"It gives me chills when my mother calls me or when I hear her voice," she says. "And when my husband's father calls, he gets off the phone and says ‘I'll call him later, I don't feel like talking.'"
An Iraqi refugee who now resides in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, Leyla is one of 60,000 Iraqis who came to the United States as refugees since the American invasion in 2003. For her, the destabilizing effects of the war will continue. It's hard to say when Iraq might be safe enough for her and her family to begin considering a return.
Leyla, 37, is a journalist who currently works as a translator for the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which has helped to resettle over 1,000 Iraqis in the United States and other countries by providing over $3 million in free legal services. Her story of coming to America is an uncommon one among Iraqi refugees, as she accepted a marriage proposal from an American journalist after working closely with him as a translator and driver for members of the American media in Baghdad.
"We were almost kidnapped together and almost shot at many times," she says. "That left us to become very close to each other. We would come back to our office after covering a bombing, talk about the pieces of dead bodies we saw, then sit and weep over why that was happening before we go back to be objective and write our stories."
She reports that marrying an American greatly facilitated the process of coming to the U.S., although it still took about a year for her to receive the fiancé visa she applied for in 2005. She finally came to America and reunited with her husband in late 2006, just before the U.S. government finally began to let in more than a few hundred Iraqi refugees each year.
It is no secret that working as a journalist in the midst of the Iraq War was dangerous, but Leyla's identity as an Iraqi and as a working woman within a male-dominated Iraqi society made life even more complicated and distressing. Some Iraqis saw her as a collaborator because of her working relationship with American journalists. She lived with a palpable threat of being kidnapped and received death threats upon occasion. However, the constant troubles and difficulties of her everyday life wore her down even more.
"What's worse is that you're always, all the time, picked on and scared and cursed and stressed out," she says. "All these things in addition to having to cover bombings and going to the morgues to count all the dead bodies [any given] day."
She came to the U.S. alone, although her children were eventually let into America thanks to her marriage. The rest of her family still remains in Iraq, and although she has been a New Yorker for about five years, she still worries about the additional danger her presence in America brings to her family.
Leyla has applied for visas for them to join her but she has "little hope that they will ever get refugee status." They are happy she's safe now, but she worries because three of them are very ill and not getting the medical help they require. She believes other Iraqis applying for refugee status are in more dire need than her family, and that processing their applications has been slowed by the increased security background checks for refugees ordered by the Obama Administration. These orders came after two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky were charged with attempting to send weapons back to Iraq for use against Americans earlier this year. As a result, more than 58,000 refugees living in the U.S. were rescreened, and the number of refugees let into America was practically cut in half, from 18,016 in Fiscal Year 2010 to 9,388 in Fiscal Year 2011 according to the U.S. State Department website.
"There are people who have been waiting two years or three years and there's now an enormous backlog of people waiting to be run through the new checks," said Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York. "So it's really anyone's guess when the backlog is going to be cleared."
Heller reports that she has only settled "three or four families" in New York City due to the high rents and tough job market. She also says most Iraqi refugees gravitate towards states that have stronger Iraqi-American communities, such as Michigan, Texas and California.
Leyla's separation from her siblings, parents and extended family has been profoundly difficult to adjust to for her, and she often doesn't feel as though Americans share her views on how families should operate. She refers to the closeness of an Iraqi family as a "security blanket" that does not seem to exist in the same way in America.
Even though other people tell her she seems comfortable with an American lifestyle, she still doesn't feel fully adjusted to what life is like for her now. In effect, she has a hard time accepting the negative aspects of American culture and can't fully enjoy the positive ones.
"For the past five years I've been here, it's like I've been split between two countries," she says. "And I feel guilty. I still feel guilty that I'm here, that my people are suffering and that it's dangerous for them. That I'm able to put on tight jeans and women there have to cover [their faces]."
American bias towards Arabs and Muslims has affected her directly upon occasion, but the treatment of her two sons in city public schools have made it particularly hard for her family to get used to life in America.
"A lot of the other children call them terrorists, say ‘You're the son of Osama bin Laden,' they call them ‘stupid Arab'—that has been really hard," she says. "And I get angry when my children tell me that these things were said to them, but then I have to tell them ‘OK, you can't control other people; you should not worry about it,' but someone really should say something to these children."
So for Leyla, living in America is a double-edged sword. She lives in safety but hates worrying about her family's presence in such a hazardous part of the world. She has more rights but there are few who understand her and her children's cultural background. Still, the thought of making a permanent return to Iraq is not something she's pondering right now.
Leyla says "nation-building" efforts by U.S. forces have been ineffective, leaving Iraqis angry about the American military leaving the country without sufficient jobs or infrastructure to let Iraqis look forward to a better future.