It was just cake innocent, gooey, dripping-with-fudge cake. But somehow, the sight of it, coupled with an airy dinner-table conversation about the latest video gaming system, made Laura Hamblin want to throw up.
In Jordan, where the Utah Valley University professor spent the last year, Iraqis who had been violently ousted from their homes were at that moment hopeless, destitute and struggling to make new lives.
"And I I was eating blasted chocolate cake," she said. "I had to get up, leave lunch and weep at the absurdity of it all."
Hamblin expected the time she spent recording the oral histories of displaced Iraqi women to be difficult horrifying, even. She didn't expect, though, that the hardest part of meeting those women and sharing in their tragedies would be readjusting to her sheltered life in Springville.
"I'm am paralyzed by the opulence," said the professor, who returned to the states last month. "I am really, really paralyzed by my own opulence."
Since the war began in 2003, more than 4 million Iraqis have fled to countries like Syria and Jordan to escape violence. People are targeted because of religious affiliation, economic status and profession. In Jordan, there are no refugee camps.
The displaced Iraqis, who come from varying economic backgrounds, have all but dissolved into the Jordanian landscape. Unable to secure citizenship without freezing a hefty $75,000 in the bank, and unable to find employment without citizenship, the Iraqis effectively "slip under the radar," Hamblin said.
Hamblin is certain the American people would jump to help the refugees, if they only understood how the war has torn their lives apart. That's why she is now toiling away in her office, transcribing hours of interviews in preparation to make a documentary.
"When we think of war, we think of American soldiers being killed," she said. "War is so much more than that. The consequences reach so far beyond our own people."
For Hamblin, at least, the suffering of the Iraqi refugees is now very real.
"Tell me your story," she told each Iraqi woman she interviewed, as she snapped on her high definition video camera.
What they said isn't likely to leave her.
One woman, hair bound back in a scarf, eyes hollow and haunted, giggled disturbingly as she told Hamblin about the day her husband's body was dropped off on her doorstep in a garbage bag. He had been chopped up into 47 pieces.
"She wasn't sure what it was at first," Hamblin said. "She and her sisters put him together like a puzzle."
Another woman shook as she recalled riding the bus to the college campus where she studied chemistry. Two or three times a week, she said, the bus would stop and someone would be dragged off and executed. The driver would close the door, and the remaining students would continue on their way.
"I knew their stories would be horrific," Hamblin said. "But when you sit down with someone, one on one, and they share something that personal and that terrible, it really changes your perspective on life."
Hamblin isn't a stranger to grief. Three years ago, the English teacher's only son, Blake Donner, 24, drowned in an underground tunnel in the mountains above Brigham Young University. Three of his friends died with him.
After her son's death, Hamblin said she felt lost, directionless and depressed. The Iraqi refugees, she discovered during the interview process, were going through many of the same emotional struggles.
"I wanted to share my antidepressants with them," she said.
It was Hamblin's loss that inspired her to spend her sabbatical in Jordan working with the refugees. Most English professors "take a year off to write poetry in the Bahamas," she said. But, for Hamblin, poetry lost its magic after Donner's death.
"I was wasting my life on trivial things," she said. "I wanted to do something more concrete. I wanted to be able to see, touch, hear and smell that I was leaving a mark on this world."
In much the same way Hamblin looked to the Middle East for a resolution to her personal tragedy, the Iraqi refugees are calling to America for help with theirs, Hamblin said.
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