Desert Crossings / by Monika McGreal Viola

My education began at John F. Kennedy International Airport. There I waited, a curious 8-year-old, outside the double doors of US Customs and Arrivals, scanning the crowd for the handful of aid workers who comprised Medicine for Peace, a relief organization founded by my father. Those Customs doors. The barrier between travelers and non-travelers, between an active and a passive existence.

The gutsy band of MFP warriors fed my notion of the exotic, returning home laden with treasures discovered en route to Amman, cross the Iraqi desert to Baghdad. Sometimes Bedouin rugs were their fancy, intricate textiles rolled tight in the middle and willowing down on both ends, complacent to wandering. On other trips, there would be Turkish delight, which I’d eat in my bedroom on Long Island while reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and appreciating Edmund’s dilemma – the crimson jellies, dusted white, enticed both the stomach and the imagination.

The most anticipated of these travelers, though, were the children, literally carried through Border Control by jetlagged MFP doctors and nurses. Ahlan wa Sahlan. Welcome. The first Arabic phrase I would learn. On my maiden voyage to International Arrivals, I observed the little girl in my dad’s arms – the blue shade of her lips and how she huddled into his jacket as if trying to ration body heat after a mid-winter plunge into the Sound. The other children also nestled close to their minders, I realized, as introductions went round to smiling host families, hands full with balloons.

Donya’s fingernails were round, and I compared them to my own, plain, square ones. This, too, I learned, she owed to the hole in her heart. She was but three when her parents trusted her fate to American doctors, doctors from the same country that had bombed electrical plants and water sanitation facilities, rendering open-heart surgery impossible. Well-educated, dressed in dated western clothing, they understood, even then, that their daughter could not outlive the American-imposed sanctions. I thought back to my C.S. Lewis novel, the four refugee children sent from London during the Blitz, and looked to see if a card with our address was pinned to her sweater.

Brimming with personality, Donya acclimated deftly to American life – in fact, it suited her. She spoke no English and I no Arabic, but we shared my room and fell into an easy routine of cohabitation. Each afternoon, Donya would be lounging on my bed when I arrived in from school. She’d flash a cheeky grin and greet me with Ahlan wa Sahlan. Welcome. Most frequent was our game of doctor, with Donya ceremoniously producing the gel stickers from her echocardiograms – given to her for keeps – that we’d fasten to our arms, legs, and stomachs, pretending to connect cables and determine prognoses. We only switched games after her operation, when the blue pallor of her skin and lips was replaced with a pink flush and a long meaty scar down her chest.

When my mother boarded the Royal Jordanian plane with Donya in tow, another child awaited her in Baghdad – where Donya returned to her family, to life under Saddam, to life under the sanctions. These were the cruelest of the airport trips, attempting an unnatural goodbye to our Iraqi siblings before driving back down the Belt Parkway.

Unlike the recent phenomenon of worried citizens flooding airports, not many people protested at Customs during the first Gulf War. New York in the early 1990s was swathed in yellow ribbons and, when a classmate accused my family of lacking one around our tree, or mailbox, or forehead, I felt ashamed. While I sensed that my parents stood on the right side of whatever this was, I was too young to grasp why that put us at odds with most of our neighbors. “Iraq” would seem a dirty word for years to follow, one that I felt compelled to defend and protect until, finally, I resolved to keep it for myself.  

What kind of homecoming, then, to wait at International Arrivals once more? The anticipation is familiar, and I tally one point for Donya with every person let through those gates. I stand with my sign scrawled right in English and left in Arabic – remnants of my collegiate studies during the second Gulf War – shoulder-to-shoulder with other Americans who yell “Refugees Welcome!” while my friend tweets a video of an Iraqi mother detained for wanting to visit her son, a soldier in the American army. The woman rubs the face of her grown child, and the gesture reminds me of a Medicine for Peace documentary where a mother, clad similarly in black, rubs the face of her daughter lying quiet in a Baghdadi hospital bed. That was 25 years ago.

A Bedouin man told my father that every time you cross the desert, life begins anew. Perhaps the recent string of protests is an American desert crossing, and we, as a country, are ready to begin anew – to open the Customs doors at JFK, to see the Tigris and the Euphrates for ourselves. And Donya will greet us saying, Ahlan wa Sahlan. Welcome.