When Najwa Al Amin arrived at the Iraqi border after a ten-hour drive from Baghdad – the only way in or out for anyone in the 1990s was by land because of the UN embargo – she came face to face with an Iraqi customs officer, who could easily have said, “Go back!” She passed through that first gate. The second gate was in Jordan, where the Jordanian customs officer could also have said, “Go back!” The third gate was the Sanaa/Yemen Airport – Yemen, Jordan, and Libya were the only three countries back then that took an Iraqi passport holder. The fourth gate was the most difficult; it was the American Embassy, where Najwa applied for a visa to the U.S. to visit her mother and two siblings, who were living in America. The fifth gate was at Jeddah Airport in Saudi Arabia, where the officer confiscated Najwa’s passport containing her American visa . . . for hours, without a word. He, too, could have sent her back. The sixth gate was at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., July 2000. The immigration officers pulled Najwa out of the line to a separate room, took photographs, and fingerprinted her, before letting her in. Behind the seventh gate, stood Najwa’s mother, her sister, whom she hadn’t seen for 10 years, and her sister’s family. The eighth gate Najwa had to pass through was when the immigration officer decided whether to grant her permanent residency or not.
This image is one of Najwa’s paintings. It represents every gate she had to pass through to come the United States.
Back in Baghdad, in the mid-1990s, young professionals would secretly talk about migrating. Baghdad had become a lawless, dangerous city after two wars and a brutal UN embargo that took its toll on innocent civilians, with no end in sight. The migration options these young professionals talked about were Australia, Canada, New Zealand . . . and they would always say to each other that the U.S. was the best place to migrate to for a reason; it is made up of immigrants, and one will fit right in.
According to immigration law, Najwa says, anyone who comes into the U.S. on a visitor’s visa from a “war zone” or a troubled country can apply for asylum, if they can prove that it is too dangerous to go back and have no residency anywhere else. Initially, Najwa was going to send an immigration application to Canada, but her sister said to her, “America is a great country, you will love it here.” So Najwa hired a lawyer and applied for asylum, and she was granted asylum status in the States. Coming just fourteen months after Najwa arrived in America, 9/11 stirred up feelings in her that were amongst the strangest of her whole immigrant experience. “I foolishly thought I left such tragic events behind,” she says.
Najwa makes her home in Baltimore now. She subsidizes her artist’s life by being a licensed childcare provider, and she says that being in the States has changed her. “I was able to just be me,” she says. “The best part was freedom, and independence, self confidence, safety, kindness of the people.”
But it was hard won. By the time Najwa had passed through the eighth gate of her migration, when the immigration officer decided whether to grant her permanent residency or not, she was so tired of officers’ interviews, not to mention the anxiety, the worry about the eleven-year-old son she’d left behind in Yemen, the marriage that had collapsed, and working two jobs, seven days a week, to pay rent and support herself.
Four years after she came to the States, Najwa was able to bring her son to join her, but she didn’t travel outside the U.S. herself until she had an American passport. “I remember thinking, the magic of what a piece of paper can do . . . gates just seem to disappear for a while.”