Adjusting in the U.S.: Ahlam Al-Gertani’s puzzle

“Complex,” 54-year-old Iraqi refugee Ahlam Al-Gertani says of her life in America. She grabs the recorder off the table and presses it against her hijab-covered ear as a makeshift phone, mouthing words. “Everything here is about bills and letters,” she adds, as she pulls out a handful from her handbag and splays them over the table.

Ironic that Al-Gertani refers to her life in America as complicated when her life in Iraq was plagued by complexities. She recognizes that living in America has its advantages but as of right now she sees the loneliness that surrounds her. Al-Gertani, a theatrical and vivacious woman doesn’t seem like the type to live her life alone in an apartment. But the separation from her family, tempered with social questions about America and her uneasiness with the English language, make it hard for her to leave the comfort of her apartment.

Al-Gertani came to Chicago less than a year ago, in January 2011, after fleeing to Syria for four years with her two sisters, niece and nephew. They fled Iraq because her nephew, who was a translator for the American government, was threatened by people whose identities remain unclear. Having worked for the American government for one year, he was allowed to apply with his family to come to America as refugees.

Al-Gertani, her sister and her mother were resettled in Chicago while her other sister, her niece and her nephew were scheduled to come a month later. Instead, the U.S. government declined to approve resettlement for the nephew, the niece and their mother, she says, claiming that the nephew was working for Saddam Hussein’s army.

The separation from her family, especially from her sister who recently had a stroke, is emotionally trying for her as she tries to adjust to the U.S. As she looks for a job, Al-Gertani, spends her time taking care of her 86-year-old mother. They currently live off her mother’s Supplemental Security Income and food stamps.

“Here, I live like an animal,” she says, chuckling that she is constantly cooped up in the house. “Everyone here is closing their doors and not thinking of others, but back home life was so simple. You come to people’s houses and they give you whatever food they have.  But here if I die in my home no one will ask about me.“

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/HEBA-ahlam-audio1.mp3] Al-Gertani explains in Arabic how her sleepless excitement when she arrived in Chicago has turned to  intense loneliness.

Living in America has its perks, she says, and it is her situation not necessarily America that is making her life hard.

“Of course going back to Iraq would be hard. Here there is electricity, computers, and no bombing,” she says. “But I also have no neighbors, no friends and no family. The things that I gain here are different from the things that I used to have in Iraq.”

She remembers fondly the time when she found out she was coming to America

“When they told me I was coming here, I didn’t sleep the night, I was so happy,” she says, clasping her hands together.  “And when I came here my eyes were amazed, there were lights in the streets and everything was clean. But now, even if they give me tons of money I would refuse it! I just want to go back to my family,” she exclaims, playfully pounding her fist on the desk.

Nermin Elkalla, Al-Gertani’s close friend and her case manager at RefugeeOne, a refugee resettlement agency in Chicago, remembers being surprised at Al-Gertani’s joking and smiling demeanor.  “It was hard to imagine that there could be all this drama in this smiling woman’s life,” Elkalla says.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/HEBA-ahlam-audio3.mp3] Al-Gertaini expresses in English how she finds humor in the ridiculousness of the Shi’ite-Sunni divide.

Elkalla believes that finding a job will significantly improve Al-Gertani life as she would become busy and would have less time to focus on her loneliness and family back home.  Right now, except for a few shopping outings, Al-Gertani leaves the house rarely.

Al-Gertani is scarred from her experiences back home. She recollects how in her first two weeks in America she would jump anytime someone closed a door, fearing that someone had just bombed the building.

“This is how much I was scared; that one day I would be killed, “ she says. “I feel like coming to America I was already mentally drained. It’s like I am destroyed from inside. “

Her emotional exhaustion partnered with Al-Gertani’s confusion of American society to leave her limited socializing options.

“I just don’t know why people here are stressed,” she says with genuine curiosity.  “I feel like we’re sad because we’ve been through a war and killing.  I don’t know why people here are so sad and miserable. It just breaks my heart to see everyone running for work.”

She pauses for a second, as the translator laughs, then she comes out with it: “It kind of sucks their blood.”

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/HEBA-ahlam-audio2.2.mp3] Al-Gertani laments in Arabic how the pace of American society seems to suck the life out of people.

Though Al-Gertani prays five times day she does not want to go to the mosque as a way of finding friends or a social outlet. When asked why, explains how in Iraq it was common practice to target certain groups, depending on whether you were Shi’ite or Sunni. She does not want to experience this in America.

Her one friend, a Pakistani woman she met on the elevator at RefugeeOne is a source of happiness for her.  Al-Gertani recollects how Fatima came over to her house, hugged her mother and swapped dishes with her. “I just felt so happy that someone was with us,” she says.

When asked what gives her relief in America, Al-Gertani cites the computer as her main source of entertainment, where she’ll try to skype with her niece and nephew. She also loves reading online, everything from science topics to the Arab Spring. For now, she says, these things are her distractions.

As for her dreams of the future, “Peace on all the world with no exception, whether you are Muslim, Christian or Jewish,” she says, and sighs and fingers her bright green sweater, “Why is world that hard? Everything for money? Money isn’t worth it.”

Though she doesn’t know what comes next, she’s not giving up hope, as she continues to search for jobs and learn more about Chicago.  “Sometimes I google attractions in Chicago, even if I don’t go to them,” she says. “It’s still nice just to see them.”

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