Bara Alkafil ’16 was only 5 when a relief organization flew her family out of the Middle East and to America, but she has a few clear, strong memories of that time.
She remembers the sky. Having fled Saddam Hussein’s reign in Iraq, her family was eventually housed in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia along the Iraqi border. The mud building had thin metal roofs over the bedrooms, but what served as a common room was open to the sky. Alkafil sometimes slept there and recalls too many stars to remember which ones she had already counted.
“I was old enough to remember certain things. I would remember some of the good moments,” says Alkafil, now a Dearborn, Michigan, resident. “The sky was unbelievable.”
But the good moments were few. “There was nothing else that was beautiful about living as a refugee,” she said.
Her family’s journey from being a target of the government because they were Shi’ite Muslims in Hussein’s Iraq to Southern New Hampshire University and the completion of her online degree in criminal justice almost defies logic. But her journey isn’t over. Right now, even she doesn’t know where it ends.
By Alkafil’s estimation, families like hers were at war with Hussein and the brutal dictatorship he imposed on the country for three decades by the time she was born in 1989. Anger at Hussein helped fuel an uprising against his government in the northern and southern regions of the country, according to a policy brief issued by the Migration Policy Institute in 2003. In March 1991, Saddam appointed his cousin, Ali Hasan Majid — who was already reviled for his use of chemical weapons against Kurdish citizens — in charge of the government’s response n the Shia-dominated south of Iraq.
“The revenge was characteristically brutal with public executions, bombarding of city centers, and wholesale destruction of homes and mosques,” according to the policy brief. Some estimates put the number of southern Iraqis killed from March to September 1991 at 200,000, according to the brief.
Alkafil’s family lived in Basra in the country’s southeast region and ended up on what she described as a government-maintained kill list. When an uncle was killed, the rest of the family fled with tens of thousands of other citizens. The rebellions were crushed. Somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 Shi’ites escaped to Iran. Another 37,000 were displaced to Saudi Arabia.
Alkafil was 2 years old in 1991 when her family made its way on foot to neighboring Saudi Arabia. Alkafil doesn’t remember the trip, but her mother and others told stories later — how city residents spat and cursed at the refugees and threw their shoes at them, a sign of great disrespect in many Middle Eastern cultures. “It was just complete hate,” Alkafil said.
Eventually it was decided the refugees, thousands of them, would be housed in Rafha, an encampment in the desert along the border of the two countries where they spent the next four and a half years. A collection of mud houses were erected and, in time, neighborhoods of sorts formed. The Red Cross brought food and water, but conditions were still horrible, Alkafil said. There wasn’t enough to eat. She remembers her mother picking lice out of her hair and then killing them with kerosene. “It was just a desert. Nobody lived there,” she said. “It’s not a life anyone wanted to live.”
American workers began to come to the camp. It was then the young Alkafil began hearing about America. Compared to her life up until then, it quite literally sounded like heaven, enough that when a Baltimore-based relief organization, World Relief, arranged for the Alkafil family to immigrate to the United States, Alkafil thought she was escaping hell. “I was like, ‘I’m getting out of hell and getting into heaven,’” she said. The family flew into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on June 20, 1995.
It’s difficult to overstate how much life improved for Alkafil and her family after leaving the Saudi desert. As she put it, that was when they were able to begin dreaming of something more than the next good meal, to plan for something other than basic survival.
“I was living in fear, like we were going to die,” Alkafil said. “Now we start dreaming. We start going to school. We start living like human beings.”
There were still many challenges. Alkafil wasn’t used to even basic aspects of life in Western civilization, especially indoor plumbing. The language, of course, was foreign as well. Her mother and sister were stared at and questioned for wearing hijabs in the Southern heat. It sometimes felt like a third rejection, Alkafil said. Her family had fled for their lives in Iraq, clawed their way to a basic level of survival in the Saudi refugee camp and felt adrift in a foreign land in America.
“We struggled because it was just a different kind of lifestyle. It was a good one, but it was so hard,” she said. “Sometimes we felt like there was never a place for us. When I get emotional, it’s because it’s so hard living in a world where you feel like you don’t belong because you’re different.”
Somewhere along the way, Alkafil’s father, Jafer Alkafil, learned about Dearborn, which has the highest concentration of Arab-Americans in the country and the largest mosque in the United States. About one-third of the city’s roughly 95,000 residents are Arab, Muslim or both.
“The city is just amazing, honestly,” Alkafil said. “It’s exactly who we are. We are Arab-Americans and this was the perfect place to grow up.”
Where once Alkafil’s life consisted of no more than surviving the day, she now is able to create goals — and with her SNHU degree in criminal justice, she can begin making them a reality. Alkafil has a drive to help people, particularly those who have been displaced as she was.
Watching the current refugee crisis in Syria and Europe is difficult. She wants to become a lawyer someday, though law school is not in the cards for now with three young children.
“I want to give back to someone like me who struggled in the Syrian war,” she said. “I got to live the American dream, and I wish everyone gets to live their dream.”
Alkafil said one of her “biggest opportunities” was the chance to enroll at SNHU. She chose criminal justice, she said, because it will enable her to help people the way she and the rest
of her family were helped so many years ago.
“It is because of people’s ability to help one another and serve justice (that) I am no longer a refugee and (am) a citizen of the greatest country in the world,” she said.
Having earned her online degree in criminal justice, Alkafil said she wants to earn a graduate degree and someday work for the United Nations, perhaps as a human resources officer in Iraq.
Sometimes Alkafil thinks about just how drastically her life has changed. Thousands of miles from the refugee camp where she spent such difficult years as a young child, on a recent Sunday she was outside the home she owns with her husband of eight years, gardening with her two daughters.
“I’m so, so grateful. I’m just blessed to have this lifestyle and it makes me want to help so many people and not just work for the paycheck,” she said. “It just makes me think that life has so much more to offer. I believe that in some way, you should give back.”