day after Zaid’s family arrived in Missouri, a large truck pulled into the driveway of the apartment he’d rented for them. Driven by my brother-in-law, the truck was loaded from stem to stern with furniture, clothing, bedding, towels, pots, pans, plates, utensils, small appliances, decorations, food, toys, and other miscellaneous items. I’d always known that my mom had a knack for finding bargains at yard sales, but on this occasion she outdid herself. When she heard that Zaid’s wife and daughters were coming to the area and that they had next to nothing in terms of possessions, Mom got to work. She became a woman on a mission. Within a very short time, with help from her sisters and a few co-workers, she managed to procure everything a family of four would need to get a household up and running.

I was stunned by the sheer quantity of goods my family delivered to the door that day. Shah’laa stood and watched while my brother-inlaw and I began unloading the truck. Glancing over at her from time to time, I could tell that she was confused, perhaps even a bit troubled by what she saw. We’d already assured her and Zaid that these things we were carrying into the apartment were gifts; there was no expectation of repayment. Even though Mom and her helpers had acquired most of the items at deeply discounted prices, the truckload was still worth several hundred dollars altogether, a sum greater than this newly transplanted Iraqi family could afford to spend at the moment. The value of the merchandise may have been weighing on Shah’laa’s mind, but it seemed there was something else, something more, behind her unease.

At one point, I noticed her place her hand on her husband’s shoulder, stopping him mid-step. Leaning toward him, she proceeded to say something to him in Arabic: an emphatic question, it seemed from her tone. Later, I would find out what her question to him had been.

“Why are they doing this, Zaid? Why are they being so nice? They are Americans!”

It’s been several years since Shah’laa and her daughters moved to the U.S. from war-torn Iraq. Over time, I’ve seen her attitude toward America — and especially toward Americans — change considerably. She’s become close to many of her neighbors, along with others in the community. I believe she’s come to truly appreciate that she landed on U.S. soil, and that she now has so many people here who care about her. It took her uprooting her whole life and moving several thousand miles to come to know the real America, but I believe she finally does. She now understands the true spirit of this country. And I will forever feel proud of my Missouri-born and -bred family for the way they welcomed an Iraqi family to our home in America’s heartland.

~Anthony Clark

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