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The Talon

New World, Second Chance

Photo by Peter Mikhael

After moving between Iraq and Syria during the Iraq War, the Latifs received their asylum papers for America four years ago. Today, Younes, a freshman at Richardson, spends a two-period block in Auto Shop and competes with the SkillsUSA team. Photo by Peter Mikhael

By Peter Mikhael

Younes Latif watched as the sun calmly set when a bomb exploded in the market near his house. Younes ran after his older brother to examine the damage, but as he crossed the street, something heavy threw him to the sidewalk – a second explosion.

“It sounded like when something is on fire – burning ashes, sound of ashes,” Younes said. “Then the explosion.”

Younes’ blood gushed from his ear. He opened his mouth as wide as he could to pop them, but nothing happened. Younes, now a freshman, could not hear those around him screaming for help.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the Latifs were the only family left in their 14-unit apartment building in the capital Baghdad. Explosions became so commonplace that when the bombardments would start during the night, Younes and his siblings would stay asleep.

“We said if we were going to die, we’d rather die here,” Younes’ mother Eman Latif said. “Death is death anywhere.”

Before the invasion, Mrs. Latif said the people who lived in Baghdad lived in harmony despite Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial rule. After the invasion, she describes people who converted their shops into houses, people who rummaged through trashcans for food and people who forgot the taste of clean running water.

“It was nice – safe,” Mrs. Latif said. “There was no difference between people – between Shi’a or Sunni or Christians during Saddam’s time. I was not with Saddam. In the past, we had lower wages, but we were ok. I had an older brother – a lawyer – who didn’t like Saddam. But he said ‘If Saddam leaves, I don’t know what will happen.’ And when Saddam left, all good things disappeared with him.”

A year into the war, conditions continued to deteriorate. Killings would happen in the middle of the street. People didn’t leave their houses because explosions and car bombs could happen any time, anywhere. The Latif family was no exception.

Al-Qaeda kidnapped seven of Younes’ cousins and demanded $15,000 for each individual kidnapped. One of the few cousins who was returned had a broken leg and wouldn’t talk. Two months after al-Qaeda had tortured him, he died.

Younes remembers a rare time when his father, Mohammed, cried because his oldest brother, Ali, was killed.

“My father didn’t talk for two months,” Younes said. “I was six. I remember because I wanted to talk to my dad and ask what was happening, and he told me ‘Nothing. Go back to your room.’”

That was when Mrs. Latif began thinking of a plan to move to Syria, a neighboring country. Mr. Latif was hesitant. He had closed his store and converted his car into a taxicab. But Mrs. Latif was determined. She went to Damascus for a pilgrimage to Sayyidah Zaynab, the mosque that contains the grave of Mohammad the Prophet’s granddaughter Zaynab, and decided to move her family there.

Younes attends an amusement park in Damascus, Syria. Courtesy photo

Younes attends an amusement park in Damascus, Syria. Photo courtesy of the Latif family

“Several of us went there, and I saw the living conditions in Syria were excellent – calm, peaceful,” Mrs. Latif said. “I stayed there for only five days, but I kept Syria in my mind. My husband did not want to go. But I wanted to go to Syria with my kids, and I would find out if we could live and work there.”

Mrs. Latif and her children found a place in Darayya, a suburb of Damascus, and kept in touch with her husband. When Mr. Latif finally agreed to leave, the family went back to Iraq to get their belongings. In Baghdad, they found that the situation had gotten worse, with more killings and more explosions.

After an Al-Qaeda group stopped them on the road to the border, took Mr. Latif’s necklace and money and injured him, the Latif’s made it to Syria. They finally felt safe. There, Mrs. Latif would take her children out until 3 a.m. without fear of getting kidnapped or of a bomb exploding. She and Mr. Latif enrolled their children in a gymnasium where they practiced Judo and went swimming.

“In Syria, I loved it,” Mrs. Latif said. “Our best years were there. If things get better now, I will return to Syria. I felt safe there.”

Then one day in 2006, Mr. Latif decided to take his family back to Iraq when conditions had slightly improved. The old, battered building stood still as if from another time. Neighbors, relatives and family members who hadn’t left the country flowed through the apartment in an endless coming-home party. When the third week arrived, the flux of guests had not changed as the warm sunset settled. Off in the distance, a bomb exploded. Mrs. Latif says terrorist groups use the first explosion to attract people, wait for them to gather, and pull the trigger on a second one.

“It was sunset. Three explosions happened in the ‘souk’ market near my house,” Younes said. “My older brother, when he heard that, ran to go see what happened, and I ran after him to see what was going on. If I were walking, the explosion that gave me the hearing loss would have killed me. But I was running. When I crossed the street, the car exploded.”

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Mr. Latif was about to buy a house in Darayya when he received the news that the United Nations had approved their asylum papers for America.

“Leaving was really sad,” Younes said. “We went everywhere. We said goodbye to our friends and families, then we visited Sayyidah Zaynab. When we came here, my dad said ‘the mistake of my life was that I came here and left Syria.’ I was crying. We were all crying. Our friends came to us and told him here there is better education for his family, for his kids.”

By 2011, Younes had lost two homes – one in Baghdad and the other in Darayya – and several family members, including five of his seven uncles to the sectarian turmoil that had spread through the Middle East like wild fire. But in America, Younes was going to regain at least one thing – his hearing. Like every student in Jill Stone Elementary, Younes had his ears examined when he started school. The specialist said Younes needed a hearing aid and transferred his care to Dr. Beth Brenthal, an audiologist at UTD.

“In Syria, they told us Younes had a hearing loss, but no one mentioned a hearing aid,” Mrs. Latif said. “In school, they examined him and told us that it was caused by the explosion. We have no genetic problem in our family and no family history of bad hearing. I didn’t think Younes needed a hearing aid. After examining him at UTD, they gave him a hearing aid. In America, they care for our children more than we do.”

The minimal treatment Younes received in Syria had restored his hearing to 11 percent. If he turned the volume up all the way on the TV, he could catch some of the sound effects of his favorite movies, but often he could not hear his parents calling him for dinner.

“The doctors said that too much pressure on the eardrums – the sound of the bomb popped my ear and got some blood out,” Younes said. “I was in a room at UTD. I couldn’t hear the AC before. When I put [the hearing aids] on, I asked the professor what was that whoosh sound. He laughed. He said ‘welcome to the new world.’”

Younes stands next to a Christmas tree in his house in Richardson. Courtesy photo

Younes stands next to a Christmas tree in his house in Richardson. Photo courtesy of the Latif family

In sixth grade, Younes attended Sam Tasby and was in a special program for recent refugee and immigrant students, and he learned to write and speak English fluently. In seventh grade, Younes went to Liberty Union High and then moved to Harmony Science Academy for eighth grade.

“Younes is a bright, polite, honest young man who works very hard to be successful and do well in his classes,” special education teacher Diane Watson said. “Imagine how hard it is to struggle to hear and to learn and use and write a new language. If you ask Younes, I think he will tell you that writing is the most difficult.”

After moving from Plano Road to La Mirada apartments last year, Younes left Berkner for Richardson. Interested in art and designing cars, Younes joined both the two-period block Auto Shop class and the SkillsUSA team, which competes in robotics.

“He’s doing well,” Auto Tech teacher Mark Mester said. “He’s a hard worker – he’s very interested in the subject.”

After high school, Younes wants to take two years off and travel the world with the hope that he might go back to see Syria. His other stops on the world map include Turkey, Paris, Japan and California, before returning back to Dallas for college.

“I feel his international journeys, and even his cross-town moves to RHS from the Berkner area, have caused him to be more serious and more determined to make a better life for himself and for his family,” Watson said. “We are very fortunate to have him here.”

Buried under war rubble and torn apart by a divided nation, Iraq is no longer the familiar home the Latifs once knew. For Mrs. Latif, her family is now her home.

“If it was only my husband and me, and I had no children, I would return,” Mrs. Latif said. “Not to Iraq, because everything has changed. People’s attitudes have changed, economic conditions have changed – I feel that I don’t belong there. But I would return to Syria. For my children’s sake and education, we will stay here. I will stay with my children. I will not leave them.”

Iraq War Timeline

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New World, Second Chance