“It is unbelievably disturbing to have a relative in a foreign country and go to YouTube and see a beheading,” said Harvard’s Mollica.
Teachers like Smith grapple with this every day. He never knew when to intervene and stop the texting going on. Was it just teenage chatter or some vital family communication arriving from thousands of miles away?
He worried about students like Yamen Khalil, a serious Syrian boy who sat in the back of his classroom. At home, in the West Baltimore rowhouse he shared with his father, Yamen could Skype with his mother and disabled brother, stuck in Turkey. But the cellphone was a distraction at school, where Yamen often checked it between classes for news of bombings in his village.
On the third-floor hallway, teachers tried different approaches: One allowed a student who seemed particularly desperate one morning to put her faraway boyfriend on speaker phone, so he could join an English class. Another teacher gave the kids’ phones a “vacation” in a plastic container on her desk with cutouts of a sandy beach and palm trees taped to it. The phones comically buzzed, chirped and jumped during the class, but her students were free to live in the present.
Even amid the tranquillity of a soccer field, Reema Alfaheed, one of Narmin’s best friends, couldn’t escape. She was on the phone with a friend, a boy in Syria, who was lamenting that, because of the war, he couldn’t play soccer or go to school. Then Reema heard an explosion and people screaming. The phone went dead.
Three days later, she learned her friend had survived the bombing, but was left with a head injury and broken leg. Reema felt guilty: “We are safe, and they’re not.”
Narmin picked up a piece of chalk and with a sweeping hand drew the Arabic characters on the blackboard for the word “stay.”
It was an April afternoon, the time immigrant students liked to gather in Smith’s classroom to unwind after hours in mainstream classes. Smith had just tried to write the word in Arabic and asked her for help. Narmin smiled, pulled her fingers down the side of her face to adjust her hijab and corrected her teacher’s flawed attempt. The long trailing lines and flourishes came easily to her.
She had recently told him of her dilemma. She knew it would destroy her father, but she loved Iraq and had a half-baked plan to go back to live there. Iraq held memories of warm summer nights with her close-knit family, of going to her favorite ice cream spot, of caring for her favorite grandmother. “When I was a child, everything is beautiful there,” Narmin recalled. “I have a special life in Baghdad.”
She was 14 the last time she saw the home she grew up in. That night, someone — angry that her father worked for the Americans — threw a bomb into their garage. Her grandmother’s head was hurt, and after rounding up a midwife to stitch her up, all six members of the family jammed into a car. Her mother didn’t grab the family photos, didn’t look back. She only wanted her children to be safe.
They drove 10 hours through the night to the border with Syria, then four more to the capital, Damascus. That began an odyssey typical for refugees. They spent two years in Syria. When war erupted there, they returned secretly to Baghdad, living with friends, including Mustafa’s family, to get their passports renewed. Then they left for Turkey, living there for nearly two years on the proceeds from the sale of their Baghdad house, until they received refugee status.
On Dec. 4, 2013, Narmin, along with her parents; her brother, now 16; and two younger sisters, ages 7 and 10, flew to Baltimore, the city assigned to them by resettlement agencies. They were starting over for the third time in a country that was not theirs. This time, someone had been left behind: Narmin’s grandmother, who didn’t want to leave her homeland.
Her father’s mother had lived with them for years. Narmin had helped care for her, dressing her and waiting on her when she found it difficult to walk. They were close. When her grandmother later realized it was a mistake not to go to the United States, it was too late. She’d lost her refugee status. She fell ill, slipped into a coma and died last winter.
For days, Narmin couldn’t accept this new loss. She grieved that she could not be there, the way her sister was, to hold her grandmother’s hand as she lay dying.
Shadows of camp
At Patterson in the spring, one of Narmin’s best friends, Reema, lay in a darkened room on brown bean bag seats pulled together as a makeshift bed. Her face was barely visible. Two nurses were taking her blood pressure. A whoosh of aromatic steam came from the corner. No one spoke. Narmin was at her feet, calm and silent, staring into her face.
“She is my sister, she is my friend,” Narmin said, “but sometimes I scared.”
For even as Narmin struggled with her own life during those spring weeks, Reema was taking up more and more of her attention. She started having seizures, and they were becoming more frequent. They happened in the places where Reema felt safest: in Smith’s classroom and the quiet first-floor room set aside for a meditation program.
A 17-year-old Palestinian Iraqi, Reema was playful and friendly. She often wore jeans with colorful high tops. Her hair was braided one day and straight the next. She played soccer and had friends of every nationality.
Narmin thought sometimes that Reema acted like a little girl, as though she was making up for her lost childhood. Reema had endured a lot. Through a translator, her parents explained that they were targeted in Iraq because her father was Palestinian. He was kidnapped and tortured for six months, while held underground, in the dark, in a kind of box.
After he was released, someone slid an envelope under the family’s front door. Inside were two bullets. The family knew what it meant: it was a threat to kill Reema and her older brother, Fahad. They left the next day for Syria, and later, to a makeshift refugee camp. Reema was about 6 years old.
The camp, called al-Waleed, was in a desert near the border of Syria and Iraq. According to the United Nations refugee agency, there were more than 1,500 people in the camp, with little water, nothing more than buckets for bathrooms, and no protection from blazing summer heat and winter snows beyond tents and small stoves. Those stoves proved hazardous: The tent that housed Reema, her two brothers and parents caught fire and burned down.
They lived there for six years, until they received refugee status and, like Narmin’s family, were assigned to the United States, and to Baltimore. The International Rescue Committee, which works with the U.S. State Department, has settled many refugees in Baltimore because of its affordable housing and job opportunities.
At Patterson, Reema’s seizures were happening often enough that Narmin was missing a significant number of classes. One day, Reema starting sobbing in Smith’s classroom, and Narmin cradled her until help arrived. Later, Smith confronted Narmin, telling her that he understood she wanted to help her friend, but that could not be used as an excuse. She was failing two subjects. Narmin must show up at school on time, attend class and do her homework — no matter what. Her future depended on it.
Narmin reacted in a no-nonsense way, promising to do better.
But she was getting little sleep and lacked the mental tenacity for learning English. “My head was too full,” she said later. Narmin wondered what awful experience her friend might have had in the refugee camp. “Maybe she sees ghosts,” she said.
Narmin’s worries came to a climax in the school’s front hall one day. Reema thought someone was after her and was shouting in Arabic as she flailed against a security guard, “They want to take me. They are coming. They are coming.”
An ambulance was called, and paramedics took her to Johns Hopkins Hospital.
For four days, with a tangle of wires attached to her scalp, Reema lay in bed, Narmin sometimes at her side, as physicians observed her. According to Reema and her parents, the doctors could not find any physical explanation for the seizures. They concluded the problem could be an outgrowth of the extreme stress she experienced in the camp. She was referred to mental health counseling and eventually began taking anti-anxiety medicine. The spells faded away.
Much of the immigrants’ trauma can be hidden or kept secret.
Narmin eventually began to confide in Smith, her favorite teacher. Toward the end of a school day, Smith pulled up a chair across the desk from her. He sensed something was wrong and after a few minutes of chatting turned the conversation to her troubles. Speaking in hushed tones, Narmin divulged a secret she had told few people — a mystery neither would disclose. The act of sharing it brought her some peace of mind.
But she could not stop the nightmares. In one, she found her boyfriend Mustafa in a pool of blood.
So in May, Narmin reached out to a family friend well-versed in the Quran for help. He gave her a reading, but as she tried to speak the words, she turned red in the face and felt as though she couldn’t breathe. The man stopped her and told her to slip the reading under her pillow. That night, a new dream came: She saw a tiny trail of smoke — the evil curse — coming out of her body, as the religious man told her that she would be fine. In the morning, she felt different.
“It is a dream,” Narmin said, “but I feel happy.”
Slowly, as the weeks passed, she felt stronger. She stopped crying. She moved from her parents’ bedroom to her own.
For some victims of trauma, their entire being has been hurt, almost possessed by the trauma, and it takes time to heal. But experts say everyone has that capacity.
“What we have found is that resilience can be reawakened. It can be dormant,” said Rakusin, the psychotherapist. “The medicine that heals is compassion. We can open our hearts and listen.”
Harvard’s Mollica points to other factors that help these teens do better: networking with friends, being focused on school, playing sports, spirituality. He says they can, and often do, recover.
On the last day of school at Patterson, the building was unbearably hot. Few students showed up. Smith was packed up, finally retiring. But Reema and Narmin had come, with cakes and potato chips, to give him a send-off. Over the past 11 years, he had anguished over these and dozens of other students. “We’ve seen how strong they can be, but we’ve also experienced their fragility,” he said.
In that parting moment with his students, Smith couldn’t help but give them a last lesson. He encouraged Narmin to break off the relationship with Mustafa, gently acknowledging that it would be difficult for her to get him to America. The time she spent on Facebook with Mustafa, he said, is time she could be spending living in America.
“I just want someone to love me,” she said.
Smith explained that with education, she would have more opportunities to find an interesting career and partner. “I want you guys to be in places where you can grow. It is so easy to get stuck.”
Narmin’s family had grabbed the immigrant dream. Her father had a good job driving trucks. They had purchased a small house, and her younger siblings now argued in English. Her mother was taking language classes at a community college. Her friend Reema was getting counseling, and by late August, was hitting the soccer field for team practice.
As Narmin’s senior year started this fall, she buckled down and focused on her classes. She still struggled with English, and anatomy and physiology was a challenge, but she was earning top grades. She wanted a career in medicine. And she had given up all notions of returning to Iraq.
“Now I want to ... care about myself,” she said. For now, the nightmares were gone.
She had come to love the freedom she had achieved, the diversity of thought and acceptance of different kinds of people — even Iraqi girls like herself in head scarves. On a Saturday in September, Narmin took the first step toward teenage freedom. She got her learner’s permit.
“I have my life here,” she said defiantly.
And then, as she sat at the food court at the Eastpoint Mall that afternoon, life halfway around the world intruded. Her phone buzzed with a message, and her heart was pulled back to Baghdad. The past was not done with her yet.