On the streets of Portland, Ore.’s city center, Ranya Muttaleb is an unassuming presence, a seemingly ordinary girl often dressed in skinny jeans, a plain shirt, and colorful hijabs that framed the ovalness of her face.
If you talked to her, she was unfailingly gentle and polite. She had a passion for getting to know different people, and her wide smile captured the attention of many who knew her.
But her smile and her large hazel eyes concealed a story of a tumultuous childhood in Iraq and a sometimes-difficult transition to life in a new country thousands of miles from home.
Muttaleb’s childhood memories start from when she was around 5 years old– the day the Iraq War started. She had little idea of what her life was like before the war, but the traumatic images from that day when she first heard gunshots outside her home were seared into her memory. The gunshots came at midnight, making her and her young siblings cry out of fear. Her entire family of 15 was forced into hiding in their own home, surrounded by the violence and danger outside.
She, her parents, and her two younger siblings first tried to hide in the bathroom, but it was too cramped to fit everyone, so they decided to hide in the kitchen. About the kitchen, Muttaleb recalls: “it was bigger, but… there were thousands of cockroaches on the floor that could get into our clothes, [or] even jump on our faces.”
Faced with the dirty, disgusting conditions of the kitchen, she and her extended family made a run for a bedroom that belonged to Muttaleb’s grandmother. For 40 days they huddled in the small bedroom, with nothing to eat or drink, while Muttaleb’s father tried to tell her that the gunshots were fireworks. But she was not fooled by this reassurance.
Finally, it was quiet.
“The deep breath everyone took in that moment represented what everyone felt and what we had all gone through,” Muttaleb said.
Thus she grew up in the background of the invasion of Iraq and the civil war that started after in the attempted transition to democracy. She endured many other traumatic experiences during the war, including a bombing of her primary school and witnessing a bloody parade of prisoners pass by her front porch.
While coming to America has provided her physical safety from the wartime environment of Iraq, transitioning to life in a new country is always difficult. While many have made her feel at home in a new land and extended the hand of friendship to her, there have been times when others’ treatment of her made her feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.
Muttaleb clearly remembers her first class in an American high school– Government. She not only was suddenly surrounded by a language she was relatively unfamiliar with, she also felt that everyone was staring at her because she was a foreigner.
The climate of Islamophobia on the political landscape only made things worse when she was adjusting to the new high school and new country. Muttaleb was taunted by some classmates who said things such as “weirdo, go back to where you came from” or “you don’t belong here.” Once, when she was out walking, a stranger approached her, looked at her hijab and claimed that she was part of the terrorist group ISIS.
“All… I wanted [was] to make new friends and to feel [that] I belong here,” she lamented.
Yet, despite growing up in a turbulent time in Iraq and arriving to a sometimes less-than-welcoming climate in America, Muttaleb’s optimistic nature has remained intact.
Living in the war taught her to appreciate the little things many of us take for granted: having an intact family, being able to play in the streets, or being able to attend school.
“[Appreciating what one has is] the key [to] happiness,” says Muttaleb.
True to her word, Muttaleb never fails to appreciate the most beautiful sides of her environment or even the things that we may consider mundane.
When asked what she misses the most about Iraq, she says: “[W]aking up on the voice of kids at 7 o’clock in the morning playing in the neighborhood… [T]he family gathering every weekend… [G]oing out at midnight to eat ice cream.”
After she came to America, she found that she missed “[e]ven the small… things that bothered [her] in Iraq.”
She says that the real Iraq is much more than just the divided country many people imagine: in reality, a visitor to Iraq would “see Muslims and Christians and Kurds… helping each other [and] standing alongside… each other.”
Besides this sense of community, she wants people to know that Iraq has a treasure trove of history and culture to be learned.
“I always say the [w]ar is not something the [country’s] people create, [it] is something… stronger countries do to get the goods of that country [for] their [benefit],” says Muttaleb.
As for her adopted country, what struck her the most about it was the beauty of its natural landscapes. Every time she visits a natural landscape in America, she asks herself if she is in a dream because it is so beautiful. She had an avid interest in photography, and her photo gallery captured the color and curves of the natural formations she visited.
In terms of her attitude toward American politics, she hopes that President Trump understands that immigrants and refugees are also part of what makes America great. She deeply believes that people should “[n]ever treat [others] according to their race, religion or where they came from, but always treat them for the human[s] they are.”
Muttaleb dreams of a day when Iraq is peaceful again, when people can live their lives without fear of violence, when kids can live their childhoods and people can smile more instead of cry.
“I hope that the land of civilizations, Iraq, will be always a home for everyone, no matter what their religion, nationality, and race are,” she says.
Her goal is to be an architect to rebuild what the war destroyed in her country.