From Iraq to the Happiest Place on Earth

For immigrants who left behind a world of constant stress and danger, a visit to Disneyland is a magical experience.

The fireworks at Disneyland had ended. It was past closing time and the crowds were pouring out the gates, but we lingered.

Layla Alshawi, the 63-year-old mother of our friends, didn't want to leave. She hugged a light pole, joking that we would have to drag her out.

We'd spent three days at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim with my friend, Saif Alnasseri, his wife, mother and 5-year-old daughter.

Like my husband, whose name is also Saif, he was an Iraqi translator I met in 2007 during my rotations in the Los Angeles Times' Baghdad bureau. A little over three years ago, under a refugee program granted to Iraqis who assisted the U.S. military or media, he immigrated to New Jersey. This was their first trip to California.

For me, the "magic" of Disney had started to wear thin after dozens of visits plus several years of covering the park — from stories about the opening of new rides (and California Adventure) to probes into accidents there.

The novelty of Disneyland had long evaporated.

Until recently.

Now the park has come to hold a different meaning as I experienced it again — this time through the eyes of my husband and Iraqi friends.

I will never forget the moment walking into Disneyland, watching our friends soak in Main Street for the first time as we approached Sleeping Beauty's Castle. They were wide-eyed; their mouths open in a constant state of "wow." All during our trip, I heard the same Arabic word repeated reverently — titshaka — which, in slang translation, is the equivalent of "you're kidding me" and "awesome."

We were really here — the Happiest Place on Earth — all together. It was so hard to believe that four years ago, we were all in one of the Unhappiest Places on Earth.

"If you want to have fun in Baghdad, it's really, really hard to find a place that makes you feel completely relaxed and enjoy your time without fear, without anxiety that something wrong could happen at any time," my friend Saif, 33, said.

"Even at the zoo or the theme park, you always think that something might happen at any time — like a crazy person could blow himself up in the crowd or there might be a random shooting or a random rocket might fall."

My husband agreed: "It might sound like a cliche, but those things happened at least once a day."

After living through that, he said, Disneyland has a surreal quality that is like "an emotional roller coaster moving from one extreme to another."

Since my husband arrived in the U.S. in 2009 after months of red tape, I've heard him remark on numerous occasions how youthful everyone looks here — and how relaxed. In Iraq, a life of fear and anxiety has taken a toll. Forty-year-old Iraqis look 10 years older. And there's an exhaustion, a sadness, that seems to permanently cloud their eyes.

That was part of the culture shock of Disneyland, so much joy all packed into one place.

"Once I entered inside, I felt like I was transferred into a whole different world of fantasy," my husband said. "Everybody's happy and everybody's nice — like it's not a real world."

The uncertainty and the violence that still grips their country is what drove them to leave, even if it meant starting over.

My husband attended pharmacy school with Saif and his wife in Baghdad in the mid-1990s. All three are trying to obtain U.S. licenses, a lengthy process that none has yet to complete.