“Our message to the world is 'love to love.”

by Rachel French, Guest Writer and Gonzaga University Senior

“What was life like in Iraq? Can you describe what your daily life looked like?”

Bushra looked at her husband, Ahmed, as if to search for some sort of response. Maybe it was the language barrier that prevented them from understanding the question, or maybe it was the nature of the question itself. Sensing her parents’ confusion, Farah, the eldest daughter, translated my words into Arabic.

“Waiting. I waited every day,” said Bushra.

She was referring to Ahmed’s work as a vendor for the U.S. Army. Every week, Ahmed made the trip from his home in Babylon to the military base in Baghdad. Bushra waited nervously for his return, fearing that he would be kidnapped or killed. This was not an uncommon occurrence in Bushra and Ahmed’s community. Ahmed’s two brothers were viciously murdered for reasons unknown to their family. They suspect it was at the hands of terrorists, but the motive will forever be lost. Ahmed told me about a bomb that decimated his family’s restaurant; he said it in such a passing manner, a blip in the timeline.

Bushra and Ahmed’s choice to leave Iraq was an instinctual flee to safety. Their family was straddling the second tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy - security - which teetered at any moment. Because of his association with the U.S. Army, Ahmed and his family were able to apply for a special immigrant visa. They submitted their application with little hope of their request being granted. Four years ago, Bushra and Ahmed and their five children arrived in Spokane.

World Relief Spokane helped Bushra and Ahmed with housing, job searching, and enrolling their children in schools. To Bushra, learning a new language and customs was the hardest aspect of arriving as a refugee. She remembers feeling like she was, “Deaf at a really big party.” When picturing such a situation, I imagined feelings of confusion and helplessness, how the surrounding chatter would blend together and fade into white noise. Now, Bushra’s excellent English allows her to work and give back as a translator for World Relief. The organization is the light that continues to guide their family’s journey. When I asked Bushra about her first memories with volunteers, she and her eldest daughter, Farah, met eyes and burst into laughter. It was clear there was an inside joke that could only be understood by a mother and daughter. Bushra’s first volunteer was a woman named Lisa, who entered their apartment with fear and uncertainty. Bushra did as much as she could to calm Lisa’s nerves, which became the usual habit of offering her tea. Two women from different worlds became unlikely friends.

“Lisa is my angel,” said Bushra. “She is not a volunteer anymore, she is a friend, she is family.”

Lisa is a testament to the millions of Americans who find love in their hearts for the most vulnerable in our communities. But Bushra’s family still faces a reality that all American-Muslims experience. It’s dictated by the hijabs they wear and the God they worship. 

“What do you wish people understood about Islam and the Muslim culture?”

“We’re not all terrorists!” exclaimed Farah. The quick-witted 17-year-old wrung out her long damp hair like one might do with a dishcloth. It casually slapped against the small of her back. Batool, The second-eldest sister, had recently joined us. Her demeanor was more quiet and delicate than that of her older sister. The 14-year-old’s calm expression carried the kind of wisdom you might find within an older woman.

“Someone asked me a similar question in an interview,” Farah said. “I said, I am Muslim, and I am the Muslim who has two dead uncles, and I am the Muslim whose country was destroyed by other radicalized Muslims, so it’s not like we’re all bad, you know?

I was happy to learn that Bushra’s family had yet to experience any prejudice or hostility in Spokane. Most people compliment Bushra’s beautiful hijabs and the others who give a disapproving glance tend to keep to themselves.

Throughout our conversation, I heard screeching laughter coming from the upstairs bedroom.

“He must be losing,” chuckled Farah. She was referring to her younger brother, Muhammed, who was playing videogames with his other siblings. Muhammad was a rambunctious 8-year-old boy and the apple of his father’s eye. He liked playing soccer and Fortnite like so many of the boys I knew. Muhammad’s feisty personality matched the spunk of his twin sister, Fatima. The two of them came together like night and day, sun and moon, yin and yang. Fatima took jabs at her incessant brother, who made comebacks with the same fire. Muhammad hung around 13-year-old Sulaf, the youngest of his three older sisters. Sulaf was significantly taller than Farah and Batool. All five siblings had distinct personalities; their personas were like characters in an American sit-com.

As the siblings played with one another, Bushra served me Arabic coffee, a traditional drink spiced with cardamom and sweetened with heaps of sugar. Bushra continued to bustle around the kitchen, while Farah and Sulaf unfolded the plastic table in the middle of the living room. Before I knew it, I was being served a feast of a dinner. The Dulma was piled high on a silver platter, an amount that could feed a small village. The dish consists of rice, vegetables and lamb wrapped in chard leaves and onion skins. As I finished one serving, I’d find another heaping scoop on my plate. I had to politely decline before Bushra gave me a third scooping.

When it was time for me to leave, I found it hard it hard to say goodbye. The children made sounds of longing, as if to say, “do you really have to go?” They surrounded me like a congregation as I made my way to the door. Once I left, I realized I had never asked them about their plans for the future, about their hopes and dreams in this new country. But I could see that Bushra’s family already had much of what wanted. Their dreams were rooted in each other. It would never be about a job, a house, or money; to love and to be loved was the American Dream. I drove home thinking about what Ahmed said:

“Our message to the world is, love to love.”