Yasmin  ·  Iraq

Finding and Helping Others through The Collateral Repair Project

Edited by Heather Oman
Interview by Darien Laird
Artwork by Elizabeth Thayer

My name is Yasmin. I am from Iraq.

I started becoming aware of problems in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq. Some of my first memories that I have are of tanks throughout the streets, the bodies, the corpses, everything. I thought it was going to get better, but by 2006, it didn’t. People started just killing each other. You would normally see blood on the street, especially in Basra. There, it was even worse than in Baghdad or any other place because there was no media coverage, and there was no help. I was maybe only eight or nine years old, but still saw much that was dramatic and traumatic—the type of trauma that causes more trauma. I couldn’t forget it. Seeing dead people and seeing war and seeing bombs are not something that anyone would forget. Death was a friend of mine for a long, long time.

Yet, this became my normal life. It was normal for my house to shake from an explosion, to hear about it on the news. The most dangerous situation people would generally fear was my normal. I was hoping for things to get better, but then ISIS came.

I’ll never forget the day I was walking home, and I saw these large buses. I was about 16 then, so I was more aware of things going on. I asked my mom what the buses were for, and she was like, oh, for collecting the young men who want to fight against ISIS. But instead, ISIS mowed them all out of existence, and there are names that we still can’t find. Thousands of young men ended up dead overnight. This became known as Speicher1.

We left Basra and went to Baghdad. We thought it would be better there, that we would have some freedom. But we are not Muslim, and yet we were forced to wear the hijab and the abaya and do religious things. If we did not do them, we would be killed. Or something worse.

In Baghdad, my father was working as a goldsmith and my mother was working for a human rights group. We wanted our rights to use a cemetery for Mandaeans,2 which is our religion. Our prophet, our leader, is John the Baptist. We have been burying our people in this cemetery for years and years. But the militia refused to allow it. They came for our father at his shop, threatening him with guns if we did not stop with our case. They forced him to sell his house. We tried to go to our grandmother’s house, or to my aunt’s house, someplace where they would forget about us. But they never forgot about us. Somebody targeted my brother, running him down with a car and breaking his arm. So we decided to leave and go to Jordan.

It is difficult to be a refugee because it’s not easy for anybody to leave their home.

And when you are a refugee, you never know what to expect. It is the fear of the unknown that keeps you from moving forward. I thought we would be traveling for only two years. And yet we’ve been here now for over seven years. I did not expect that.

We are asylum seekers. We are waiting to be granted refugee status. When we get refugee status, then we will be eligible for resettlement. In the meantime, we just wait. It is hard. You think that it will just be a moment of being displaced. But it’s not a moment. It can be a lifetime

Being a refugee is not a trend. In 2003-2006, it was the Iraq trend. In 2011 it was a Syrian trend. In 2021 it was Afghanistan, now it’s Ukraine. But it’s not a trend. It’s a humanitarian crisis.

And these places, they won’t get back to normal. You won’t wake up tomorrow and Syria will be fixed. It’s damaged. And some damages can’t be fixed.

But my life has taught me to be tough, and to never give up.

My family is really interested in education. My father said I will not be like other refugees. He said, “You would not dare stay in the house, sitting in front of my face. You will go to school, and you will get your education.” My mother and my aunts know that a woman’s education is her weapon in this world. So I finished high school in Jordan, and I got involved in the Collateral Repair Project. I heard about it from my brother, and I went there to practice my English.

The Collateral Repair Project offers opportunities for everybody, but especially for refugees, if you want to learn a new skill, or learn English, or have your kids learn something. It’s a fun and useful learning experience for everybody. I started out just going to the TOEFL classes and being a participant, but then I started working with the TOEFL coordinator and we started a conversational book club where we could discuss things and practice our English, and she was impressed with me and my brother’s skills. She asked me to volunteer, and then asked me to be her intern. I learned so much and was very active as a volunteer. And then finally she suggested that I should apply for her position, since she was leaving. So I became the TOEFL coordinator. I was only 19! I didn’t know what to do, and I was like, I need help! But I figured it out. And eventually, I realized that teaching English maybe wasn’t the best use of my skills, and that I really love management. So now I am in an admin position.

I have had many mentors along the way. I now try my best to take what I have learned and help others, maybe recommend them to my managers or help them find a position. I would try to help somebody to be a reference for them.

Some days I have hope and some days I do not. I would say hope and despair are two faces of the same coin. I feel hope to the max sometimes and I'm so desperate sometimes.

This is my mental struggle, if I could share it. This is the image in my mind. Do I feel hope? Or am I just feeling this despair? Are they really the same? It’s a struggle. Do you really have hope? Or are you lying to yourself? Are you really desperate? Or are you lying to yourself? You have to figure this out.

What does it mean to be welcomed? Welcome is like when people see you and they want you to be part of their group as you, not as your role that you can apply, not because of the thing you’re going to fill out, not because they want to pretend, it’s because they really want you. They appreciate you for who you are and they forgive you for no matter what your mistakes are. Welcome is also not when you just start at the beginning of my journey. Welcome is a continuing period. You always feel welcomed. You’ll always be here as long as those people want you for who you are.

1 Camp Speicher is an Iraqi Air Force base also known as Tikrit Air Academy. The Camp Speicher Massacre occurred on June 12, 2014 when ISIL forces took control of the camp and executed between 1,500 and 1,700 Iraqi cadets. Those targeted were Shia Muslims and non-Muslims. Most of the bodies have been found in mass graves around Speicher, while others were thrown into the Tigris River.
2 Mandaeism is a monotheistic religion with strong dualistic tendencies (light vs. dark, good vs. evil), practiced by people who live mainly in the southern region of Iraq along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The geographical origins of the religion is unknown. John the Baptist plays a central role as a kind of prophet. The religion shares similar sacred origin stories of many Abrahamic faiths, but has a different perspective of Adam, venerates Adam’s son, Seth (among others) and views themselves as the original faith of all mankind.
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Our team members obtain informed consent from each individual before an interview takes place. Individuals dictate where their stories may be shared and what personal information they wish to keep private. In situations where the individual is at risk and/or wishes to remain anonymous, alias names are used and other identifying information is removed from interviews immediately after they are received by TSOS. We have also committed not to use refugee images or stories for fundraising purposes without explicit permission. Our top priority is to protect and honor the wishes of our interview subjects.

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