Each bring to their reunion shared childhood memories and what sometimes feels like a lifetime of lessons in adaptation, assimilation, loss.
Ghazal and his father fled Mosul, Iraq, for Sweden after a wave of violence claimed the life of Ghazal’s mother, Jerjees’ aunt. Jerjees’ family left the Middle East in 2009, but for a very different destination—Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.
Now, with funding from Davidson College grants, Jerjees is at last with his cousin, and will soon be on his way to Mosul, Iraq, for the first time in almost a decade.
Ghazal and Jerjees are Assyrian Christians, an ethnic minority group that traces its origins back to the 25th century B.C.
More than two-thirds of the Iraqi Assyrian population may have fled the country or been internally displaced, according to UNHCR data. The mass flight and expulsion of ethnic Assyrians from Iraq began in 2003 with the U.S. invasion, when Jerjees was just seven years old. The exodus continues to this day.
Facing persecution from both Sunni and Shiite militias during the Iraq War and, most recently, by ISIS, the Assyrian diaspora spans the globe, with estimates of roughly 100,000 in the United States and more than 450,000 in Sweden.
First Stop: Södertälje
Södertälje, Sweden—Jerjees’ first destination and Ghazal’s adopted home. The spa town turned industrial city sits within 20 miles of Stockholm. Its population of 92,000 includes the densest population of Assyrians per capita outside of the Middle East. Nearly half of Södertälje residents have a foreign background.
Assyrians primarily drove the surge of immigrants from these countries to Södertälje, but Södertälje’s history as a refuge extends beyond the conflicts of the 21st century—it started with the Assyrian Genocide in the early 1900s, when scores of Assyrians were victims of persecution under the Ottoman Empire.
In the ensuing decades, Sweden has come to lead the European Union in welcoming swelling ranks of asylum seekers and political refugees. Swedish policies guarantee that refugees have access to subsidized housing, healthcare and educational opportunities.
Jerjees arrived in Sweden, where a dozen of his relatives now reside, to carry out research funded through Abernethy and Kemp grants.
His aim: collect the narratives of Iraqi refugees. By way of in-person interviews, Jerjees sought insight into the integration process, chiefly to understand why some refugees integrate into their host nations more successfully than others.
Five of the 25 interviewees were relatives from his father’s side of the family.
“They have lived in Sweden for 15 years and are still trying to fully integrate into the Swedish society,” he says.
Södertälje boasts two Assyrian-led football teams, Assyrian churches, multiple television stations and an Assyrian language school; however, Assyrians confront issues of integration, assimilation and identity every day.
Language barriers and an immigration system that allows new arrivals to choose where they live, certain suburbs of Sodertalje for instance, lead to self-segregation within immigrant communities, which can reinforce poverty and halt assimilation into Swedish society.
Jerjees’ interviews addressed factors including education, language, religion, housing, past employment, age of integration, reasons for departure from Iraq and perceptions of Swedish attitudes based on personal interactions. He continues to sort through his findings and is preparing to present his work at the college’s fall research symposium.
As a new arrival to Sweden, the 7-year-old Fadi Ghazal appreciated the little things that were different from Iraq: tap water tasted very good, he was able to choose the temperature when showering, it was possible to get electricity all the time.
“The most important thing that surprised me,” he says, “was how everybody treated me as a person, and how safe I felt myself here.”
Newly acquainted, Ghazal and Jerjees strolled the streets of Old Town, Stockholm’s original city center, and talked of their lives—lives that have changed drastically since their childhood in Iraq but are not so different by comparison. The cousins are both college students pursuing their passions at reputable institutions. Both respect the countries that have given them asylum, safety and opportunity.
“I don’t have any problems with visiting Iraq but I can’t see myself returning there,” Ghazal says. “Even though Iraq is my home country, I feel that Sweden is the country that took care of me. It is in Sweden where I belong.”
As Assyrian Christians in Iraq, Jerjees’s family lived in perpetual fear. His aunt was shot and killed on her way to work, terrorists kidnapped his uncle, and his grandparents’ lives were threatened almost daily.
The family fled to Syria. When his father attempted to find refuge in Sweden, he was captured and deported to Iraq. The oldest of three children, 11-year-old Jerjees worked to support the family while attending school.
In late 2008, the International Organization for Migration informed Jerjees’s mother that, because of their extraordinary circumstances, they were eligible to migrate to the United States. The family prepared for the journey to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Religious minorities are among the 11 categories of especially vulnerable refugees, as defined by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Jerjees couldn’t locate North Carolina on a map.
“The transition was shocking,” Jerjees says. “My expectations were based on American movies and TV shows, so I was surprised at what I found when we arrived. I thought every city would look like Los Angeles, with celebrities all over.”
To improve his English, Jerjees spent four hours in the public library each day after school studying his English-to-Arabic dictionary and reading books, starting with titles by Dr. Seuss. He also began volunteering with the Sisters of Charity; they nominated him for a full scholarship at Charlotte Catholic High School, now his alma mater.
Serendipity intervened when a volunteer who worked with the organization that facilitated the family’s journey to America, and was also an employee in the dean of students’ office at Davidson, brought Jerjees to the campus. The visit made an impression on the eighth grader.
“I just knew I wanted to be here,” he says. “I loved it.”
Second Stop: Mosul
After an emotional goodbye, Jerjees left his Swedish relatives to board a flight for Iraq, where his uncle, a Red Cross employee, would meet him. There, with support from a Davidson SPIKE! grant, he would document through photography life in northern Iraqi camps for the internally displaced that had recently been liberated from Islamic State (ISIS) control.
“With these pictures, I’m aiming to change the narrative of the poor, weak displaced person,” he says. “I’m not telling a bleak story—I’m telling a story of redemption, a story of inspiration, a story of ‘yeah I got kicked out, but I’m here, and I’m resilient, and I’m working, and I’m doing just fine.’”
The current humanitarian crisis, sparked by civil unrest in the Middle East and the emergence of ISIS and other terrorist groups, is the largest the world has experienced since World War II. By 2015, nearly 4.5 million Iraqis were internally displaced.
ISIS claimed large swaths of northern Iraq by 2014, but the Iraqi army has regained that territory in recent months. Now the work of rebuilding begins.
Jerjees was given clearance as an American journalist. His uncle’s friend told him to speak English to the authorities.
“I’m pretty sure the person who gave me the clearance didn’t understand what I was saying, but they were impressed enough,” he says.
They even sent a translator along with Jerjees and his companions—to the translator’s surprise, Jerjees speaks fluent Arabic.
Jerjees told him he took Arabic classes in college, to which the translator replied, “but you’ve got the accent down.” One of Jerjees’ companions deadpanned, “Yeah, they teach them really well in America.”
Where tents once stood are solid structures—homes, businesses. Jerjees’ photos reveal that after more than three years the camps are no longer transitory places but rather communities, with churches, schools, clothing stores, kabob shops, even a cell phone store.
A man works deftly with scissors and a comb in a makeshift barbershop; an elderly woman tends a general store stocked with soda, snack foods, fruit; a girl of maybe five or six, smiles up at the camera.
Jerjees proudly shares the photos—200 in total. He calls up two versions of the same photo on the screen and speaks in a rush about the ethics of editing the image. It is a photo without people in it, and therefore fair game. He has brightened and sharpened the image of broken pavement and pooling water—a desolate, dusty street scene becomes vibrant, almost lovely.
When it came time to consider college, Davidson was Jerjees’s first choice. He submitted an early decision application through the QuestBridge program, which connects exceptionally talented low-income high school students to the nation’s best colleges and scholarship opportunities.
Jerjees found Davidson through the QuestBridge program, and scholarship support from The Davidson Trust enabled him to attend.
“Now that I’m actually here, I know I need to work really hard and be involved to make the difference I want to make,” he said in a 2014 interview. That same year, he became a U.S. citizen.
At Davidson, Jerjees is a QuestBridge, Kemp and Bonner Scholar, as well as co-founder of Davidson Refugee Support, an organization designed to mitigate the refugee crisis in the greater Charlotte area. He chairs the Civic Engagement Council, and is a member of the Student Initiative for Academic Diversity and former liaison for the QuestBridge chapter on campus. His selection for the prestigious Truman Scholarship last year is demonstrable proof of the difference he has made in just three years at Davidson—in fact, “change agent for the future” is the top selection criterion for the Truman Foundation.
“There are a lot of opportunities here at Davidson,” he says. “Looking back, I definitely think I made the right choice. It was one hell of a summer, that’s for sure.”
Photos courtesy of Anmar Jerjees.