Recently my college hosted the second installment of the “Refugee Voices” series, featuring the ambitious and motivated Fanar Ayad. Born in Iraq, Fanar and her family were forced to flee her home in Baghdad due to their Christianity and the growing unrest due to Al-Qaeda presence in her town. Against all odds, Fanar has since attended and graduated from high school and university in Kurdistan and Jordan, respectively. I was humbled by her immense passion and drive to receive an education and astonished by her bravery as she told the W&J community about her life as a refugee.
Fanar Ayad grew up in Baghdad, Iraq. While describing her life, she told us that, “My childhood was not like other children’s in the world because we didn’t have toys, we didn’t have so many things to do, and couldn’t even just play in the neighborhood with friends.” Because of economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, her family often had trouble feeding all 5 members, and experienced economic hardships. Even though her parents tried to explain to her what a war was, as a child Fanar did not understand what was going on in Iraq and why their family had keep safe in her home.
While explaining her experience in Iraq, she highlighted how, “there were bombs for months. Everything was a mess in Iraq. We didn’t go outside, we didn’t do anything, even schooling. We were at home, just at home. We don’t know when we can go out.” Fanar’s family was in a particularly difficult situation because they were Christian in a country that was predominantly Muslim, making them a target for extremist terrorist activities.
Fanar additionally explained how, “In my area, there was Al-Qaeda, so they manipulated the place. We couldn’t go out because they would kill us. Then they started to threaten people to not go outside, except Sinei’s. They killed a lot of people in front of our eyes, in the streets, and everywhere, even in front of our doors. Once, we couldn’t go out because there was a body at our door. If we said anything or watched, or looked at the body, they might kill us. So, we just stayed at home.”
However, to receive an income to sustain his family, her “Dad would go from work to home, but we were afraid that any minute, Dad would not come home again.” Eventually, Fanar’s family received a strong message when one of her family members was kidnapped: “You are Christians, you are like Americans. You have to leave the place.”
When Fanar and her family fled from their home in Baghdad, they could not bring any of their belongings because Al-Qaeda “would kill any family that would leave and take things with them. We have to leave just on our own with our clothes on, and that’s it.” In return for their safety, they had to relinquish their property and money.
Eventually, Fanar and her family made their way to Kurdistan. Here, Fanar had to attend a new school, navigate a new language, meet new friends, and live in a completely new environment. Although Fanar and her family were asylum seekers, in Kurdistan they were considered to be “internally displaced,” and their vulnerable situation was often overlooked because they weren’t formally considered to be “refugees.”
Fanar recalled that school was particularly challenging because she was expected to study, “no matter what I’m going through and feeling, they don’t care about that.” She explained to us that, “Although I’m suffering from the things that I experienced, they didn’t experience that in Kurdistan because there wasn’t any war. Every night, I was sleeping and feeling that there were bombs, and feeling afraid, and I would wake up in the middle of the night,” reliving her experiences in Baghdad. However, Fanar was persistent and dedicated to her schoolwork, Remarkably, she told us that “I passed, with great marks. I was at the top of my class.”
Fanar also attended a university in Kurdistan, having to fight her way into admission because of her internally-displaced Iraqi status. Seats were allocated based on religion and ethnicity, so Fanar was competing for a few seats against other internally-displaced Iraqis. However, due to her persistence, intellect, and passion for education, Fanar was able to overcome the odds and get her degree in business management.
After graduation, Fanar sought refuge in Jordan due to a lack of job opportunities and persisting discrimination. In Jordan, she was now able to converse with the locals in her native language, Arabic. This was the second time that Fanar had to completely uproot her life, say farewell to friends and leave her belongings behind.
Fanar’s life didn’t immediately dramatically change for the better. In Jordan, “we can’t work, and we can’t study because we are refugees.” However, Fanar chose to see a silver lining, and found that “it is safe here so I can do the things that I couldn’t do in Iraq,” such as playing basketball with friends. Even though she couldn’t find work, Fanar started “doing some work with organizations, and refugee people like me. Even though it was volunteering, I wanted to give, because I knew how it was to need something. I was giving to others hope and giving them words and time. Even when we have nothing left to give, we can give time.”
Fanar earned herself a seat at a university in Jordan where she got a degree in social work. “There were again only a few seats for Iraqis because Syrians were more vulnerable than us,” because of their high numbers. However, Fanar expressed that in Jordan, “the organizations focus on Syrians more than Iraqis. I feel like this is discrimination, why not Iraqis? We need opportunities as well.”
Fanar left some final words for any refugees, migrants, or asylum seekers who read about her story. “If you go through difficult times, and hard times, at the end, you will feel like a survivor. You will feel like you succeeded in passing all of these difficulties. You are not a victim of anything, not of war, not of family problems, not anything. You are a survivor. So when you go through these things, anything that you go through, it will make you stronger.”
Fanar and the W&J Community at the second conversation in the “Refugee Voices” Series
Fanar is an absolutely astounding woman. Not only has she overcome countless physical and emotional barriers, but she has done so while retaining her core values about the importance of education and volunteering. Instead of feeling resentment towards Americans, who undoubtedly contributed to her hardships with imposed economic sanctions and military presence, Fanar was happy to share with us about her situation as a refugee from Iraq. I found Fanar’s attitude and willingness to speak with us to be particularly impressive, especially considering the hostilities many Americans still manifest towards Iraq, even though we were not directly affected by Iraqi military or economic sanctions on our own land like Fanar was by Americans.
I was so grateful that Fanar took the time to speak with the W&J community and answer questions about her life. It is not easy to relive one’s difficult experiences, but the bravery that Fanar showed by sharing her life story in order to promote peace and understanding is something that I admire greatly. Hopefully, we can all view Fanar as a role model for how we should treat others, recognize what a great privilege it is to obtain a college education, and together work towards creating better societies for refugees to thrive and heal.