Tuesday, October 26, 2004


Several years ago when I was living in Asia, I met an Iraqi refugee family. The father was an engineer and had worked in one of Saddam’s chemical weapons plants. He had been accused of being a spy and was tortured by being immersed in an oil-filled vat. He escaped with his family after the first Gulf war and was waiting for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to help transport his family to Europe or the U.S. In the meantime, he and his family were stuck in Asia, isolated from the local population because they could not speak the local language and were not familiar with the local customs. They spoke only Arabic so I communicated with them through a Sudanese refugee who spoke both English and Arabic. The Iraqi man's wife and three sons mainly stayed inside the home because they had no other friends and were scared to go outside.

I felt sorry for them and wanted to do something to cheer them up. So my husband and I took them out to a Moroccan restaurant where they could eat dishes familiar to them, like hummus and couscous. A few weeks later, they returned the favor by cooking a meal for 20 in their small home. We ate like kings. Afterward, the wife told me my fortune by “reading” the grinds left at the bottom of my coffee cup. Although we did not know each other well, the gathering felt easy and comfortable, like a meeting of old acquaintances.

Since the war in Iraq began last year, I have wondered from time to time what happened to them. Did they make it back to Iraq? How do they feel about the U.S. presence in their homeland? If the family and my husband happen to meet in Iraq, will they remember that they once sat at a table together and laughed and talked as friends? Or is there too much water under the bridge now?