Of Fireworks and Uncertain Futures: Stories from students from countries in conflict

Kamna Shastri

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Tires scream as a car stops quickly, and Senior Hasan Ali remembers the car in Iraq that made the same sound before its passengers started shooting.

Ali knows his gut reaction in those situations isn’t the same as what he understands is actually happening. Still, it is challenging to separate his memories from the present.

Ali and first-year Evgeniya Sicheva are from Iraq and Uzbekistan, respectively. They’ve both seen conflict and oppression at different levels.

Ali has never known a peaceful Iraq, and Sicheva is used to the corruption of the aristocratic, dictatorial government of Uzbekistan. The situations plaguing their respective homes may be half a world away, but they are, in the hearts and minds of Sicheva and Ali, everyday realities.

Hasan Ali. Photo by Annabelle Marcovici.

Hasan Ali ’15. Photo by Annabelle Marcovici.

Political Instability and an Uncertain Future

Since the fifth grade, Sicheva’s mother has told her that she must get out of her native Uzbekistan someday.

“You have to work hard to leave this place,” Sicheva’s mother told her. “You have to get a good job –– good education.”

Uzbekistan is a landlocked country in central Asia. The country has been under the rule of 77-year-old Islam Karimov since Uzbekistan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The country is growing increasingly politically unstable, especially as general elections approach in the near future.

“Being in that country … it’s not really that bad,” said Sicheva. “But you can feel that … it constrains you to certain boundaries.”

She then explained the extent of government corruption. Drunk drivers can evade prosecution by bribing police officers. A prestigious academic diploma, the “Red diploma,” can be obtained by offering a large sum of money to officials. Speaking about the government is a risk: Talk of politics is dangerous on the streets, and when speaking about the government at home or at school, voices are lowered to a whisper. 

The government also censors media and news, leaving citizens ill-informed about happenings outside the borders of their own localities. 

Evgeniya Sicheva '18. Photo by Annabelle Marcovici.

Evgeniya Sicheva ’18. Photo by Annabelle Marcovici.

For Sicheva, the United States has been somewhat of a contrast to the censure and restrictive atmosphere of Uzbekistan.

“Here people know everything about what is happening around them,” said Sicheva. “I feel kind of a little more free because I can speak out and I can do whatever I want.”

She feels much more comfortable walking the streets in Walla Walla as a woman. In Uzbekistan, women are still subject to a male-dominated society where groping is common place while simply trying to cross the street.

Women have been forcibly sterilized to prevent population growth, and many women drink vinegar to commit suicide, often failing and enduring lifelong injury.

Here Sicheva said she can walk without worry.

Because of the corruption, secrecy and lack of opportunity back home, Sicheva said many people are leaving the country in search of better education and employment. This concerns her.

“My brother is still there and I’m really worried about his future because it makes it seem like there’s no future in Uzbekistan,” she said.

In spite of an uncertain future, corruption and tight government censure, Sicheva’s fondness for Uzbekistan still burns bright.

“I kind of miss it,” she said. ” I’m used to that environment; if you grow [up] in there, it’s not that unusual.”

Forever Wary of War’s Violence

Fireworks pop and sizzle down the sky, and senior Hasan Ali thinks of home. While the Americans at the party celebrate their independence, Ali stands terrified of the memories that the smell of gunpowder conjures.

“All these fireworks made me think a lot home and think about explosives,” he said. “The sound is very similar. Even the light and the smell … that smell of explosive.”

Ali’s brother, sisters and parents are still in Baghdad, a violent hot spot in Iraq. He is constantly keeping a tab on the news to make sure they are safe.

“I read the news. I see bombing where my sister lives. And I try to call them … They don’t reply and I get really scared,” he said.

Mementos remind Ali of home. Photo by Annabelle Marcovici.

Mementos remind Ali of home. Photo by Annabelle Marcovici.

Though Ali is grateful that he isn’t in constant threat of violence here, it isn’t easy to be away from home.

“It’s really hard for me to be in this situation and think of [my family] being in that situation,” said Ali.

Growing up in a war-torn Iraq gives Ali a wider view of U.S.-Iraq relations. While keeping up with the news to ensure his family’s safety, he noted how one-sided (and short-sighted) news coverage about Iraq can be. That myopia trickles into everyday interactions, too; Ali said he often disagrees with Americans about, for example, The Islamic State.

He explained that Iraq and its neighbors have largely been pawns of the Western world in recent history. The region was first colonized by the British in the early 1900s. When people clamored for their own free nations, the United States, Britain and France backed oppressive dictators.

“They [the West] put on people who are oppressive just because these dictators actually gave them oil,” said Ali.

Ali connected this oppression to the creation of ISIS. He used the example of Abu Ghraib, a prison where inmates have been brutally abused by the U.S. Army and the CIA during the U.S. war in Iraq in the early 2000s.

“What do you expect them to become after you torture them and essentially make them inhuman?” he asked.

Amidst the relative mellowness of Whitman and the lack of violence here, Ali still feels separated from the college environment. He attributes this feeling partly to being an international student and partly to having been witness to violent conflict.

“As much as I love this place, I always feel detached. Once you’re actually in violence, once you live in war,” he said, “violence and war kind of live in you.”

Ali has not only had to grapple with political and violent conflict at home, but he has to think about and engage with conflict academically.

“It does get to me and I’m a politics major, so I read a lot about conflict,” he said. “I try to think …  this is academic … I’m learning more about this, but it still really hurts. Sometimes I actually stop studying.”

But amidst news reports, worrying about home and analyzing conflicts in class, Ali remembers to count his blessings.

“I remind myself of the good things in my life right now, quite explicitly, by saying them out loud,” he said. “That helps.”

Varying Life experiences shine a questioning light on Whitman course curriculum

After reflecting on their personal experiences with conflict and tension, both Ali and Sicheva illustrated how their experiences question and challenge common dialogues that play out at Whitman.

“A lot of students say something but they don’t understand that what they see here is not the same outside the country,” said Sicheva.

Sicheva keeps familiar items with her. Photo by Annabelle Marcovici.

Sicheva keeps familiar items with her. Photo by Annabelle Marcovici.

She described how reading “The Second Sex” in her Encounters class leads to discussions about women and gender, a hot topic that is particularly pertinent to Uzbekistan.

“A lot of students say men and women are almost equal,” said Sicheva. “That’s not true. Women in my country are not equal at all.”

Ali also acknowledges a different reality beyond what we assume to be normal in America and in our classrooms.

Though he doesn’t identify as religious, Ali argues that the interpretation of the Quran presented in Encounters isn’t fully accurate, sometimes subtly perpetuating misconceptions of the Islamic religion that underlie rationale for war in the Middle East.

“How the Quran in Encounters is set up actually shows you a lot of violence,” he said. “So it’s kind of like a conception of the Quran is given to the student concerning violence rather than [saying], ‘Let’s read this whole text and understand that there’s a lot of compassion in it.'”

Sicheva and Ali hint at thinking beyond the confines of familiarity and what we deem comfortable and commonplace in order to comprehend a world much larger than the one we take for granted.

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