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A Child of War - 2003-03-14

English Feature #7-37273 Broadcast March 17, 2003

Six young immigrants to the United States recently shared their personal histories of conflict and violence with audiences in Northern Virginia, in a play called “Children of War”. Today on New American Voices, one of these youngsters, a sixteen-year-old Kurd, talks about the play, and about his experiences.

When Dereen Pasha was five years old, Iraqi soldiers entered his home one evening and shot his father dead.

“We all sit down, it’s around 7:00 PM, and we all have dinner, and before my father takes his first bite there’s a knock on the door, and my mother tells my father not to go outside, because it’s night, and when he opens the door he hears someone call his name, and when he steps a little more outside we hear a gunshot… and my mother screams.”

Dereen Pasha’s family lived in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq. His father was a Kurdish political activist. With his death, Dereen’s mother was left to raise two young sons alone. Dereen remembers spending two years hiding out with his family in the mountains of Kurdistan. Eventually, the Pashas were able to come to the United States and settled in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Dereen was nine at the time. Now he is sixteen, a tall, dark-browed, handsome young man who still vividly remembers his native land.

“A valley surrounded by mountains, full of sorrow and tears. I remember people living without a country. I remember my dad, and all the dreams that went with him to his grave.”

These memories made their way into the play “Children of War”, which was, in effect, a staged reading of the painful experiences of six young survivors of war and violence.

“It was mostly like our stories, our autobiography. Most of our stories were about war, trauma and torture. And the main point was for people to listen to us and see what suffering we have gone through, and find out what other children have gone through, and to tell other people about it.“

The other young participants in the play had been witness to conflict and tragedy in Somalia, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, El Salvador and Iran. Dereen says that one reason he volunteered to be in this performance was to make it clear to his high school peers that Kurds, although they may be from Iraq, have suffered much at the hands of Saddam Hussein and do not support him – quite the opposite. Another reason, he says, was to make American teenagers aware of the difficult lives of people in some other parts of the world.

“Some of us begin life in luxury, and others have to go through the pain of a terrible country, terrible leaders, and we have to suffer through poverty and stuff, and how we help ourselves and how we came to escape from it would be good, to let them know what other people suffer.”

Dereen Pasha says that the friends he chooses to hang out with in high school are, like him, immigrants from the Middle East who, he feels, understand better what he went through. Although to all appearances his life is that of an ordinary American teenager who enjoys pizza, cartoons, and computer games, at home the family retains its Kurdish customs.

“When I go outside I have to be American in a way, too, because I go to an American school, American teachers and stuff, and even when I go to a mall shopping I have to be an American and speak the language. The Middle Eastern stuff is mostly when I go back home, because our home is kind of like a traditional Middle Eastern style, we listen to our music, we watch our television – so basically home is, like, where I’m from, our culture, and outside is American. Kind of like a mix.”

Dereen Pasha’s mother Shayan says her son has changed greatly after participating in the play “Children of War”. Where before he was a shy, reserved and somewhat withdrawn teenager, he has become much more confident and willing to talk about his feelings. Dereen himself also says that the play was therapeutic for him.

“Because I’m kind of not afraid to say who am I and where I’m from, because I kind of told my story to other people, and it helped me face the facts more. Now that I’ve told my story to a thousand or more people, it helped me to realize the facts more. It was kind of like a healing process… that cured me.”

The play “Children of War” was a collaboration between New York-based playwright and director Ping Chong and the Center for Multicultural Human Services, which offers mental health and related services to refugee and immigrant children in Northern Virginia. Tune in next week for more about this center, its work and its clients.