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Asla (left) and Mariam Al-Khafaji came to America from Iraq nearly 10 years ago. (All images courtesy of the Al-Khafaji family; photoshop by The Free Press)

What Two Iraqi Teenagers Taught Me About America

To Mariam and Asla, America was both beautiful and pockmarked. But they believed in it, because here they became the people they were meant to be.

The reason Mariam and Asla Al-Khafaji were in America was America.

They were born in Baghdad a few years before the United States invaded their country, in 2003. Their father, a mechanic, repaired bulldozers, trucks, and power generators in the Green Zone. 

When they remember being children, they remember bombs exploding, the clatter of gunfire, the IED that blew up at school and almost killed them. 

And then, in 2014, the ISIS death squads sweeping across Iraq, taking Mosul, encircling Baghdad. 

That was when they knew they had to get out. Their father had worked for the Americans, and he was a wanted man.

The Americans put them on a Royal Jordanian flight to Amman, in neighboring Jordan. Then on to New York. Then Philadelphia. And finally, Erie, Pennsylvania—one of several resettlement hubs across the United States, existing mostly because of the city’s old Catholic community: the Church, with a local resettlement agency, provided an infrastructure for helping refugees, connecting them with jobs and schools. 

In Erie, the Al-Khafaji clan, along with thousands of refugees who had streamed into the area over the decades from Eritrea, Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Iraq, and more recently, Ukraine and Russia, did what countless newcomers did before them: they started to learn English, they met their neighbors, they joined churches and mosques, their children befriended other kids at school and picked up the lingo. They became American. 

The Al-Khafaji girls should have hated Erie. Like so many Rust Belt towns, it was littered with empty factories, and it snowed a lot. (Erie easily won the National Golden Snow Globe Contest, for snowiest big cities in America, in 2018, with almost 200 inches that year.) 

But they didn’t.

They were whip-smart and buoyant, and they enrolled at East High, and even though the school was beat up and overrun with poor kids from rough neighborhoods, there was still opportunity.

Mariam, as a high school senior, took free dual-enrollment classes at Gannon University, where I’m a history professor. (I met her when she took my genocide studies class.) Asla interned at an insurance company and the governor’s office. They got up early. They were always on time. They got it. This was how you moved up in the world, and it was hard, but it could be done.

When Mariam first applied to Gannon for college she was rejected, because they didn’t think her English was good enough. I was gobsmacked; she was such a great student. (She had made it through Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—and understood it!) I appealed to the dean of admissions, and they changed the way they review refugee kids’ standardized test scores, and she got in. 

The Al-Khafaji sisters growing up in Iraq.

At first, like everything, Gannon was a struggle for her. In biology, in lab, white students didn’t want to partner with the girl with the hijab. Mariam remembered going to the restroom many times to duck into a stall and cry.

Life beyond campus could be cruel: the unwanted stares at the gas station and grocery store; the ignorance of or indifference to where her family came from.  

But there were so many other Americans they met who were not like that. The teacher who gave Mariam a hug on her last day of class. The people at First Presbyterian Church who invited them to their Wednesday night dinners. 

And the professor and students who showed up to their apartment in a battered building the evening before Thanksgiving 2014 with a gift basket. The building scared them. It was in an old, redlined part of the city, and the neighbors were loud, and the cops were always there. 

To Mariam and Asla, it was all America, the beautiful and the pockmarked.

They acclimated to school. They made more friends. 

Asla, who is a year younger than Mariam, and a head taller and more vivacious, got a job answering phones at the Erie Art Museum. Mariam studied to become a respiratory therapist, and when the pandemic arrived, she was assigned to the Covid ward at UPMC Hamot, one of the biggest, busiest hospitals in the region. That year was like a war all over again, but this time she was able to do something. She wasn’t a helpless little girl. She was the person who held the hands of the people on the ventilators, the people who couldn’t be with their spouses or children or parents or priests. She was—more times than she could count—the warm, soothing voice late at night, the last voice they heard, the last face they saw.

Right before the 2016 election, it got ugly for the Al-Khafaji girls, like other refugees in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Mariam remembered one day in particular. She was a freshman at Gannon. She was walking near the federal courthouse, close to campus.

She was shuttling between classes, and she was in her hijab, and suddenly, an older man—he was white and grizzled; he looked like one of the homeless veterans who drift in and out of the shelters downtown—barked at her: “You should go home!” 

Finally, she managed, “You should go back to your country!” 

She didn’t tell her parents. It would have only upset them. It didn’t matter anyway. He was a sad, lonely speck of a man, and she had her parents, sister, brothers, and her faith. Most of all, she had the future. America had given her that.

That was the nub of it. The future. Mariam, like her sister Asla, believed in America not because it was perfect—it was far from that—but because here they could become the people they were meant to be. They felt they had a duty to love America the way America loved them.

Mariam was assigned to the Covid ward at UPMC Hamot, one of the biggest, busiest hospitals in the Erie, Pennsylvania, region.

They thought of America as this wondrous, unfinished project, and even now, nine years after arriving here, they couldn’t quite believe they were part of that.

Their America, the America they imagined, reminded me of the America in Richard Rorty’s classic 1998 essay Achieving Our Country.

Rorty was a committed leftist, and he recognized America’s past sins and current ills: the oppression of black people and Native Americans, the xenophobia, the wars that should never have happened, the economic disparities, the tribalization, the loss of community.

But he also grasped that the way forward had been baked into the American idea itself. It was our founding ideals, our egalitarianism—which we had been striving toward from the start. To him, national pride was not jingoistic but akin to individual self-esteem. Without it, self-improvement, or national improvement, was impossible. It was not that complicated. You take what is healthy and good, like the Constitution, the abolitionists, the great American literary and philosophical traditions, our universities, our innovation, our creativity, our energy, and you build on that. You excise what is tainted and corrupt, you don’t succumb to the “fashionable hopelessness” that, Rorty warned, had gripped elite, cynical, progressive circles, and you do what the Al-Khafaji sisters did every day: you move on. 

That was called loving America, and every serious liberal, everyone who claimed to care so deeply about the great American project and railed endlessly against it, had a moral obligation to do so, to commit themselves to making America more American.

On July Fourth, the Al-Khafajis will celebrate their arrival in this country, and they’ll remember the long, tortuous road to this place, and the long road ahead, and they’ll do what they always do on the Fourth. They’ll pile into the family’s Honda Odyssey and drive up to Buffalo, which, like Erie, has a large community of refugees and immigrants from all over the world. There’s a Yemeni restaurant there that they like. It serves, according to the sisters, a solid lamb and rice dish. 

Then, they’ll head on to Niagara Falls, a half hour away, and watch the fireworks over the falls. They’ll take pictures with their phones, and enjoy the lovely nighttime breeze, and then they’ll climb back in the car and drive home.

Read Jeff Bloodworth’s essay “My Best Friend Died from Loneliness” here. And follow him on Twitter @jhueybloodworth.

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