By Layla Younis
I can’t live without my monthly, weekly and hour-by-hour planners. Some people think I’m crazy for planning ahead so much, but looking to the future is the one thing my family is good at.
My dad, Ahmed Younis, ingrained the notion of planning for the future in me when I was in middle school. He came into my room one day and told me to keep a planner. So I listened.
But as I got older, I realized why a planner was so important to him: He never got to plan his future. No matter how hard he tried, circumstances always changed the trajectory of his life.
In 1984, Ahmed was studying education at a college in Northern Iraq. He wanted to be a principal.
“I liked children and wanted to travel during the summer holidays,” he said.
But when he graduated from college, the country had a draft, so he was called to join the army in the Iran-Iraq War.
It didn’t matter whether he had a job lined up after graduation; it didn’t matter how well he did in school; it didn’t matter how many languages he spoke. He had to move to Baghdad because of the draft.
The war went on for four more years, until finally, in 1988, there was a peace treaty between Iran and Iraq.
Finally, it seemed, Ahmed was able to focus on his own life and his own future. A year later, he married Hana, and they had a child — Zirek Younis. The family was living a normal life until 1991, when circumstances again changed.
“Saddam went into Kuwait,” Ahmed said. The Ba’thist regime was calling for another draft.
Ahmed knew better, though. He wasn’t going to waste another four years on useless fighting.
So he didn’t go.
But things got worst.
Family flees into Turkish mountains
Hana remembers the exact day: March 15. She was home, in northern Iraq, cooking chicken. It was Ramadan. Zirek was sleeping and Ahmed was at work.
“That’s when two bombs exploded by our house,” she said. “I went to Zirek and grabbed a blanket for him. I put on my sandals and went outside.”
She saw panic and chaos everywhere. Some people were saying the Iraqi Army was coming and other were saying Saddam Hussein himself was coming.
“My neighbor said not to go, but I ran because I was scared,” she said.
Ahmed fled also, but he fled from his work and with a different group of people.
Neither of them knew the whereabouts of each other. They did not know if they would see each other in the future. They did not know if they would survive to see the future.
But they both walked in the same direction — toward the Turkish mountains. The snow-covered mountain was difficult to climb.
“When we were going up the mountains there was an old lady who was walking with us,” Ahmed said. “The old lady asked if she could rest a bit, so we said, ‘Yes.’ Next thing I know her head went down and she didn’t wake back up.”
To drink the water people had to melt snow, but it was always dirty water.
“There was diseases from the snow,” Hana said.
Food was hard to find
Hana remembers a nice family who shared their lighter.
“It was hard keeping the fire alive because it was snowing and the wood was wet,” Hana said.
Some families who lived in the mountains shared food with us, Ahmed said.
The Turkish government officials would give out bread, but they wanted the people to get in a line, Hana said. No one wanted to stand in line — people were starving.
U.S. government airplanes would drop boxes of food, and people would scramble to get the food, Hana said.
“Not everybody got food because there were so many people,” she said.
One day, Hana saw Ahmed waiting to get bread from a passing truck.
Finally, they were reunited. But their future was unclear. They did not know how long they were going to stay in the Turkish mountains. They did not know when the Iraqi government would retreat.
About a month later, the Iraqi government did retreat. No-fly zones were created and the physical persecution stopped.
My parents returned to their home in northern Iraq. They started planning for the future. They started setting up doctor appointments for Zirek, who was severely sick by this time.
“He was skin and bones,” Hana said.
Ahmed got his first job as a principal. To make extra money, he started working with the U.S Army as a night guard. He spoke English, Kurdish and Arabic, useful language skills.
For six years the no-fly zone was helpful. My parent’s lives were finally becoming stable. Zirek was healthy and was joined by a sister – me — and a brother. My mom was pregnant a fourth child.
Heading to the U.S.
Then¸the circumstances changed again — and those circumstances would dramatically affect my family’s future.
“A woman from the U.S. came to have a talk with us about what would happen when the U.S. would leave,” Ahmed said. “We told her that when the U.S. leaves, the Iraqi government would kill anyone who worked for the U.S.”
The woman wrote down Ahmed’s name, along with any other families who collaborated or worked with the U.S. Army.
“I was scared because of Saddam,” Hana said.
A couple weeks later, Ahmed was notified that he and his family could come to the U.S.
They could only bring one suitcase, so Hana packed for the children. They headed for the airport.
“I think there was 500 people on the plane,” Hana said. “I wish I had a camera. When I got out of the plane and walked down the stairs, I turned around and looked at the plane. It was huge.”
They landed in Guam, where they lived for two months.
“I didn’t like Guam,” Hana said. “You couldn’t breathe. It was too hot, and we didn’t like the food. I got sick. I was seven months pregnant.”
Authorities told the family to throw away the clothes they packed and then gave them new clothes. The family had health checks and weekly lessons about America.
“They taught us to close and lock our doors all the time,” Hana said, “In (Iraq) we left our doors open, even at night. They said don’t take anything from outside, even if it’s a new pen. They said if someone talks to you and you don’t know them, don’t talk to that person.”
At the camp in Guam, authorities held a weekly drawing to allow 10 families to relocate to the U.S.
A new place to call home
When my family was chosen, they were told they would be going to Colorado. Colorado was their future.
In Denver, they found an apartment waiting for them.
“The government had everything ready,” Hana said. “I didn’t like the neighborhood. It was too old. It had a lot of bugs. They gave us old blankets and old beds. The dishes were old. Everything was old and nasty.”
Hana was now nine months pregnant. She had no car. She didn’t speak English. Her future depended on strangers who helped her and the family.
She was introduced to Jean Firmin, a volunteer at a refugee resettlement agency in Denver.
Firmin would drive Hana to doctor appointments and help with paperwork. She gave Hana the phone number for a taxi and money in case Hana went into delivery or for any emergency situation.
“(The phone number) was all sevens, ” Hana said. It was easy to remember.
On Dec. 12, 1996, Hana went into labor and called that taxi number.
The next number Hana and Ahmed called was Firmin’s. Firmin drove to the hospital at 3 a.m. to meet them.
They named the baby, Hilan, which means “to leave.”
A couple days later, they went back to their new apartment in their new country with their new child. She and Ahmed were looking to the future.