Mohamed Al Lami was a successful man, as well as a happy husband. He had to escape Iraq with his family in 2015. Learning to be a father is something, Mohamed became one in a context of war and migration. Every child sees his or her dad as a superhero. Mohamed has been one, every single day, for years.
My name is Mohamed Al Lami, I am 33 years old. I’m from Baghdad, Iraq. I graduated from Al-Mustansiriya University with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2009. Following my graduation, I started to work for an oil company owned by the Minister of Oil in Iraq. I was very successful at my job: I was quickly promoted and assumed a management role. In four years, I achieved what people usually do in 20. I really loved my job, and besides, who doesn’t like to be successful at what they do? I worked a lot, I did overtime and the pay was significant. I had a fully furnished house in northern Baghdad. I had a car – god, I miss my Kia – and I was married to my wife Maryam, who was pregnant. However, Iraq was at war and we experienced serious loss – friends and family caught in the crossfire. Even despite this, we were living the dream.
One day, an incident happened. I had been working for 10 days far away from home, and left Maryam alone at night. She really did not like it. Our house was in front of the highway, and on the other side of which was a police station. On that day, there was a bombing at the police station. As the attacker tried to escape policemen started to shoot randomly. Maryam, then 8 months pregnant, was terrified and in her panic ran towards the basement. She fell down the stairs.
She did not notice any significant pain afterwards, but when I managed to come home the next morning, I took her to the doctor, just in case. After the examination, the doctor ran to me like crazy: my wife was going into labor, the baby was pushing, and so we had to be fast. My wife was in great pain.
We had to go to the hospital for the delivery, so we hailed a cab. Crossing a city in Iraq is tricky. There are a lot of checkpoints that are under the thumb of militia groups or soldiers with massive guns. They are supposed to delimit the different areas and territories of the city, but the soldiers and militiamen are mostly there to receive bribes and seem to delight in generating traffic jams. We had to go through every single one of these checkpoints. Each checkpoint was an hour each. Everytime, I tried to negotiate with the road-users and officers on the spot; I would implore them, “my wife is giving birth, they had to open the gates for us!” But nobody would move. Maryam was just another woman — terrified and dying. So what? Many people die everyday in Iraq; it was a country at war, and death was part of everyone’s life. This is still the same today.
We finally managed to get to a hospital. So many other women were in the lobby: dozens of future mothers screaming due to uterine contractions. Some of them were waiting for hours, and the medical team hoped that the women would give birth naturally. My wife was offered to do the same, but for her, it was not possible to give birth naturally. A month before, she had done a surgery to prevent any miscarriage. Her belly was going to blow. No one would listen to her, so we left.
There was another hospital, a Christian one, not very far from there. But when we got there, a nurse made me understand she would only do the job for a big tip. I had to act fast, so I gave some money away. It’s how it goes in Iraq. One who pays gets what one wants. In total, I gave about $1000 (US) – more than a million Iraqi dinars – which was half of my monthly salary. To put that amount into perspective, in Iraq, you can shop and a get enough food for a month with the equivalent of $200 (US).
Maryam finally gave birth – and there was not only one baby. She gave birth to twins. A tiny boy and a tiny girl. My first children. They were feeble and ought to be transferred to another hospital. Once again, I paid to get a proper ambulance specific for premature babies. The one I got was a piece of junk with an unbelievable smell of death. We used it anyway: I put both newborns on my lap and we drove to a third hospital. They stayed for three days, and were put in a room with 50 others kids; there was only one nurse to watch them all.
I paid once more for a private room. There was no medical worker, so I stayed with them. I changed diapers for the first time in my existence. My gestures were clumsy, but I did not care. I was watching my son, with his very white skin, his yellow hair and his brown, tiny eyes. I was listening to my adorable daughter’s voice, that already sounded high and feminine. This gentle moment of tenderness with my twins was the calm before storm.
My son began making these weird noises when breathing, while my daughter was turning blue. Her breath stopped once. I screamed to get a nurse do something. One came and started pressing the little girl’s chest. I think my own heart stopped for a minute while she was doing so. When my daughter started to breathe again, I put a chair in front of their cradles and kept staring at them for an entire night. In the morning, a doctor came in. “They both have a major infection in their chests,” he diagnosed. Apparently, it was due to medical negligence at the time of their birth.
I spent a day watching my 2-day old kids fighting for their lives. The girl was barely moving. The boy looked stronger and stronger. He even tried to disconnect the oxygen from his noise and the tube from his hands. From time to time, he would open his eyes and stare at me intensely for a minute. It was like he was asking me to let him go. I would get closer and grab his hand. The medical needles were so big compared to his hand. I told him, “It’s okay, you’ve fought enough. You can go.”
I was kicked out of the hospital a few minutes after that. Controls were taking place and, as a man, you have no right to stay in the birthing unit. I called my mother in order to take my place; I left and stood outside. I cried. I cried for hours because I wasn’t sure I would be able to see them the day after. I went home. My wife was still at the hospital where she gave birth. She was still recovering. So I called some friends to be cared for, and waited. I slept two hours, woke up in the middle of the night, called my mother. She said: “They are ok, they look beautiful.” She hung up, and a minute later, my boy was gone. And my girl, well, maybe she didn’t want to leave her brother alone. She passed away right after him.
I have lost family members before, but this time the pain was different. Someone was ripping my heart out of my chest, twice. I felt the pain physically, not just emotionally. I felt guilty because those were my children and I was supposed to protect them. They were the accomplishment of the family we were building with my wife. Some hospital employee told me I could take them away in a cardboard shoe box. And bury them. But I couldn’t do it. So my father did it for me.
Such is life, maybe. You are a two day old human, but you were born on the wrong side of the tracks, in a war that nobody really understands, and just like that, you’re dead.
At that time, my wife as back at home. When I went to see her, before I could say anything, some milk was flowing on her chest. She asked, “Do you think my babies are hungry?”
After that, everyday life became a real struggle for Maryam. She became depressed but we fought this together. She became pregnant again less than a year after, and this time I was very prepared. I had a special hospital. A doctor from London was coming every month to check Maryam and some other patients. We had a girl and we named her Shams. It means “sun.”
After that, I started to work for an Italian company in Fallujah, 70 kilometers west of Baghdad. I needed a job that would allow me to get back home everyday to help my wife take care of our young child. It is not easy to find a job in Iraq, but when you have a job, you don’t let it go because it’s usually a lifelong contract. You become a permanent employee and this gives you many advantages. Nobody can fire you, but it is also very difficult to quit. There is a lot of paperwork involved.
It went like this for two years, but then the situation in Iraq became more and more risky. The AAH (Asaïb Ahl al-Haq, the League of Righteous People), a corporate Shi’a militia supported by Iran, was gradually taking control of Baghdad. The organization was created in 2006 and legalized by the government in 2010. By 2013, they were controlling the whole capital. They had everything: arms, vehicles, permits. They had the ultimate power as well – the power of life and death on every single inhabitant of Baghdad. Whatever you did, you would lose against them.
At some point, they threatened me personally because I was working in Fallujah. Fallujah is a Sunni city, and this Shi’a militia fights Sunnis. I am a Sunni myself, living in a Shi’a-controlled city, so they thought I was perhaps spying for them. A few weeks later, I caught a few members of this very militia placing a bomb in my neighborhood. They were fighting another militia. I called the authorities; the AAH heard about it and shortly after that, right in front of my house, one of them was pointing a gun at me, and shot. I was already running, so I will never know if they were shooting in the air to frighten me, or in my direction.
Things were getting real, so we tried to be pragmatic. Maryam was pregnant again. We were already parents. We had no choice but to escape. We left everything behind. I gave my car keys to a friend of mine and never asked about it again. We took cash, gold, our passports and on April 13, 2015, we fled to Turkey.
A story written with the help of Laiss Barkouk