"A Blessing in Baghdad"

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Posted by Mr. E from ? ( on Sunday, April 21, 2002 at 1:06PM :

this article appears in the april/may issue of Left Turn magazine:

A Blessing in Baghdad
by Ramzi Kysia

Have you ever been blessed by a beggar?

Strolling near Baghdad's Foreign Residence Office is an other-worldly
experience. Foreign businessmen rush about to extend their visas at
the office. A UN hotel in the neighborhood completes the
international presence. "Fancy" restaurants line crumbling sidewalks,
catering to the foreigners and what remains of Iraq's middle class -
offering elaborate, multi-course meals at $2 per person. So many
faces, so many people, each with their own hopes and their own
history. What are they thinking? What do they dream of?

The only face America sees is Saddam Hussein's. Are we looking hard

Street children besiege you in an unending stream. Each child,
beautiful, radiant, dirty and disheveled, going through well- practiced
routines, using what English they've picked up over the
years. "Please mister, one dollar only, for my mother, please

Does my face show how stunned my heart feels? I work my prayer beads,
asking that somehow, somewhere, someone will help these children.

"Don't be a sucker," my friend, walking with me, says with
authority. "These kids are part of some beggar ring. Any money you
give them they'll never see, and you'll never be rid of them

A teenage boy with a scarred face implores me to get a shoeshine. A
pretty girl with a confident stride walks up to us with a box of
chewing gum. An almost wicked grin plays at her lips, as if she knows
we'll be easy marks. Without even thinking, I drop my beads into her
outstretched hand.

Surprised, she says, "Ana? For me?"

I nod.

She beams, "Thank you, mister, I give them my mother!"

Disgusted, my friend says, "Every beggar on the street is going to
run after us now! Do you realize that? You think that girl's mother
is ever going to see those beads? She's going to sell them, and do
God-knows-what with the money. She probably doesn't even have a

Sure enough, we're soon deluged with children, all asking for more
beads so they can each give them to their mothers. My friend laughs
cynically, "I told you so."

A few days later I pass that same girl again. She grabs my hand and
pulls me, "Come, come, I want you meet my mother." On a worn bench on
the sidewalk sits a tired looking woman, holding a child in the crook
of her arm. She opens her hand, and, wonder-of-wonders, shows me the
beads I gave her daughter. She smiles at me.

"Thank you for your gift," she says.

Cynicism disappears. All I saw were beggars. I wasn't looking hard
enough. Each person has a story, if we would only listen for them. I
invite two children to lunch - Bari, the shoeshine boy with the
scarred face, and Amira, of the confident smile.

Both Amira and Bari have been working the street for 4 years. Amira's
12 now, and supports her whole family on the roughly $70 she hustles
every month. Her mother takes care of her baby brother. Another
sister and brother remain in school. An older sister is ill and
unable to work. Their father left home because he couldn't provide
for them. They see him now and again.

When I ask her how, in all of this, she still has such a beautiful
smile - she tears up and begins to cry. She says, "If you saw me
sometime, I am smiling, it's not from bottom of my heart. Inside of
me I am very sad."

Bari's father has a good job working in a local garage, but, when one
of his sisters developed cancer, the family's savings were destroyed.
Bari left school to help out. He earns $50-$60 a month shining shoes.
He tells me, "I'm always thinking about my family, I'm always
thinking about my work, I'm always thinking about my future...This
job is not respectable job, but what can I do?"

I tell them many Americans want to "help" them by overthrowing their
government. I ask them about sanctions and the likelihood of war.
Angrily, Bari responds, "I want to send message - what the sin that
we did? We are adult, we are small child people, what the sin we did
it? Now, during the sanction, we don't have chance to continue with
our education, to go to the schools. We are working since morning,
until the night. What the sin we did it to get life punishment? We
don't want more war to solve our problems. Because if America
military enter here, the problem will increase, not will be decrease.
If He want, God can solve our problem, not from America or America's
military...I want to send a message for George Bush. I want to say -
God will not forgive him."

Amira agrees, "About George Bush, he is bad man because he was reason
of death of many thousands people in Iraq, and Palestinian poor
people, and in Afghanistan...Why most people in the world hate
America? The name of America is hate, is hateable. No one can like
America...The disease, it is spread over. And the sanctions is one of
the reasons to the continue of this problem...if there is no
sanctions, I would not have to go out to work. I will not lost my
chance to continue with my study...Solving problems for other people?
Let them to live in safety. They can solve their problems by

I want to hug these too-wise children and tell them everything will
be alright, but that would be a lie. I want to tell them that I will
tell their stories to my fellow Americans. But that's another lie.
Before I can tell their stories, cynicism must disappear, and we must
be able to see Iraqis as people - as our equals before God.

So all I can say is thank you. Thank you, Amira. Thank you, Bari.
What a treasure each of you are. Thank you for your gift - the
blessing of, for however briefly, knowing you.

Ramzi Kysia is a Muslim-American peace activist working with the
Education for Peace in Iraq Center (www.saveageneration.org). He
recently spent two months in Iraq as part of a Voices in the
Wilderness (www.vitw.org) peace mission.

-- Mr. E
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