On calm campus in northern Iraq, uneasy thoughts of Baghdad
The Monitor has followed the Iraqi Methboub family since 2002. Daughter Amal is flourishing at university, but worries about her family in Baghdad preoccupy her.
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Each bombing in Baghdad brings a surge of dread, uncertainty, and even guilt to Amal Methboub, a university student inÂ Iraqâ€™s relatively peaceful north.
Many of those explosions target Amalâ€™s home district of Karrada, where the fourth-year studentâ€™s seven siblings and widowed mother eke out a living.Â
Amal earns remarkably high grades at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) and dreams of law school, but she strugglesÂ withÂ long periods away from her close-knit family â€“ and the frequent bombingsÂ that could take them away from her for good.Â
Yet hers is a rare good news story from Iraq â€“ a victory-in-progress despite chronic political instability that last week's election seems unlikely to end.Â The Monitor has chronicled the impoverished Methboub family since late 2002. The familyâ€™s saga shows how ordinary Iraqis have coped with the US invasion and the decade of extreme violence that followed.
â€śI wonâ€™t say I have adapted to everything; still my heart is there,â€ť says Amal, a Shiite Arab with a shy smile, who wears a headscarf and favors vibrant colors. â€śWhen I hear of Karrada explosions, I blame myself and feel guilty. I needed to be there, now that the violence is much worse.â€ť
Amal says she calls homeÂ almost dailyÂ to check in, andÂ after a blastÂ tells the family not to let her youngest brother, Mahmoud, leave the house. Scores of bombings have helped push Iraq's death toll above 3,000 since January.
â€śNow especially in Karrada, itâ€™s just intense. When I call them, they say everything is fine,â€ť says Amal. â€śI donâ€™t know whether they are lying to me. They donâ€™t want me to worry, but that makes me more anxious.â€ť
From victim to changemaker
Amal and her family have survived car bombsÂ and brutal torture of one brother, aÂ sisterâ€™s true love,Â andÂ a broken marriageÂ with heavy doses of dark humor andÂ a strongÂ religious faithÂ that helps them accept their fate.
When the Monitor first met this poor Iraqi familyÂ before the 2003 US invasion that toppled SaddamÂ Hussein,Â we sat on the floor because the furniture had been sold earlier that day to pay for Amalâ€™s school fees.
More than a decade later, Amal bears the highest expectationsÂ of her family, which areÂ inspired by her hard work, thrift and dedication.Â On a five-year full scholarship to study international studies at AUIS, she overcame many hurdlesÂ duringÂ her first year studyingÂ in Iraqâ€™s Kurdish region.
The experience has transformed her from a victim struggling to survive to an Iraqi devoted to giving something back. During her winter break, Amal returned to Baghdad and took part in a youth project to end sectarian discrimination, which included a day cleaning the city's streets. She also did volunteer and charity work last summer.Â
â€śI know their position more, I was [once] in their shoes, I needed someone,â€ť says Amal, about her motivationsÂ to work with other poor Iraqis.Â
â€śYou should give something back,â€ť says Amal. â€śI need to work, I need to do something for my community, something thatâ€™s really physical, not just a grade on paper. Thatâ€™s my goal.â€ť
Classes like those of Prof. Asos Askari, who teaches an introductory law course created at Stanford University, are an initial step. University officials hope Stanfordâ€™s Iraqi Legal Education Initiative will eventually form the basis of a law school â€“Â with the firstÂ updatedÂ legal curriculum in Iraq in decades.
Amal is active in this class, as 20 students discuss how laws are presented to parliament, civil rights and violations, and how most constitutions are, Mr. Askari says, â€śaspirationalâ€ť documents. Amal bypasses the outer ring of seats that most students taking, putting herself closer to the front.Â
Later, Amal and her roommate Nagham Jalal Aloka prepare lunch in their dorm and joke with each other about Amalâ€™s bomb-riddled district being in the big city â€“ the â€śBeverly Hills of Baghdad.â€ť Nagham, they laugh, comes from a â€śvillageâ€ť near Mosul.
The laughter is a pleasant break for Amal, who otherwise spends her day immersed in challenging academic work. HerÂ grade point averageÂ of 3.3 is so impressive at a university that officials here say does not engage in grade inflation,Â that Nagham says administrators â€śtold the whole universityâ€ť about it.
Amal's family always considered her the brainy one, which is why, at the age of 12, the MonitorÂ asked her to write a diary chronicling her experience during the war, publishing it shortly after the US invasion in 2003.
'Kill their spirit'
Amal is flourishing and US troops are gone, but the family â€“ and Iraq â€“ are still struggling. Amal's youngest brother Mahmoud, is now 19 and soccer crazy. He plays on a local team that, like other similar teams,Â has been targeted by militants, who have placed explosives on the playing field.
â€śThey just want to kill their spirit,â€ť says Amal of the attackers. â€śWhen two teams play, each one of them defends his own country, his own communityâ€¦ It teaches them how to protect their society, their neighborhood â€“Â it teaches them to defend, to fight with a courageous spirit.â€ť
Oldest sister Fatima â€“Â whose own education was cut short so she could help her mother with all the children â€“Â married for loveÂ in early 2008, but thenÂ divorced after the marriage turned abusive.
â€śI always feel she has this sadness in her heart, she laughs all the time, sometimes all day, but you can feel it â€“ sheâ€™s sad inside,â€ť says Amal of the once-coquettish Fatima.
There is some good news: Second sister ZainabÂ has â€śtwo wonderful babiesâ€ťÂ and visits the family most days. Brother Mohammad's baby, Hossein, was born in February,Â making the family house even more crowded. Twin girls Duha and Hibba are enrolled in university courses in Baghdad, with high hopes and expanding educations.
Sacrifices for children
But her mother, Karima Selman Methboub,Â is not well, a result of decades of sacrifice for her children, says Amal, and of the terrible saga that afflicted the oldest son Ali, who was imprisoned andÂ tortured for 2-1/2 years. Ali, who started working at 8 or 9 to help feed the family, was finally released without charge and has returned to his job as a security guard at Iraqi electrical installations, but the family's heavy borrowing for bribes will take a decade to pay off.
â€śThis killed the family as a whole, each of us; Fatima had to sell her [wedding] gold, and my mother. Technically we lost everything,â€ť says Amal, emotion creeping into her voice.Â What she remembers most about Ali is that he was like a â€śchild that everybody loves,â€ť with a pervasive sense of humor and easy laugh.
â€śI think we lost Ali. Heâ€™s not the same. Heâ€™s there, but heâ€™s not there,â€ť says Amal, who only saw her oldest brother four or five times when she was home last summer.
"When you see him like this it breaks something in you, in your soul. â€¦ I canâ€™t describe it without putting tears in my eyes," she says. â€śI wonâ€™t blame him. We werenâ€™t there when he was tortured over and over again."