Here in Amman, Jordan, a British teenager, Sonia, age 12, recently spent four days interviewing and befriending Iraqi youngsters close to her in age. She wanted to learn, firsthand, about the experiences of Iraqi youngsters who have fled war and violence in their home country.
A versatile and talented child, Sonia loves to play the trumpet and perform classical Indian dances, the latter being somewhat unusual for a Muslim girl. When she was eight years old, shortly before the U.S. and the U.K. attacked Iraq, she wrote a poem urging respect for the rights of Iraqi children whose lives and hopes would be destroyed by war. The poem reached many people, intensifying efforts of peace activists to stop the war before it started. Sonia continued her efforts on behalf of Iraqi children, even founding an organization called "Children Against War."
In the spring of 2007, she asked her mother if she could raise money through music and dance performances, to pay for a trip to Amman, so that she could film Iraqi children speaking for themselves. After talking it over with other peace activists, her mother agreed to accompany Sonia, and so, last week, they arrived here for a four day trip.
We began our visits at the home of two teenage girls who speak English fluently. They have been living in Amman, Jordan for several years. Their father still is not allowed to work in Jordan, and so the family has almost no income. Since I've known them, these young girls and their mother have tried to help families who are among the neediest in Amman. Sonia later told me that the friendly and easygoing manner of her first interviewees helped her get over feeling nervous about filming people.
Next, Sonia met 16 year old Abeer, who spoke enough English to communicate with Sonia about common interests. They listed favorite singers and film stars: Shakira, Hilary Duff, Beyonce, and Brad Pitt. Abeer showed Sonia dance steps she has been learning, and the two of them danced a bit to music played on a mobile phone. Abeer then began to show Sonia pictures downloaded onto the mobile, photos of her cousins in Baghdad and of Baghdad monuments.
At one point, Abeer raised her eyebrows and announced "This is an explosion," and clicked onto a horrifying photo of wreckage following a car bombing she had witnessed. "I was sitting in an office," said Abeer, "waiting for my mother. And I was holding a baby, another mother's baby. I was playing with this baby, and then the bomb exploded and the baby was gone! I don't know what happened, just that next I saw the baby on the floor and she was crying for her mother." Abeer's terrified panic was followed by sheer relief, once she realized the baby was alive.
At another home, Sonia and her mother were laughing with four Iraqi teenagers over who supported Manchester's soccer team and who was for Liverpool's. The conversation abruptly changed as younger sisters translated for their 19 year old brother who recalled that when he was 16 he was kidnapped, in Iraq. . His family worked for several days, collecting $15,000 to secure his release. He explained that throughout his ordeal, his captors chained one of his ankles and suspended him upside down from the ceiling.
Sonia's watchful mother exchanged glances with me. Was this too much for young Sonia to absorb?
That night, Sonia awoke from a dream crying out, "I shouldn't be filming this. I shouldn't be filming this."
Her mother worries about protecting her child from being overwhelmed by the accounts she has heard. Yet Sonia's mother also feels remorse for all of the youngsters whom Sonia interviewed. "What protection is there," she asked, "for the children to whom this has happened?"
Many people believe that protection lies primarily in being able to use threat and force against enemies. Yet Sonia and the Iraqi teenagers whom she interviewed showed the potential to build security by forming friendships and expressing mutual empathy.
Gifts were spontaneously offered. Abeer took a ring from her finger and slid it onto Sonia's finger. Another young girl removed her prayer scarf and gave it to Sonia, asking that they remember each other when they pray. Families served whatever they could, ranging from a full meal to a shared glass of water.
During Sonia's visit, I read an August 17th Jordan Times article about a strange set of "gifts" which the U.S. will deliver to this region, ostensibly to ensure greater security. Summarizing the multibillion dollar military aid agreement, the AFP article reported that "Washington will boost its military aid to Israel, providing $30 billion in assistance over a decade...The US military bonanza includes a $20 billion weapons package for Saudi Arabia, a $13 billion package for Egypt, and reportedly arms deals worth at least $20 billion for other Gulf allies."
It's difficult to comprehend how peace and security in the region can be achieved by fueling a new arms race and destructive wars to come. The billions of dollars spent on U.S. war in Iraq have led to countless tragedies, a mere handful of which were related to Sonia during her brief trip.
Please "stay tuned" for Sonia's film. The exchanges she recorded represent a trustworthy form of person-to-person "diplomacy."
I can't know what nightmare fears awakened her when she cried out, "I shouldn't be filming this." I hope she'll be soothed by appreciation for her initiative. I think she'll help many adults cry out, "We shouldn't be causing this."