Today is World Refugee Day, and the UN has released a report with the latest, typically grim figures on the exodus of Iraqis from their war-ravaged country. Below is just one of more than 3 million stories from Iraqis who've been forced to flee their homeland and scatter around the globe.
The good news was that, after four years in legal limbo, Ban had received her green card, allowing her to stay in her southwestern U.S. sanctuary indefinitely. She had been admitted to the United States after her husband, 5-year-old daughter and mother-in-law were gunned down in their car in March 2004. Both Ban and her husband had worked with American journalists.
Ban arrived at my family's home in Oklahoma with not much more than the clothes on her back and her only surviving child, a son who was an infant at the time of the slayings. For the first year or so, a glimpse of frilly little dresses was enough to make Ban burst into sobs in busy department stores. The last time Ban saw her daughter, Nadia had asked her for "a princess dress."
Now her son, Fadi, is more Okie than Iraqi, the centerpiece of our family portraits, a little boy who adores my mom, Beverly, as the only grandmother he's ever known. He's 5 and calls her "Mister Mama B" because somehow he'd decided that saying "mister" means you're showing love and respect. It's so adorable that my mother has forbidden any of us from correcting him.
Ban, one of the strongest and most inspiring souls I've ever encountered, seems amused by her all-American child who loves tractor rides, McDonald's Happy Meals and video games. But she is still surrounded by an aura of sadness, as if she's always wondering whether her son will ever see the Tigris River, the Rasheed Hotel where his parents were married, the Iraqi grandparents, aunts and uncles with whom he can't even communicate by phone because he speaks no Arabic. He does, however, say "y'all."
On my last trip home, Ban picked me up in her cute little SUV for our usual ritual: stopping at Sonic for slushy drinks before driving around Oklahoma City listening to Arabic pop songs at full blast. Not long into the drive, Ban, her hands shaking, reached for a battered cassette tape and popped it into the car stereo. I instantly recognized it -- it was a compilation of our all-time favorites. We'd custom-recorded in the summer of 2003 at Ghost Music, a landmark music store in Baghdad where you could order anything from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the ballads of the Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum.
We sang along, but the tape sounded warped, as if it had been dunked in water or left too long in the sun. At one point, it became so garbled that we couldn't even make out the words to our Baghdad anthem, an upbeat love tune by a famous Tunisian singer. I waited for Ban to take out the cassette, but she let it play on. Finally, I told her it didn't make sense to listen any longer because we couldn't even hear the catchy refrain: "My darling, don't ever go too far away from me."
She hit the eject button and handed the cassette to me. Both the plastic casing and the coils of tape were covered with dark-brown splotches, the cause of the muddled sound. In a quiet voice, Ban told me the spots were the blood of her husband and daughter. The tape had been on top of a pile of cassettes in the car the night gunmen ambushed the family as they returned from a relative's home in Baghdad. She couldn't bear to throw it away.
My mom's text message a few days ago was good news indeed. It meant that, armed with shiny new permanent U.S. residency cards, Ban and Fadi were safe and free to stay in Oklahoma as long as they wished. It meant she could quit the back-breaking odd jobs she worked for cash and find a better, legitimate job, perhaps one commensurate with her master's degree in English literature. (She loves the plays of Samuel Beckett and always jokes that Iraq is "waiting for Godot.")
Yes, it's good news that Ban, unlike so many thousands of Iraqi refugees crammed 10 to a room in dismal cold-water apartments in Damascus, now has a coveted tool to carve out a future for herself and her son. But it's a bitter victory because -- as Ban knows -- no matter how far-flung the exile, the pain always follows.