“Hassan,” an Iraqi refugee, is paralyzed from the waist down. In the midst of Fallujah’s sectarian violence a few years back, an American sniper, who mistook Hassan for an insurgent, shot Hassan as he was walking home from school. He is now 20 years old, the same age as me.
I’m in Amman, Jordan this summer teaching English to other Iraqi refugees like Hassan. Hassan isn’t my only maimed student. I teach a class of Sunni men who are all missing their ring fingers—Shi’a militias cut them off in 2010. At least a quarter of my students have a constant limp, and several ask to leave class early so they can go to hospital appointments.
There are awkward moments when a language activity turns into a grieving party. Once, when I asked one man to tell me in English how many siblings he has, he answered, “I used to have six, but now I have three.” Another time, when I asked a female student to tell me about her husband’s job, she replied, “He used to work for Saddam, but no job now.” I’ve since learned which questions to avoid.
Every day, my students tell me their dreams of resettling in the United States. They want to move to Houston, Detroit, Louisville or Buffalo, among others. They want to get a job, buy a car and watch a WWE wrestling match. “Insha’Allah,” (God-willing) I say. I tell them it’s possible, it happens, people make it to the United States. But I know the odds—a small minority of my students will eventually make it to America. I come home from work overwhelmed, because I feel so incredibly guilty. Every single day, I want to tell them I’m sorry. I’m sorry for calling for war in early 2003, when we thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I’m sorry for getting bored of Iraq, and ignoring civilian casualties as one year turned into eight. I’m sorry for supporting the pullout, because even though it was the only option, we left you behind. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, for not realizing, until now, the true cost of war.
I want to be clear: I’m not apologizing because I’m contrarian or anti-American. I’m apologizing because I believe in America. America is exceptional, but we messed up, and it’s time I said sorry. I’m only apologizing for myself, and not for our policymakers or generals. I used to blame Washington for the misleading rhetoric of politicians and the press for shoddy coverage, but Iraq was my fault, too. I shouldn’t have called for war; I should have paid more attention.
In late July, I will come back to the United States. There will be people back home I will want to apologize to, as well. I want to say sorry to our veterans, who fought in a quagmire war and came back with missing limbs and traumatized spirits. I want to say sorry to the spouses who lost partners, and the children who lost parents, because I never understood war’s repercussions.
I even wish I could travel back to 2003, storm into the White House, and say, “Stop, we’re about to make a huge mistake!” But I can’t, and we’ll never know the road less traveled.
I’ve always believed in an America where everyone has an equal shot at the dream. But, I’m growing, and this perspective has changed. I now believe in a world where everyone has a shot at the dream, a world filled with bountiful opportunities for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. America is the world’s leader; it’s time our country changed its perspective, too. We can start at home, by making sure the United States continues to accept refugees seeking asylum. And we can move forward by ensuring that we will never again start a needless war.
The doctors tell Hassan he may walk again. Hassan wants to move to California and study computer science. He’s fascinated by Silicon Valley, “where even college dropouts are successful,” he says. But Hassan’s entire family is still in Iraq, and he can’t go without them.
“Now, I learned English,” he says.
“Learn,” I say, “Now, I want to learn English.”
“Learn … sorry, Patrick,” says Hassan. But, I’m the one who’s truly sorry.
Patrick Oathout is a Trinity junior.