About the Author: Irving Jones is a Program Officer with the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. Formerly Mr. Jones worked as a member of the Refugee Corps for DHS/USCIS, adjudicating refugee claims in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.
My three young children always seem to attract attention. Living in Washington, DC and as a frequent visitor to the National Mall and the Smithsonian, I have grown accustomed to and amused by foreign tourists, pointing at my children, talking to them and sometimes taking pictures of them, usually without asking. "They look like angels," one elderly woman told me. "If she only knew," I thought.
A few weeks ago I took my two sons and daughter to a park just across the river in Virginia. We kicked a few goals on the empty soccer field nearby and had begun to play on the playground equipment when I noticed that a middle aged couple and another slightly older man had walked up and were watching them play. The woman stepped over to me holding a camera and politely asked if she could take their picture. I smiled and told her that she could. From that exchange, her accent, clothes and mannerisms I suspected that they were Iraqis. When she had snapped a few photos I asked them where they were from. The middle-aged man said that they were from Iraq. "Did you come as refugees?" I asked. "Yes, we have been here three weeks," he said with a broad smile. "Welcome to the United States!" I said and shook their hands. The mood seemed jolly and relaxed and I asked, "Where are you from in Iraq?" There was a momentary pause, and the woman said, "Baghdad."
I considered a follow-up question when at that moment a helicopter thumped low over our heads on its way to National Airport. The sound and the Iraqis brought me back to the summer of 2008 when I spent a month in the Green Zone interviewing Iraqis to determine their eligibility for the U.S. Refugee Admissions program. In my heavily air conditioned cubicle with helicopters clattering overhead, I interviewed dozens of Iraqi families, nearly all with tales of great personal tragedy. Six days a week I asked them question after question. Stories of persecution, fear, threats, bombings, kidnappings, rapes, torture, and escape poured out into my tiny, sterile office. Each morning I prepared myself to listen to unspeakable devastation and heartbreak as families recounted the horror of home invasions, separation, and murder of family members. I explored their claims and wrote my notes. I was in the presence of survivors, many of them remarkably brave and far stronger than I feel I would be if placed under similar circumstances.
It takes remarkable courage to tell a stranger the story of the death of someone close. Their interview with me was arguably the most important and final in a series of interviews about their experiences. Many rushed to talk, blurting out the intimate details. It was as if they were releasing their histories one final time, so they could focus on the future and on the possibility of creating a new life. I often wondered if I would be the last person to so presumptuous to ask questions about the most intimate details of their lives, the details too tragic to repeat ever again.
My question was lost as we became distracted by my two year old daughter who tottered after a small group of pigeons. She followed along behind them and just as she got near, the birds fluttered their wings and landed a few feet away. She approached them again, and again the birds scuttled off. This repeated itself a few times until her older brother raced in behind her and lunged after the pigeons. The birds flew up and away in a noisy burst of flapping and the three Iraqis all laughed loudly. "I'm so happy to have met you. I wish you good luck," I said as I shook their hands again and I herded my three children into the direction of our car, buckled them in their car seats and drove them back across the bridge toward home.