Sitting in the kitchen of her Parkville home, Najwa Al-Amin remembers her senior year in high school. It was the year she and her best friends listened to cassette tapes of ABBA, gossiped about boys, played on sports teams and stayed up late studying for college entrance exams.
In many ways, Al-Amin's high school experience was typical, with one exception — it took place in Iraq.
"We watched the 'The Brady Bunch,' 'Gunsmoke,' and 'Star Trek,'" said Al-Amin, 59, who graduated from Baghdad High School for Girls. "Everyone had a crush on Captain Kirk."
Three months after Al-Amin received her degree in mechanical engineering from Baghdad University, her world was irrevocably changed.
"The war started on September 22nd of 1980. I will never forget that day," said Al-Amin, referring to the start of the Iran-Iraq war that lasted until 1988 and killed more than 1 million soldiers and civilians.
Life during the war was hard on many levels, said Al-Amin, who left Iraq in 1997 and became a U.S. citizen in 2008. "Every one of my male classmates was drafted. There were sirens and air raids. I had a map of Baghdad and every time there was an airstrike I would mark it on the map."
During the war, Al-Amin wasn't able to stay in touch with her high school girlfriends. There was no Internet, phone service was unreliable, and the country was under an embargo.
Even though Al-Amin's best friend, Sawsan Al-Sayyab, lived in Baghdad, the two women didn't stay in touch.
"Once the war started I lost contact with everybody," Al-Amin said. "Even if you got together, what are you going to talk about? Your fiance in the army?"
Throughout the war years, Al-Amin missed the close connection she shared with her high school friends. She worried that her friends had been killed or wounded, and that she would never reunite with those who had managed to survive.
"I would go for years without knowing where Sawsan was," Al-Amin said. "Most of my friends had left Iraq by 2003."
It was in 2004 when an email appeared in Al-Amin's inbox.
"I had tears in my eyes," recalled Al-Amin, of the message she received from Al-Sayyab.
"I didn't have Internet," said Al-Sayyad, 59, who now lives in Perry Hall and works as a resettlement manager for refugees with the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore. "I met a Dutch journalist who Googled Najwa's name. We found her through her website. This was a miracle for me."
Social media reunion
Once Al-Amin and Al-Sayyab were reunited through email, the next step was to locate as many of their Baghdad High School classmates as possible. With the help of a Baghdad High School Facebook page set up by three classmates living in Jordan, the women have connected with 39 of their high schools peers.
The alumnae, who live as far afield as Malaysia and Sweden, chat with each other via the WhatsApp, an encrypted instant message app for smartphones. They share updates on birthdays and weddings and post black-and-white pictures from their high school days. "We literally have a virtual living room," Al-Amin said.
Although the group doesn't have a formal name, "we call ourselves the khalas [aunties] to each other's children," she said. "When there are problems, the positive vibes start pouring in from every direction."
Al-Amin, whose husband is Iranian, has a grown son from a previous marriage to an Iraqi man. The son lives in Baltimore, while Al-Amin's mother lives with the Parkville couple. Al-Amin settled in the United States to join her mother, Suham Al-Shehaby, and sister and brother, who were already here.
Even though not all the women were friends in high school, they've formed a strong bond through social media. "It's us women," Al-Amin said. "The only objective is to love each other for the sake of loving each other.
"When we started meeting, we didn't remember who was who," she noted. "We needed to send each other 'then' and 'now' photos."
Al-Amin said the group has only two rules: They don't discuss religion or politics. While most of the women are either Muslim or Christian, some don't practice either religion.
"When you take religion and politics out of the equation, you are left with people who just want to meet for a positive experience on a bad day," Al-Sayyab said.
"We share a very important history and a feeling of missing our country. We don't share the land anymore, but there is a nostalgic bond," said Lamees Nejim, via Skype from London. "When we meet, it's like we're all still the same age. The laughter we experience, it's all from the heart."
Now that they live close by, Al-Amin and Al-Sayyab get together on weekends. Over strong coffee imported from Jordan and homemade banana bread with cardamom, Al-Amin showed Al-Sayyab her Baghdad High School class ring and yearbook.
"How can you not remember that?" Al-Amin asked Al-Sayyab about a yearbook picture of a group of classmates.
Al-Amin, an artist who favors painting with oils, said the purpose of the group is keep the memories of Iraq alive and to remember their homeland before it became a divided country.
"When we meet, we still recall the same stories," Al-Amin said. "It's become a part of our lives. Some of the women call it therapy. We all think it made a positive change in our lives."
While some of the women check in with each other daily online, nothing takes the place of in-person reunions. To date, reunions have been held in Canada and Lebanon. A reunion in Jordan is planned for 2017.
Both women say their greatest hope is that one day they will be able to have an in-person reunion at their old high school. Until then, staying in touch via social media helps to fill the void and heal the scars left by wars.
"The homeland is not a physical piece of land," said Al-Sayyab, who is single and lives with her mother. "It's the people. This group is my homeland.
"We literally have a virtual living room. We meet there. We have a rule: We do not talk about religion and we do not talk about politics."