immigrant stories

My So-Called American Dream

In her room, Balqees lounges on her bed and plays with her phone. Other than the rumpled bedsheets, the only thing out of place is a millennial-pink baseball cap on the floor. “I’m always in my room,” the 16-year-old said. “I’ve been in here for three days straight, except yesterday I went to McDonald’s to buy ice-cream. It’s my world.”

Outside her door is the cramped apartment she shares with her mother and younger brother, and then, beyond that, a busy street lined with auto repair shops and fast-food joints. One year ago, they were three of the 7,853 Iraqi Muslims admitted to the U.S. as refugees. Before that, the family spent three-and-a-half years in Turkey hoping for asylum.

Getting the room in the first place is a point of pride. Fadil, 14, shares a pull-out with their mother, Ibithal, in the apartment’s other room, where they cook, eat, watch TV, and hang out. “I’m the queen,” Balqees says, explaining how she secured the only bedroom for herself. She’s decorated the walls with a few paintings of flowers (one of them, all purple, she painted herself back in Turkey) and a Marilyn Monroe poster surrounded by Christmas lights, the cord dangling down the wall. Her room is where she writes out the rent checks for her mom to give to their landlord, chats with her rollerblading brother before kicking him out, and watches Turkish soaps on her cell phone.

Before coming to California, Balqees had seen it on TV shows and in movies. “Everybody was dreaming of California,” she said. “It was like ‘Oh, California! Oh, California!’” She remained skeptical. “I knew they were lying, because Iraq never looks how it does in the movies.” On her first morning in America, she woke early because of jet lag, before the rest of her family, and opened the door to look out. The trees, she thought, were beautiful.

The view from the family’s first floor apartment is limited; fencing for the lot next door fills most of Balqees’s window. But if she shifts the right way or stands up, she can manage to see two trees from her room. They’re California palms. After years of uncertainty, Balqees has found herself living in suburban Southern California, going to a public high school, and preparing for her future.

Balqees was 17 months old when the U.S. invaded Iraq. She does not have any memories of her country before the war; the ebb and flow of violence was the backdrop to her childhood. “We could hear bombings and gunfire, sometimes the whole sky would go dark with smoke,” she said. “It would be morning but you couldn’t see anything, but we still went to school. Sometimes on the walk to school, we’d see blood in the street. If there was steam coming off of it, if it was hot, then that meant the person was just killed.”

In 2006, the country dissolved into a civil war. Forty percent of Baghdad’s middle class fled, but Balqees’s family stayed. Each week, when they left their Sunni neighborhood to go the market, they were shot at. “I would go with my friends and we would just laugh as we ran past the gunfire,” Balqees said, sounding a bit shocked by the memory, “I swear, we thought it was funny.” When Fadil was four, he was shot in the stomach while running an errand with Ibithal; he survived only after countless surgeries over the course of two weeks. (The family remembers doctors calling his survival “an act of god.”)

And while Balqees sought an escape in school — it was “the most important thing for me” — the war soon intruded there, too. Hoping to get into a private school on scholarship, she took a citywide exam: “I came in second in all of Baghdad!” she said. “So I was running home, I just wanted to tell my mother that I can go to the school with a scholarship. She told me, ‘no, you can’t because we’re leaving the country. There’s no future for you here.’” Balqees was furious. “I told her, ‘I can find my future here’ but she said, ‘that future will only go through high school.’” A week later, Ibtihal, Balqees, her older sister Sabaa, and Fadil boarded a bus and left Iraq.

The family’s first destination after leaving Iraq in 2013 was Turkey. “It wasn’t safe, just safer,” Ibithal said. There, Balqees enrolled in school and the family applied to the United Nations for refugee status. After a year and a half, Balqees dropped out, tired of being mocked by her Turkish classmates for her accent and language mistakes. She watched a lot of American TV shows and movies to learn English.

Ibtihal continued to worry about her children’s future. After two and a half years in Turkey, she decided they should try to make it to Europe by boat. “I cried every night,” Balqees recalled, of her mother’s plans. “I was worried we would drown.” (75 percent of migrant deaths occur in the Mediterranean; one in four people who attempt to enter Europe by boat dies on the way, according to Frontex, the E.U.’s border-control organization.) The family traveled by car to a meeting point in Istanbul, where they were supposed to find the fixer who’d take them to a departure point along the Aegean coast. But after arriving, Ibtihal received word that the boat wouldn’t leave that night after all — she told her children they wouldn’t return to try a second second time. “That was the happiest thing that happened to me in all my life,” Balqees said. “It was the first time I was really happy.”

A few months later, Ibtihal got a call that hundreds of thousands of refugees hope for: assuming they could clear medical and background tests, they were being granted refugee status in the United States. They barely let themselves believe it, Balqees said — “not until the plane touched down in America.” (Balqees’s older sister married a Turkish man and stayed behind.)

Originally, Balqees and Fadil’s father Dyaa planned to join them in Turkey. But, in November of 2013, Iraqi Security Forces began carrying out raids and mass arrests in Sunni neighborhoods — Ibtihal said that just after the family left, Dyaa was arrested and investigated. (At the time, Human Rights Watch called on the Iraqi government to take precautionary measures before the holy month of Muharram, previously subject to devastating attacks carried out by Sunni extremists, “without resorting to repressive measures such as indiscriminate arrests.”) Though Dyaa wasn’t charged with anything, his arrest record and time in prison mean garnering refugee status in the United States would be incredibly difficult.

Sometimes Balqees talks about her father’s sweetness when she and her brother were children; other times, she’ll barely acknowledge their relationship. “I don’t really know him,” she told me, coolly, when I asked whether she was at all like her dad. When Balqees and her siblings were growing up, her father would tell them that they didn’t need anyone, not even friends, and should make their happiness independently. She does seem to have internalized that sense of self-reliance.

But in the far reaches of her closet, she keeps a small, bright blue suitcase with mementos from Iraq, including photos with her dad and one of his ties. Whenever they’d travel, Balqees would always bring the suitcase. “When we left Iraq, my father told me, ‘It’s not that important to take; we can keep it here.” She disagreed, telling him: “It’s the most important thing. Just keep my clothes and give me the suitcase.”

As soon as the family found an apartment in California, Balqees walked to the local charter school and asked to enroll. They told her to come back with a parent. Ibtihal had heard rumors about American teens and rampant drug addiction, and these seemed confirmed on Balqees’ first day. She was approached by two girls who asked if she smoked; confused, Balqees said she didn’t, and pointed out that because they were all under 18, they couldn’t buy cigarettes anyway. “They laughed and said, ‘Not cigarettes, weed!’ When I told my mom she said to stay away from those girls.”

Balqees spends most of her time alone, and she vacillates between saying she’s totally fine with that and talking about Fadil’s social ease with a combination of envy and resignation. “He’s always had a lot of friends,” she said. “Whenever we move to some place, the next day they come and knock on the door and say, ‘We want your brother to come and play.’” This spring, Balqees made a friend in California — “I have been lonely in my life, so even one is enough,” she said at the time. By August, when I visited, she had revised the number back down to zero. They had a fight, a falling out, and then her former friend moved out of the neighborhood. Balqees did not say good-bye. In the fall, they made up. Balqees also befriended a transplant from Spain at school, and even though they don’t hang out outside of school, it’s nice to have someone else who is new to America.

For the most part, Balqees finds her American classmates perplexing. “They’re not coming to study, they’re coming to show off their clothes,” she said. “One girl looked like she was coming from a nightclub! I was joking and I said, ‘You’re here to study, not to dance.’” Balqees prefers to wear jeans and a T-shirt or dress “like I have a speech to give.” She wears eyeliner occasionally and fake lashes never. But she still dresses more liberally than girls her age in Baghdad. Both Balqees and Fadil take classes with other ESL students.

Balqees now lives exactly 500 miles from Stanford University, but she heard about the school nearly 8,000 miles and many years ago. “In sixth grade, my teacher in Baghdad had a book and the boy in the book was the smartest so he went to Stanford. My teacher said it was the best university, so I wanted to be smart enough to go.”

“The kids are happy, it’s been good for them,” Ibtihal said. “They’ve had a warm welcome to the U.S.” While Balqees isn’t too worried about Trump, Ibtihal is. Ibtihal applied for their green cards and is still waiting to hear back. She’d hoped that her sister would be able to follow them to California; now, that seems unlikely. Back in Iraq, before the U.S. invasion, Ibtihal worked in higher education and scientific research, but like many refugees, she was disappointed to find only menial labor available to her in the U.S. After months of looking, in July, Ibtihal got a part-time job working in a café two days a week. She now works full-time as a hotel maid.

This summer the family inherited a used car from relatives leaving the country and Ibithal got her driver’s license. In June, they went to Los Angeles and saw the Hollywood Walk of Fame; in July, they went camping. Balqees recently learned that her ex-boyfriend from Turkey had been granted refugee status in the U.S. and would also move to California. “I’ll see him,” she said, breezily, with the secretive smile of a teenager.

Since arriving in America, Balqees has gotten three tattoos. A floral motif decorates her shoulder. There’s a geometric design on one of her knuckles representing a world her aunt created for a book and a little dot that symbolizes Balqees is out of this world. On her forearm is a simple line drawing of a photograph of Balqees herself, taken from behind, a braid trailing down her back. This summer, she cut her long hair for the first time in years. (“I look older now, but I was more beautiful with long hair,” she said.) She got the tattoos with maternal approval. When I suggest that Ibithal must be a pretty laid back parent, Balqees corrects me: “She’s not laid back, she trusts me.”

Balqees wants to stop asking her mother for spending money, and she planned to get a summer job at McDonald’s, but when I asked in August what had become of that idea, she said she didn’t know how to apply. When I explained that she could just walk in and ask for an application, she was shocked. Sometimes, Balqees goes to the library near her house to read, but she never checks out books because she doesn’t have a library card; she’s under 18, so to get one, she’d need her mom to come, and doesn’t want to “make her tired” by adding one more thing to Ibithal’s to-do list.

Though she’s adapted quickly, which she attributes to her strong English-language skills, Balqees feels caught between two cultures. She’d like to go back to Baghdad, but probably only for a visit since she’s adjusted to a different standard of living. The frequency of water and power outages that her family in Baghdad still deal with no longer feels livable. And Balqees has now spent a number of formative years outside of Iraq.

“Most of the people who move here, they become really open-minded,” she said, citing clothes and tattoos. “But they also start drinking and smoking weed. I’m staying away from that.” Balqees said she hates high-school parties, but the truth is, she’s never been to one. And there are other things that set her apart from her classmates. She saw gay men for the first time in Turkey, but she’d never encountered an out lesbian until entering an American public school — here, she’s witnessed female classmates making out in the lunchroom. “‘The same [way] that you like guys, I like girls,’” she remembers one such classmate explaining. “I said, ‘I like boys because it’s something natural.’ She started talking about sex and stuff. She explained more.” Balqees remains skeptical. “They’re still weird in my eyes,” she said. “But they’re not bad.”

Then there are the smaller differences. Recently, Balqees went to Denny’s for the first time with a guy she met at the gym who is “American-American.” Balqees found the menu confusing. “I was like, ‘What’s this weird food?’ We got pancakes to try. I said, ‘What the hell? This is not good!’ He was like, ‘You are not American at all.’” Balqees just laughed; she has the confidence of someone who knows what she likes.

For now, Balqees has her eyes set on Stanford, and then becoming a dentist. She’d like to see “Dr.” in front of her name, to make good money, and, also to fill in the gap between her two front teeth. “I want to put gold between my two front teeth and maybe diamonds,” she said. Poised between Iraq and America, adolescence and adulthood, Balqees is growing impatient. “I’m just waiting on my bed to be 18.”

Only first names have been used in order to protect the family’s privacy. Translation assistance provided by Emily Goldman.

One Teenage Refugee’s Journey from Iraq to California