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World & Nation

Iraqi widow finds solace in school

Sarah cries less now. The tears lurk just beneath the surface and anything can prick the memories. It can be a word that tugs her back, a word that leads to another word and all kinds of memories. But she cries less.

When the minibus passes the jail where she was held for nearly two months, she tries not to look out the window. She bows her head and prays for friends who are still inside.

It was there she often sat alone and thought to herself, “If I ever get out of here, the first thing I will do is finish my degree.”

She had dropped out of college when she was 21, married and pregnant. Such a long time ago.

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Now, she has grabbed on to a new life, a life beyond the Americans and the militias and the war that scarred her, saved her and then scarred her again.

“I know it’s not easy,” she said, “but I choose to live.”

*

The campus in east Baghdad, with its lawn, palm trees and gardens, is her sanctuary.

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In German literature, in her beloved Schiller and Lessing, Sarah finds solace — and connects with her old self, the one she left behind 20 years ago when she gave up her studies to become a wife and mother.

Her husband, Ahmed, was a mechanic. They were Sunni Muslims who lived in a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood. Theirs was a traditional marriage. She was expected to submit to his authority, manage the household, raise their two sons.

In 2003, the U.S.-led invasion and occupation tore Iraq apart. Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party, the only authority Iraqis had known for a generation, were gone. Long-simmering sectarian tensions exploded.

A firebomb destroyed the family’s home. Ahmed lost his business. They had to flee the neighborhood, and for the first time in 18 years of marriage, Ahmed encouraged Sarah to get a job. They needed the money.

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The Americans needed interpreters, and Sarah had a gift for languages. She had picked up English from movies like “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease” and songs by ABBA and the Bee Gees.

In 2007, she was hired at Camp Falcon, a giant U.S. Army base in southeast Baghdad. All the “terps” took an American name to hide their real identities. She became Sarah.

She was terrified at first but quickly proved herself invaluable. She had a knack for getting people to open up. She translated for Army officers during their meetings with tribal sheiks and informants. Then she was asked to help smuggle sources into the base. She was instrumental in helping the Americans gather intelligence on the Mahdi Army, the main Shiite militia in the district.

Before long, Sarah was joining in interrogations of Iraqi detainees. She bragged that she could bring them to tears. The Americans dubbed her the Iron Woman. She wore fatigues, a bulletproof vest and wraparound sunglasses. The base became her second home.

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Then, in 2008, her husband was shot dead at a checkpoint, probably by militias in retaliation for her work. She decided to take her two boys to America, and began the wait for a visa.

But in a cruel twist, unnamed informants accused her of having betrayed the U.S. by passing intelligence to the same militias that had killed Ahmed. She spent nearly four months in U.S. and Iraqi jails, including a crowded women’s lockup that she described as “the lowest depth of hell.”

Finally, an Iraqi judge cleared her.

A U.S. officer who reviewed her dossier said there was no evidence Sarah had done anything wrong. But the incident sabotaged her chances of leaving the country.

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She had lost her home, her husband, her job and her hope of escape.

*

It was December 2009 when Sarah finally returned to Baghdad University. She was a third-year undergraduate, and at 39, twice the age of her classmates.

She sat in her first class and waited to see whether she could remember anything. It was a lecture, in German, about how archaeologists had transferred ruins from ancient Babylon to Berlin. She understood the teacher’s words. “This is good,” she told herself cautiously.

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One of her professors, Nasir Rabia, a roly-poly man with a patented scowl, remembered her from 20 years earlier.

“She wasn’t the best of students. She was in the middle,” Rabia said. “I offered to help her immediately with anything. It’s too long to come back.”

The foreign languages department had suffered horrible blows in the years after the U.S.-led invasion. The department’s beloved dean was shot dead in his car in 2005. A top student had just defended his master’s thesis when gunmen pulled him from a minibus and executed him in 2007. Their pictures hung on the wall.

The professors welcomed Sarah, none more than Ali Salman Sadeq, 44, an old classmate. He had heard that her husband had been killed. He too was burdened by bad memories.

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On his wedding anniversary in 2006, Sadeq was abducted by men in uniform, part of a mass kidnapping. Six friends were killed. He felt lucky to have survived.

“I told Sarah, ‘What can I do for you?’” he remembered, sitting with her recently at a cafeteria called the Deary Queen. “We are all on the same ship.”

If she became frustrated, he would chide her: “Don’t even think to leave college again.”

*

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When she gets home after a day of classes, she talks to her 14-year-old son, Baqr, about his day at school.

She adores her boys and wants them to forget the hard times the family endured.

“I want them to know me and be with me as a strong woman, who has control of everything,” she said.

But Baqr, her younger son, can sense her weak moments. He hugs her and tells her, “Don’t worry, Mom. Everything will be OK.” Then he offers to go to the store and buy her cola or sweets. She teases him, “Admit it, you want money to buy something for yourself.”

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Her older boy, Mustafa, 19, quit school during the eighth grade because of the civil war, and had worried his mother by spending nights out on the streets. He’s started working at a food processing plant.

She tries to encourage him to go back and get his diploma, but he says he would be embarrassed. She tells him, “Look at me.”

*

The early days back at college were hard. She worked on the side as a translator for a trade business, but the company slashed her salary when she started classes, and finally she quit.

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She often sat and studied for six hours at a time, until her back ached. She felt embarrassed because her old friends told her how smart she used to be. She would go to school early and spend time in the German library, where a tutor coached her. During spring holiday, she cloistered herself at home, poring over pages of grammar lessons and stories.

She started to love her classes. Her teachers and classmates called her “Adeeb,” the scholar, the way the Americans had once called her the Iron Woman.

Sometimes, she missed class because she ran out of money. But she would phone her friends and the teachers and they would pass on the necessary notes.

Her old friend Sadeq would tell her: “Sarah, we have all been in the same situation. It will pass. Just believe in God. We believe in you.”

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For her senior year, she returned to school having studied all summer. “I came like a warrior with all the weapons,” she bragged. “I was ready to fight. Believe me it was like that. I was ready to fight. “

She hated ever having to answer a question with “Ich weiss nicht”: “I don’t know.”

The female students grew close to her and asked about her children and her past life.

They expressed disbelief when she revealed her age and acknowledged that she dyed her hair black. They would ask her advice about young men. “Sarah, what do you think of this one? Tell us if he is a liar or honest.” She would beg off.

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She agreed to help one of them, a student named Doah, by quizzing a suitor. But the relationship fell apart, and Doah was heartbroken.

Doah moped, and when she failed an exam, Sarah scolded her: “This is wrong to be a weak woman. You have to be strong. I passed through things more difficult than yours. Look at me in spite of all these things. I’m working and studying and proving myself.”

When the time came for graduation in mid-May, the other students called her their warrior mother. Sarah wore a white blouse and black blazer and posed for pictures with her classmates. She held a bouquet and beamed at the camera.

Sarah didn’t know what would happen next. She was desperate for work. Friends warned her that the militia fighters she had helped put in jail were being released. But she tried not to let it bother her.

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“I can’t just give up,” she said. “This is my life. I have to live it.”

ned.parker@latimes.com


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