By Nicole Morsfield
Immigration is no singular experience. To some, it’s carrying baskets of clothing up and down 30 floors and throwing boiling water at cockroaches on the wall of a Jordan hotel.
According to Migration Policy Institute, people began immigrating to the United States from the Middle East as far back as the 19th century. Before the first World War, many sought to flee genocide from the Ottoman Empire.
Dalia Brown faced the cockroaches at age 19 while waiting for visas in Jordan. She was sent there with her eldest brother in the 1990s around the time of the Gulf War. Her father decided to leave their home in Baghdad, Iraq, out of fear that her brothers would be drafted into the army.
“As soon as you graduate from high school, it’s done,” Brown said. “You got to go serve in the army.”
Brown and her brother stayed in Jordan for about three months before they got their visas. The rest of the family stayed back home in Iraq until the process was complete. During that time, she said, she took on a lot of responsibilities that a 19-year-old girl in America likely wouldn’t concern herself with.
With only $100 upon arrival, Brown walked around different stores searching for the best deal to trade dollars for dinars. Cooking, cleaning and hanging clothes out to dry on the roof of a 30-story hotel became routine.
“To me, it was like a dream that I did that,” she said. “Did I really live that life?”
As a child, Brown remembered her mother mentioning immigration, saying “one day, we’re going to leave.” Her mother’s family immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s and called to talk or sent gifts.
“But my dad never talked about it, ever,” she said.
Eventually, the Gulf War and tensions between Iraq and Iran changed his mind. Brown said she often heard the sounds of missiles dropped in her country from Iran, and according to a 1983 article from the New York Times, Iraq even attacked an Iranian oil port.
Brown’s family lived comfortably in Iraq, she said. They had their own house and both parents worked good jobs. It was the war and constant paranoia over missiles and bombings that pushed them away from home.
“You always hear sad news: People die, people die, people die,” she said. “That was what happened.”
She spent her childhood seeing battle photos on the television, sometimes following cartoons.
“You see arms, you see hands, you see heads, you see bodies,” Brown said. “I was in elementary school and that’s what they showed on TV.”
In a podcast, she recalled the fear she felt during the war, hearing missiles and not knowing where they landed or who was hurt.
One silver lining Brown remembered was visiting her grandparents in northern Iraq. They lived in a house built from rocks, she said, and her grandma made breakfast every morning with fresh eggs, milk and bread.
“That was the most happy time that I had. I always wanted to go up north and stay in my grandma and grandpa’s house all the time,” she said. “It was fun, but then you go back to home and all that you do is you study and you go to school and that’s it. That’s all.”