Iraqi teen gets a taste of Vermont winter

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(Host) Among the people enjoying the snow in Vermont is one young vacationer who is far from his home in Baghdad, Iraq.

Ali Rawaf is attending high school in Arizona and is in Vermont visiting relatives of his host family this week.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, the circumstances of Rawaf’s life couldn’t be further removed from those of a typical American teenager – beginning on the day of his birth.

(Zind) Rawaf was born sixteen years ago in an Iraqi jail.

In a case of guilt by association, his father and pregnant mother were held for six months by the authorities under Saddam Hussein because Rawaf’s uncle refused to become a government spy.

After they were released, Rawaf’s father could no longer find work as an engineer, so he made his living building and selling car alarms.

Still, Ali’s memories of his Baghdad childhood are not unpleasant. He played with his friends, spent time with his family and went to school. His parents stayed out of further trouble by observing one strict rule: don’t talk politics. Ali says his mother and father were careful to avoid the subject around their children.

(Rawaf) “Because my dad always thought that we would hear what they were saying and that we would go talk with our friends in school. There were kids in school who were spies for the government.”

(Zind) Then came the war. Rawaf’s neighborhood, near the Baghdad airport became an increasingly dangerous place.

(Rawaf) “In the morning you find dead bodies thrown on the street, lots of bombs.”

(Zind) There was the time a car bomb exploded about 20 yards from where Rawaf and his father were standing.

Ali laughs when he remembers how they forgot about each other and ran for safety.

(Rawaf) “I ran away, forgetting my dad. And when I asked him, he said the same thing.” (He laughs)

(Zind) By last year getting to his Baghdad school involved passing through heavily armed checkpoints and risking being shot or kidnapped. One time Rawaf was chased by armed men.

(Rawaf) “I was really scared. It was really scary.”

(Zind) Last summer, Rawaf’s parents and younger siblings fled to Syria. Rawaf came to the United States under a program sponsored by the State Department. He’s living with a host family and attending school in Tucson. This week, he’s spending his school break in Vermont, enjoying the snow.

Rawaf blames the current Iraqi government and outside forces for fueling the sectarian violence in Iraq. He’s chagrined at media coverage of the war, which he feels portrays all Iraqis as terrorists.

But In spite of all the problems, he thinks his country is better off now than it was under Saddam Hussein.

(Rawaf) “I think now at least we have hope that one day everything is going to be better.”

(Zind) Rawaf is attending his junior year of high school. He’d like to extend his visa and remain in school in this country, but the State Department has told him he’ll have to leave after the academic year.

He’s fearful of going back to Iraq right now. But in the long term he wants to return home and pursue a career in politics to help rebuild his country.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.

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