Surviving the attempt was one thing; staying alive was another challenge entirely. “How can I go to work without being killed? How can I continue working on these campaigns?” These were the questions that I asked myself. But, first things first; my family “How can I keep my family safe?”
My concerns regarding my family occupied my every thought. I have a son. At that time, he was eight years old.
The first sacrifice I made was to have my son live away from me. We were separated and it was for his own safety. It was so difficult for the both of us. Where could my son stay and with whom? That question was my main concern. I reached out to a friend of mine whose family accepted to host my son in their home.
My son needed to move in and live with my friend, but for safety’s sake, my friend, and his family needed to come up with a story that they could share with their neighbors about the “new boy” who was coming to live with them. So, my son became their nephew whose mother fought with the father and left the house. Since the father could not take care of the boy, he had asked them if the boy could stay with them and they accepted.
The first time my son went to live with them, he cried. My son did not stay in their house for the entire day; my friend kept him for a couple of hours and then returned him home to me. My friend was cautious: he took the longer route leading to my place. He even changed his appearance before seeking me out. I was still terrified.
I realized that my son needed to see me, however much I was afraid that they might get to him. My friend and I decided that we should not make a routine out of anything; there should be no regular times nor regular places where we would meet.
Security is about safety. But it is about the safety of the community, not about using force to secure communities. I later recalled that idea when I developed my Environmental Policies, Insurgency, and Post-Conflict Countries course and I am currently writing a book about that concept.
In fact, when I was designing my syllabus on Environmental Challenges in Post-Conflict Countries, I frequently recalled that conversation with my son. Weak states have no power: Is there a way to build their capacity and what should be done first? And how can these countries be secured?
Back to the story: My friends lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Baghdad; the school was less than a half mile from home. There were many boys and men within the house, so my son could blend in, and get some protection if needed. I used to meet my son once or twice a week. The meeting was always in different locations. I also changed my looks each time. I wore different hair, different clothes, and drove different cars.
Despite these drastic measures, my son also had his share of bomb attacks. I will never forget the most difficult 30 minutes of my entire life. 30 minutes equals the amount of time it took to drive from where I lived to where he lived. I drove to his place after receiving a call telling me an explosion took place nearby. I called and I knew he was okay, however I wanted to see him and hold him. When I arrived, the house was in a bad shape: the main door looked like it has been pulled out, the windows were broken, and the furniture was upside down. Some walls were completely destroyed.
I held my son. I was crying even as he said “I am fine, I am fine.” He was and still is a brave young man. Even now, I don’t know whether the house was targeted because my son was there, or if the explosion took place for another reason. However, I have every reason to believe that they were trying to get to him.
The very next morning my son, my father, and my friends were on an airplane to Syria, where they stayed until we all moved to the US. They spent over a year in Syria. I used to fly back and forth just to see him and to spend some time with him. Of course, I called him every day. Sometimes, when people ask me “why don’t you go back and serve your country,” I feel it is difficult for them to imagine what is out there. They have no concept.
It is not that I am afraid to go back—even though I have every reason to be—but I need to live my life with my son. I just want a simple and normal life: enjoying a nice ride in the car, eating outside, or watching a movie.
I will never forget when my son and I went to the movies for the first time here in the US. It was so much fun: we got the tickets, bought popcorn and soda, and we enjoyed the show. We had fun! It was real fun without worries, which is something we didn’t get a chance to experience back there.
I remember when I was participating in the Trust Factor Workshop in Richmond in May of 2009. My son was with me. One of the participants asked if I would like to go back and serve in the government again. My son heard him and told him quite abruptly: “No! It is too dangerous.” My son’s answer was firm and resolute because he felt someone was trying to put me in danger again, and he was trying—as always—to protect me. My son knows what’s out there!
Taking care of my family, making sure they were safe, and being there for them was my main challenge back there. I could not work or keep the campaigns going without first securing my family. However, there were many challenges ahead. I was tasked with establishing the Ministry of Environment, since Iraq did not have one. To be able to do that I needed to get to work safely, and that’s another story.