Of all the children we could see in Iraq this week, there was one that I requested: Parwa.
Two and a half years ago, when I arrived in Israel as a foreign exchange student, I was a hurting person. Lonely. Confused. Angry. Disaffected. Fresh off breaking my neck and neurosurgery, when I heard about Shevet Achim, I felt an immediate sympathy for the heart patients. Plus, ever since I was one, children have brought me joy.
So I showed up at 29 Prophets Street one day, and here was this girl, Parwa, age six, from northern Iraq. Precocious, sensitive, playful, artistic, and adorable: big brown eyes, a beauty mark on her right cheek, and a smile full of baby teeth. Over the course of the semester, between classes, research papers, and field studies, the time I spent with this little girl reinvented for me the possibility of â€œplaying,â€ and suggested to me that suffering could be answered with a smile rather than with despair. I remember at the end of her stay in Israel, the van pulling out of the lot taking her home to Iraq: the other volunteers waved, and wandered back inside; I found a corner behind the building and wept. That night I decided to quit my studies and stay in Israel.
â€œDid Parwaâ€™s smile ever resurrect mirth?â€
These words appear in a poem I wrote shortly thereafter, entitled "Was I Ever In Israel?" Above left are Parwa and myself in Jerusalem, 2010. At right, two buddies fake sleep on a sidewalk bench.
2012 now, and I am in Iraq. This morning we placed a call to Parwaâ€™s family to see if we might come for a visit. The reply was affirmative, immediate, and enthusiastic.
Parwaâ€™s home in Sulimaniyah is deep in the warren of a poor neighborhood whose name translates as "Dry Springs." The lack of street names there makes navigation nearly impossible. Before even plunging in, we stopped at a toy store to buy her something. I found a purple watch and a set of twenty-four colored pencils. Suitable, I thought, for an eight- or nine-year old girl.
Already lost in her neighborhood and idling by the side of the road, suddenly we saw a person 150 yard away rounding the corner at a sprint. Closer and closer the person came, and a couple of us wondered out loud, Maybe it is her? Soon it was apparently a child, and then a girl. When she was parallel to us, she spotted Jonathan in the car, smiled, wiped the hair from her face, and came up to the window.
She thrust her hand inside the window and said â€œChoni!â€
Her house, like other Kurdish homes, is small: one story, with a flat roof, and cement floors. In the courtyard an arbor holds green grapes. Inside the entryway and to the right, a room is ready for guests, with a loose rug in the center and cushions against the wall. Here are water, orange juice, cookie platters, and watermelon. More smiles and greetings, our friend Goran is translating, and Parwaâ€™s mother and three siblings are here as well - a little sister, big brother, big sister. (The smallest Kurdish family I have met.)
What did we find? That Parwa is growing up, blossoming in fact, and excelling in school. Good grades have made her representative of the third grade class, she is faster than all the boys, and she recites the ABCâ€™s with quick confidence (see the video below). And most importantly, her heart is healing perfectly, evidenced by her sprint around the block in mid-day Middle East heat.
After a few moments, I asked Goran to translate: â€œWhen I came to Israel I was sad. My neck had broken, and a big surgery was done, like Parwa's. Afterwards I was very sad. When I came to Shevet Achim and became friends with Parwa, I began to feel better.â€
Parwa was sitting by her mother as these simple words were translated. I was embarassed to feel the warm weight of tears in my eyes.
â€œAnd I brought her something small to say thanks, to say that she is special.â€
And she came across the room to me, closed her eyes and put out her hands, as I fastened the watch on her wrist and set down the pencils. Opening her eyes then, she quietly said, "Spas" (thank you).
Later, she reciprocated with a bracelet woven of colored beads, which she made and which I am wearing as I write.
And the balance of the visit, in sum, was a delight. Parwa and I played thumb war and hot hands, finding our friendship again, while the others talked.
Her older brother is a handsome boy of fifteen, but who appears to be about ten... juvenile onset diabetes has prevented his growth. Jonathan promised to do some reading to see what can be done.
After pictures, hugs, handshakes, and a few more pictures, we finally said â€œXua hafizâ€ (goodbye).
And this time I didnâ€™t weep.