clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

I’m a refugee from Iraq, and I’m tired of being a pawn in a political debate

The first time I came to America, I was a student, filled with excitement about living in a place I knew through my favorite television shows. The second time, I was a refugee, fleeing my home country of Iraq after the rise of ISIS.

These two experiences could not be more different: When I was a student a decade ago, people asked me questions born out of ignorance — it was clear that my new friends knew very little about what it was like to be Muslim or Arab, and they wanted to learn more. But now the innocent ignorance I observed in my classmates has evolved into menacing attitudes that present physical danger to Arabs and Muslims, refugees and Americans alike. What was once curiosity has turned into hatred and fear.

Life as a student: Slurpees, new friends, and silly questions

In 2005, two years after the US invasion of Iraq, I faced the possibility of not being able continue my education due to the deteriorating security in Baghdad. New groups surfaced that claimed religiosity and perpetuated sectarianism. My uncovered hair and outspoken and opinionated disposition made me a target. A note, along with a bloody bullet, was thrown into my yard threatening my family and me to leave, or else. We fled to Jordan.

My family could not afford to send me to school in Jordan, so I enlisted one of our American family friends to guide me through the process of applying to American schools. I wanted to be in the land of possibility. I wanted to have a locker like the kids in Saved by the Bell and make new friends like Will in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

When a private school in Maine offered me a full scholarship, I finally got my own locker, made friends, spoke English, and slurped Slurpees. I lived with an American host family and only interacted with American students and adults. While most of the people in my school were open-minded and knew a lot about the Middle East, I was still asked questions that, at the time, I found laughable. Questions like, "Do you ride a camel to school?" and, "Are you related to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein?"

"Do you ride a camel to school?" "Are you related to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein?"

I didn't realize that those questions signified my otherness and made that very otherness my identity. I wasn't aware of the divide between American and Arab when I first arrived to the US or even during my first year of high school. I thought those questions were normal and it was my duty to educate these students on all things Arab. When the questions kept coming, I realized that the meaning behind them ran much deeper than superficial ignorance.

No one at the school bluntly told me that I was different. Every single adult at my school was very helpful, aware, and accommodating. Instead, I felt my otherness through small nuances in the way the other students treated me and the way they treated the South American exchange students.

I left the United States not fully understanding the depth of my experience. I still had the impression that America was the dream, that it was what I wished Iraq could be.

Why I fled Iraq

Upon graduating high school I traveled and lived in many places in both Europe and the Middle East. Years later I ended up back in Baghdad, in the comfort of home and family. However, that comfort was threatened once again.

The second time I came to the United States was in 2014. I was fleeing ISIS. They had taken over parts of northern Iraq and Syria and were becoming a terrifying global phenomenon. I could not live in Iraq anymore. ISIS had not reached Baghdad at that time, but their presence manifested itself in escalated violence and increasing sectarianism.

I was once again ridiculed for my uncovered hair. When I went on job interviews, I faced harassment.

I was personally in the vicinity of three suicide bombs within two weeks, and I was once again ridiculed for my uncovered hair. When I went on job interviews, I faced harassment for the way I carried myself. I felt like I was in constant danger between the widespread random violence and being a target.

My options were limited — either stay in Baghdad and confront the dangers of every-day bombs and shootings or ask for help. The place that was once my home was tarnished. When faced with the decision of choosing my own safety or this tainted version of my home, I chose safety.

I packed my clothes, pocketed my passport, and folded my love for Iraq into a box and tucked it in the very back of my mind. I knew that if I had any hope at a life I would not be able to go back.

Life as a refugee: innocent questions turn menacing

When I arrived in the US, I realized that my status as a refugee made people see me much differently than when I was a student. A defining moment was earlier this year, when the picture surfaced of a Syrian child's body on the shore in Turkey. The debate about the refugee crisis ignited. I became a crisis. Social media became a platform for hatred and solidarity, and I argued and debated — with American, European, and Arab friends I encountered throughout my travels and now only communicated with through Facebook — for refugees' right to find a safe haven. I felt like I had to defend my own existence by defending the Syrian refugees' right to live. When a friend, and an Iraq War veteran, shared a post about the danger of ISIS militants slipping through the cracks with the refugees, I felt personally attacked. I felt that his point of view nullified my plight.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit offered a soapbox for supporters and detractors to voice some of the most extreme opinions I have ever encountered. I suddenly became very agitated every time I was out in public; my mind became present and my muscles tensed every time I went to the corner deli. I was suddenly scared for my safety in a place where I'd sought to escape that particular feeling.

After Paris, I was expected to apologize on behalf of ISIS

After the attacks on Paris earlier this month, governors of more than half of the states in America expressed their opposition to receiving more refugees within the borders of their states. The House of Representatives passed a bill to halt President Barack Obama's plan to admit 10,000 refugees to the US, and Donald Trump suggested ID tags to identify Muslims. Millions of Facebook posts and pictures weighed the vices and virtues of Syrians and whether or not they deserve to live in the US.

American friends started posting statuses about how they would take in a "military age" refugee man, drive him around, and drink beers with him in order to change his mind about the United States, to stop him from becoming a terrorist. As much as we refugees appreciate this intention, the very fact that we are expected to be guilty until proven or, in this case, turned innocent is demeaning and racist.

I was asked, "Why did the terrorists attack Paris?" instead of, "Do you ride camels to school?" and "Do you still think Islam has nothing to do with terrorism?" instead of, "Are you related to Osama bin Laden?" I was expected to apologize on behalf of ISIS and to prove that I deserve to be safe.

These questions started to weigh on me; my once calm and collected demeanor became an angry one. I did not understand why friends and strangers alike believed that ISIS represents me, why every conversation I had turned into an interrogation about ISIS and whether or not I deserved to live in the United States. Although my anger was bubbling inside me, I felt that I had to hide it behind an apologetic smile until I was around my Arab friends. I hid my anger behind a sarcastic exterior: Every time someone asked why we did not stop ISIS I'd tell them, "Hold on a minute while I call them and tell them to stop." I felt that if I got visibly angry at those extremely ignorant and incredibly offensive questions, I would be putting myself in danger and solidifying my place as a terrorist in the askers' minds.

I was asked, "Why did the terrorists attack Paris?" instead of, "Do you ride camels to school?"

Those questions started to make me feel that my sentiment toward what happened in Paris was being trivialized. Hearing about those attacks placed me back in the danger of living in the shadow of ISIS. I could sympathize with the victims of the attack because I was struck by that same horror, and I understood the fear and apprehension that followed. Nevertheless, my sympathy was undermined due to my being Arab. I was painted with the same brush as ISIS while they were the reason I had to flee. Thus, me being asked to condemn these attacks presented a big problem in the fact that my own identity was put in the same category as that of ISIS.

I found my love for Iraq, the love I tucked away in that box, coming back, filling me with pride and compelling me to explain that my country was a great one and that I refuse to let terrorists undermine its place and importance in history. However, that explanation resulted in many voices asking me why I would not just go back. What those voices failed to understand is that I cannot go back.

We, as refugees, do not have a choice. When everything we cared about was taken from us, we had to leave and go to any place that would take us. If you have not experienced this feeling, then you do not know how humiliating it is to stand at the door of the United States or Germany or Greece and beg to have your life saved, beg for the kind of help that should be any human's right. It is aggravating to see politicians take your humanity and either amplify it or reduce it to benefit their agenda.

All refugees have their own box of stories, lives, and unparalleled love. We are not just a statistic. Next time you hear politicians debating on whether we deserve to live, think of your favorite spot on the couch, your favorite restaurant, and leaving your best friends behind. Think, if you had the choice, would you leave all of that behind?

Zainab Dabbagh is an Iraqi business development specialist in New York City. She used to be a journalist at an online media company in Beirut, Lebanon. She holds degrees in anthropology and media studies from the American University of Beirut.

First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at


Nikki Haley’s “rise” and the Republican flight from reality


What Matt Rife’s baffling Netflix special tells us about comedy


Alex Murdaugh stands guilty of killing his wife and son. That’s just scratching the surface.

View all stories in The Latest