The heart of a refugee and the culture of violence

From Nebraska comes a refugee story outside the usual mold for its depth. A newsweekly called the Reader carries the tale of a young Iraqi man who came to America in 1994 after three years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. It begins:

Growing up, Wesaam Al-Badry learned the ways of violence to survive. Now, what was once a necessity has become a liability.

Al-Badry received a letter in October 2008, denying him American citizenship. After living here as a political refugee for 14 years, he was not eligible, it said, because of poor moral character. But for Al-Badry and others affected by war, the definition of moral character swims in shades of gray.

The article follows Al-Badry’s life from the end of the First Gulf War, when the American government encouraged Iraqis to revolt against Saddam Hussein and then left them to the mercy of Saddam’s troops when they did. Terrible carnage followed, and during that time Al-Badry’s family fled, witnessing gruesome scenes on the way. Al-Badry was eight years old. 

It goes on to relate how horrible conditions were in the refugee camp where they ended up, and how violent the environment.

The young Al-Badry heard people everywhere moaning in pain. Sorrow hatred, anger and starvation were not masked. People who were 40, looked 70. They lived and walked without shirt or shoes in streets that smelled of garbage. Public suicides were not uncommon.

….In the first of three years in the camps, refugees joined gangs based on religion or hometown. The biggest gangs had control within the walls, as guards mostly secured the perimeter.

“They would take the metal bars from tent posts and file them into swords,” he said. “I had to pick up weapons to go to the school. This is just what happens when you put 30,000 people together that have no hope.”

This is not true about any random 30,000 hopeless people, but it is true of a culture that was already based on violence. Earlier in the article, we read this:

Zainab Al-Baaj, another Iraqi refugee living in Lincoln, came to know the Al-Badry family in the Rafha refugee camp. Boys in Iraq grow up learning to fight, Al-Baaj said. They are taught that if they don’t fight, they will be taken advantage of. And if the father is gone, it falls on the oldest male to provide for the family, even if he is a child.

Saddam Hussein’s brutality has usually been minimized in the American media. He was one of the most vicious dictators of all time, for decades controlling the Iraqi people through horror and intimidation. Opponents to the regime and their families were dealt with in ways I don’t want to describe. It is no wonder that violence was a way of life and internalized to become a part of the character of most Iraqi males.  The article continues:

The violence decreased after the first year, but the insanity never died.

Children ran wild. With little constructive to do except play soccer, play often turned violent. Small in stature, as he is today, Al-Badry had to learn to overpower the others.

“We would chase and beat each other with sticks,” he said. “I still have marks all over my body, even on my forehead.”

It was not just other boys that Al-Badry fought. He orchestrated an attack on a 20-year-old child molester learning to defend what was important in life: friends and family.

Until he was 12, Al-Badry lived in a world torn by war. He learned to equate fighting with pride, and loyalty to love.

Then his family came to America, to Lincoln, Nebraska, and now the story sounds familiar:

But the country that many Iraqis thought of as a land where everyone was rich and happy, would incite a battle inside Al-Badry, where his past would confront his future.

Language was the first barrier. And clothing is different. Food is different. At school, buildings, teachers and attitudes are different.

“Whatever I knew before was worthless,” Al-Badry said. “Writing was from left to right, numbers were different. I couldn’t even put together a sentence.”

Hmm, sounds like my Jewish grandparents’ experience, having fled czarist pogroms in Russia for dire poverty in Philadelphia, speaking and reading Yiddish (which reads from right to left) and eating strange foods. But they weren’t steeped in a culture of violence; they did not internalize the brutality which was done to their people. Al-Badry did not adapt well to peace.

“Going from a place where you could die any day, to complete peace, is a culture shock,” he said. “Kids would get up real close to me and talk loud, maybe to speak clearer, but I took it as a threat. I didn’t know what they were saying. I would push them or punch them.”

Garrison said many refugees had learned to settle things by fighting; and that’s why many fall in with the wrong crowd in America.

Still, Garrison and Hubbell (middle-school teachers of Al-Badry) agreed that violence is a choice.

“The anger is legitimate,” Hubbell said. “But that anger can hurt you.”

Al-Badry was always in trouble, and was finally expelled at age 15 when he was accused of pulling a knife on another student. He attended a program for expelled students, where “he was not engaged at all.”

Now here is a part that I find really interesting, and I’m going to give you the whole thing:

Psychologist Dr. Maria Prendes-Lintel has treated refugees since 1975. She said not everyone who experiences war, torture or refugee life becomes violent.

However, violence is a way of life for some and they don’t have a choice.

Prendes-Lintel said violent behavior often is a result of a person fulfilling their primary need, for safety.

In a camp such as Rahfa, children have little to no enrichment or guidance, she said. And although not all Iraqis are the same, often refugees learn to trust only friends and family. Everyone else is a possible threat to survival, she said.

Once refugees arrive in the U.S. the threat to safety is greatly diminished. However, without learning to adapt to a more stable environment, any perceived threat to safety, real or imagined, will trigger violence.

Although she hasn’t met Al-Badry, and made clear this is not a diagnosis, she said he likely hasn’t internalized the idea of non-violence. Refugees must learn to navigate both cultures. The longer a person is exposed to violence, the more damage has been internalized, she said.

“The ways he navigated the world to survive were appropriate and served a protective purpose [in Iraq],” she said. “But this level has not turned down. It is at the same level. The radar is high — everything is a threat except family and friends.”

Prendes-Lintel said the first issue a refugee must address is trust. Often, the ability to trust is diminished by post-traumatic stress disorder. And the primal need for safety won’t go away, she said.

The article goes on to relate Al-Badry’s history of fights. He says he has been in about 75 fights since he came to America, and most of them were about being insulted racially. Several incidents are related in which he was trying to defend someone and that was misinterpreted. A friend is quoted as saying Al-Badry is not a criminal; it’s a matter of pride. Al-Badry has three assault convictions.

But he insists the label of “poor moral character,” assigned by U.S. Immigration Services is inappropriate.

“This says to you that you are a rapist, a murderer,” he said. “They put everyone together. Fighting is a dispute between two men that don’t understand each other.

“Fighting is not hatred,” he said. “Ethnic cleansing, rape, murder, genocide — that is hatred. There is no God if you believe in hatred.”

The guy is obviously ready to fight, and a pretty violent person. But I have some sympathy for his point of view. Physical fighting used to be a way for males to settle differences. My father, son of the aforementioned grandparents, was a gentle intellectual when I knew him. But as a kid in the slums he was always involved in fistfights. I am certain he didn’t start the fights. But that’s how it was in those days (he was born in 1909); that’s what boys did.

During the last generation society has become feminized, especially the schools, and fighting is now regarded with horror, at least in the middle class. Boys are considered defective and in need of medication of they fight, whether it’s offensive or defensive. Talking is the answer to everything. And here was a kid who couldn’t speak English at first, and subjected to insults again and again. There’s no detailed history here, but I wonder if things would have worked out better if he and his tormentors had had some old-fashioned fistfights and then perhaps settled down to be friends. Maybe not, but maybe. The cultural gap in the matter of fighting must have been bewildering for him, and not only because he was an angry refugee.

The last part of the article discusses Al-Badry’s options. He is not going to fight the immigration decision. He doesn’t want to go to Iraq.

Al-Badry knows if he were deported to Iraq, he would be lost. After all the war and violence, his country is not the same.

“I would be a foreigner there,” he said. “It would be like putting a man that’s been in jail for 14 years, back into the real world.”

A very odd analogy.  He’d still find a home there; he must have relatives.  He’d know the language. Instead, he’s thinking of going to Holland, where he has an uncle. He could stay here and apply for citizenship again after a seven-year probationary period. But he doesn’t want that either.

Al-Badry sees himself as a man with no country, and believes Saddam destroyed the potential of the Iraqi people. Now, the America that embraced him, has told him he is not welcome.

“My heart was broken as a child,” he said. “Love, God, political views won’t save you. It’s being strong, clever and brave that will save you.”

It doesn’t sound as if he recognizes that he might have to change to fit in. I don’t think Holland appreciates hair-trigger violent people any more than we do. We’ve mentioned before how traumatized many refugees are, and this man is a good example of it. But the culture has a great deal to do with how the trauma is expressed, and the Iraqi culture Al-Badry grew up in primed him for the worst personal outcome. Many of the Vietnamese who came here in the 1970s and 1980s were traumatized too, having lived through a war, a communist regime, often prison camps, and harrowing escapes. But their culture and their resulting characters didn’t lead them to express their trauma in violence.

Again I return to the politically incorrect notion that cultures and people are vastly different. Some are suitable for resettlement in the United States and some are not. I see no chance that our government will ever try to distinguish between them. It seems that with every year that passes more unsuitable people are brought here, and settled in conditions that do nothing to mitigate the problems, to the great detriment of our society.

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