I fell in love with an Iraqi refugee. I didn’t mean to, but I did. Omar was his name.
We were in an underground cavern-turned-art gallery, where about a dozen displaced Iraqi artists, including Omar, had gathered – “artists in exile”, they were called. Mostly from Baghdad, they were in Damascus trying to make art and life, while I was in Damascus trying to make eyes with Omar.
For the last month, I had been travelling in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria hearing stories from Iraqi refugees just like Omar. I was part of an artist delegation with the New York-based non-profit, Intersections International. We were interviewing Iraqi refugees in order to share their stories in the US through art, to raise awareness and empathy around this silent, invisible crisis – a crisis that left over four million Iraqis in limbo.
This was before Syria fell into its civil war, before the Syrian refugee count surpassed even the largest numbers of the Iraqi refugee crisis, before Brexit, before Donald Trump. This was before all that.
“I miss the good, old days of Saddam,” one forgotten refugee told me. And another: “We have nothing. We used to have a life.” And another: “Leaving your home is like leaving a part of you.” And: “I feel like I am dying slowly.” And: “I am human before I am Iraqi, can’t you see?” And: “It is like a prison here.” And: “Do not bother to feed us. We are dead already.” And: “I fear the worst is yet to come.” Indeed it was.
And on that day, heart battered and conscience heavy, I met Omar. And from across the room, my love story began.
Since my time in Syria in 2009, the refugee crisis has grown exponentially into the largest global refugee crisis in history. There are currently 65 million refugees in the world today, including 13 million people displaced from Syria and another 5 million from Iraq.
Every minute, 24 people around the world are displaced. Every minute. And 48 more have been displaced since you started reading this article. This crisis is spinning out of control. And yet very little is being done. Countries in Europe are closing their doors and since Trump was elected President, the US is creating bans and building walls, resulting not only in pain, heartache and fear, but death. Make no mistake about it – people will die because of Trump’s refugee ban.
Although Trump seems to think we know nothing about the refugees seeking asylum on our shores, we do in fact know quite a bit about them. Refugees from Iraq and Syria are among the most vetted in the world, according to the State Department. Refugees already go through what some might call “extreme vetting” to get admitted to the US. The process takes at least two years and is exhaustive. Hopeful refugees wait upwards of six years for the less than 1 per cent chance of being resettled. This is the life of a refugee.
I know this, because I waited with Omar. I waited with him as he went through three years of Syria collapsing, three years of interviews and doctor exams and background checks, three years of threatening looks, car bombs and constant fear of death. We tried every visa possible to get him out of that crumbling country, including a fiancé visa – confident we were in love, until finally, we weren’t.
Let’s be clear. No one chooses the refugee life. This is not a life anyone wants. It is the last resort. Most refugees are simply desperate to save their families, feed their kids, and on a good day try to get them a decent education and a shot at some future.
I sat in their homes. I drank their tea. I know this to be true. Yet they bleed in ambulances, drown in overcrowded dinghies, wash up on sandy shores, and are turned away at airports, creating pictures we want to forget, a reality we refuse to see.
Unfortunately, my love story with Omar did not end happily. But he was eventually resettled in Canada where he is trying to rebuild his life. Omar got lucky. But there are 65 million more Omars who haven’t and won’t. Millions more languish in hostile countries and hostile communities – waiting for their ending. And we as a people need to decide what it’s going to be. Despite Trump or maybe because of him, we need to decide who we are going to be.
Kim Schultz is a writer, actor, and refugee advocate. She has a recently published memoir about her relationship with Omar called “Three Days in Damascus” (Palewell Press, 2016). The UK book launch is Thursday, 9 February at The Hive in Dalston.