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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Iraqi student Amal Hussein works as a library assistant at the university library during her fourth year on scholarship at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) in the Kurdish northern city of Sulaimaniyeh, Iraq, on March 6, 2014. Ms. Hussein is the daughter of the widowed Baghdad matriarch Karima Selman Methboub, whose impoverished family of nine The Christian Science Monitor has followed since 2002.

Each bombing in Baghdad brings a surge of dread, uncertainty, and even guilt to Amal Methboub, a university student in Iraq’s relatively peaceful north.

Many of those explosions target Amal’s home district of Karrada, where the fourth-year student’s seven siblings and widowed mother eke out a living. 

Amal earns remarkably high grades at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) and dreams of law school, but she struggles with long periods away from her close-knit family – and the frequent bombings that could take them away from her for good. 

Yet hers is a rare good news story from Iraq – a victory-in-progress despite chronic political instability that last week's election seems unlikely to end. The Monitor has chronicled the impoverished Methboub family since late 2002. The family’s saga shows how ordinary Iraqis have coped with the US invasion and the decade of extreme violence that followed.

“I won’t say I have adapted to everything; still my heart is there,” says Amal, a Shiite Arab with a shy smile, who wears a headscarf and favors vibrant colors. “When I hear of Karrada explosions, I blame myself and feel guilty. I needed to be there, now that the violence is much worse.”

Amal says she calls home almost daily to check in, and after a blast 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.

“Now especially in Karrada, it’s just intense. When I call them, they say everything is fine,” says Amal. “I don’t know whether they are lying to me. They don’t want me to worry, but that makes me more anxious.”

From victim to changemaker

Amal and her family have survived car bombs and brutal torture of one brother, a sister’s true love, and a broken marriage with heavy doses of dark humor and a strong religious faith that helps them accept their fate.

When the Monitor first met this poor Iraqi family before the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, we sat on the floor because the furniture had been sold earlier that day to pay for Amal’s school fees.

More than a decade later, Amal bears the highest expectations of her family, which are inspired by her hard work, thrift and dedication. On a five-year full scholarship to study international studies at AUIS, she overcame many hurdles during her first year studying in Iraq’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. 

“I know their position more, I was [once] in their shoes, I needed someone,” says Amal, about her motivations to work with other poor Iraqis. 

“You should give something back,” says Amal. “I need to work, I need to do something for my community, something that’s really physical, not just a grade on paper. That’s my goal.”

Classes like those of Prof. Asos Askari, who teaches an introductory law course created at Stanford University, are an initial step. University officials hope Stanford’s Iraqi Legal Education Initiative will eventually form the basis of a law school – with the first updated 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, “aspirational” documents. Amal bypasses the outer ring of seats that most students taking, putting herself closer to the front. 

Later, Amal and her roommate Nagham Jalal Aloka prepare lunch in their dorm and joke with each other about Amal’s bomb-riddled district being in the big city – the “Beverly Hills of Baghdad.” Nagham, they laugh, comes from a “village” near Mosul.

The laughter is a pleasant break for Amal, who otherwise spends her day immersed in challenging academic work. Her grade point average of 3.3 is so impressive at a university that officials here say does not engage in grade inflation, that Nagham says administrators “told the whole university” about it.

Amal's family always considered her the brainy one, which is why, at the age of 12, the Monitor 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 – and Iraq – 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, has been targeted by militants, who have placed explosives on the playing field.

“They just want to kill their spirit,” says Amal of the attackers. “When two teams play, each one of them defends his own country, his own community… It teaches them how to protect their society, their neighborhood – it teaches them to defend, to fight with a courageous spirit.”

Oldest sister Fatima – whose own education was cut short so she could help her mother with all the children – married for love in early 2008, but then divorced after the marriage turned abusive.

“I always feel she has this sadness in her heart, she laughs all the time, sometimes all day, but you can feel it – she’s sad inside,” says Amal of the once-coquettish Fatima.

There is some good news: Second sister Zainab has “two wonderful babies” and visits the family most days. Brother Mohammad's baby, Hossein, was born in February, 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, 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 and 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.

“This killed the family as a whole, each of us; Fatima had to sell her [wedding] gold, and my mother. Technically we lost everything,” says Amal, emotion creeping into her voice. What she remembers most about Ali is that he was like a “child that everybody loves,” with a pervasive sense of humor and easy laugh.

“I think we lost Ali. He’s not the same. He’s there, but he’s not there,” 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. … I can’t describe it without putting tears in my eyes," she says. “I won’t blame him. We weren’t there when he was tortured over and over again."

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