SALT LAKE CITY — Before they had even reached their teens, Rasha Kareem and Rula Ali had dodged bullets, witnessed murders, endured threats against their families and encountered bloody corpses in the streets, until finally they fled their homes in Baghdad — a place where your very name, your religion or association with certain people could get you executed.
There was at least one tender mercy: Rasha Akeem and Rula Ali found each other.
Once in a Syrian refugee camp. Once years later, by fate, providence or accident, they found each other 7,000 miles from home, in Salt Lake City.
Rasha had disappeared, and for eight years they never knew what had become of the other. Then one day, Rasha turned around in a crowded room and there she was: Rula.
Don’t I know you?
What were the odds?
One wound up here because this is where she ran out of gas. The other was sent here by the United Nations.
Rasha studies biochemistry and math at the University of Utah and serves as a peer tutor. Rula, who works as a translator, finished her studies at Salt Lake Community College and has transferred to the University of Utah. She lives with her parents, who struggle to find work and are desperate to start over in this country.
When Rasha and Rula finally stumbled into each other after all those years, Rula stammered, “What happened to you?” Rasha replied, “There’s a long story.”
And so it is. Sitting at a table on the University of Utah campus, they have so much to tell that it takes more than two hours and they pause only to cry. The beginning of the end of their lives as they knew it in Iraq began in 2003, when the U.S. invaded the country and overthrew the government of Saddam Hussein. The war dragged on for eight years, igniting a civil war that pitted two factions of Islam — Sunnis and Shiites — against one another.
Violence became part of their lives, like morning prayers and dinner. Militia hid from the American army in Rasha’s school one day and a firefight ensued. The kids were pinned down. With classmates begging her to stay put, Rasha darted from the school and ran home through the shooting.
“I figured if I’m going to die, I’m going to die,” she says. “It’s not something you sit down and think about. You just survive. You see dead people; it’s OK. This is life. You get used to it. We don’t have time to sit down and cry. It was pretty regular. I saw people getting killed in front of me.”
Several years later, her father fled the country to find a new home, leaving the family behind to be watched over by their grandfather. Rasha and her four brothers and mother tried to carry on. Rasha insisted on going to school even though it was dangerous. To avoid the fighting, she got up at dawn and arrived at school at the same time as the custodial staff, well before other students showed up. But life there became untenable when her grandfather was kidnapped and tortured by al-Qaida. The family searched for him in trash cans — that’s where the insurgents had said they would dump his body. They found him instead in a hospital morgue. His body was brought to the house. Rasha finally allowed herself to cry.
“When my grandpa died, it was too much,” she says. “It was so sad. I cried every day. I wish I had died there. Living with this thing in the back of your head. It’s too much.”
Having received threats, the family fled the country for Syria in 2007 and settled in a refugee camp, waiting for the official paperwork that would send them to a permanent home.
Rasha found a friend at school. Rula was one of two girls in a dual-faith family — her mother was Sunni, her father Shiite. None of this mattered until al-Qaida decided it did. “Al-Qaida was trying to kill Shiite people,” says Rula. “It’s not the people. I have friends who are Sunni and Shiite. The people are OK with it, but al-Qaida does not see us as human beings.”
Hearing this, Rasha adds, “Before the war nobody even asked such questions (about religion).”
Rula’s father, a mechanical engineer, was attacked by al-Qaida while at work one day. “They told him he was going to die,” says Rula. “They said these are the last moments of your life.” They put a gun to his head but, like some scene out of a movie, the cavalry arrived in the form of American soldiers, and al-Qaida fled.
The threats continued. A letter arrived that vowed to kill Rula and her sisters. The envelope contained two bullets. “My dad didn’t care what religion someone was,” says Rula. “They told my mom to divorce him or they’d kill us.”
Families hired drivers to guard and transport their kids to and from school each day. One day Rula and her classmates heard shooting from the boys school. Later, Rula saw a bloody corpse in the street — the body of one of the drivers. “They just killed him randomly,” says Rula. “It was traumatic.”
Her father fled the country to try to find a new home, but Jordan and Egypt refused to allow his wife to join him. Instead, his wife took the family to a Syrian refugee camp.
“The Syrians didn’t like us,” says Rula. “They made fun of us. We didn’t have the same rites they had. We were (ostracized). We gravitated toward each other because we were both Iraqis. We had lots of sad moments. We just wanted a safe life. Why do that to us?”
In school, she was assigned to share a desk with Rasha. They were both Iraqi refugees, born in 1992 just 29 days apart, and raised in Baghdad, though they never knew each other until they came to Syria. Rasha was Sunni, Rula Shiite. That was supposed to make them enemies, but they didn’t even know the other’s religion until they met in America this year. The subject never came up.
The two girls grew close and clung to one another for comfort. Rula missed her father, whom she didn’t see for four years because of visa problems, and she liked to talk to Rasha about him. Rasha talked about her strict home life, which forbade her from associating with others outside of school.
“We talked a lot at school,” says Rasha. “We were best friends. I couldn’t meet anyone away from school — my father was very strict — so my only outlet was talking to Rula and writing notes to her in class.”
In May 2008, when they were in 10th grade, Rula gave her friend a photo of an Iraqi soccer heartthrob with a note she had written on the back of it. “To my best friend and sweetheart. This is a picture of the first person that I like so you can remember me each time you see this picture and so you don’t forget me and our friendship.”
Three months later, Rasha didn’t show up at school. Rula didn’t know it, but Rasha’s family had been granted a visa to the U.S. and left Syria hastily. “She just left,” says Rula. “I didn’t know what happened.” Rasha’s family settled in Arizona. Rula’s family was allowed to emigrate to the U.S. in December 2009 and was settled in Salt Lake City.
In their new country, they both pursued education, which meant learning English on the fly. Rasha made a point of talking to American students, read books and watched TV, mostly “Family Guy” and “That '70s Show,” taking notes of the words she heard and looking up their meanings. “That’s how I learned, by watching ‘Family Guy,’ ” she says smiling. Rula kept a dictionary handy and constantly looked up words.
Rasha completed high school and two years of college in Arizona. In 2013, rebelling against strict cultural traditions enforced by her family, she ran away, driving north with no idea where she was headed. She drove for 16 hours and then ran out of gas at Exit 305 in South Salt Lake. She found an apartment via her laptop and two weeks later she found a job as a translator. For two years she didn’t contact her family or let them know where she was. She would call family members just to hear their voices, but she wouldn’t say a word. Only recently did she reconcile with her family.
For two years Rasha lived in the same city as Rula but didn’t know it. Rula graduated from West High School in 2010 and enrolled at SLCC with aspirations of studying pharmacology.
Seeking scholarship help, Rasha and Rula found their ways to a woman named Amy Wylie, the executive director of the Refugee Education Initiative, a nonprofit group that sponsors some 150 refugee students in Utah. During an orientation on June 29, Rula spotted a fellow student named Ikram Abdullah, who bore a striking resemblance to Rasha. “You look like an old friend of mine,” she said to Abdullah. Then she noticed for the first time a young woman standing next to Abdullah who looked exactly like her. “Are you twins?”
The other woman was Rasha, who stared at Rula in a moment of confusion before she said, “I know you; are you Rula?”
“How do you know my name?”
And then they were all hugs and wondering how they had found each other again eight years later in Salt Lake City, of all places.
Says Rasha: “It was shocking. What a coincidence. I really think in the bottom of my heart that it was planned — planned from somewhere.”
Says Rula: “I could not believe it. She was my best friend. I would never think I would meet her here. What a great thing we met again.”
They have continued to stay in contact since their reunion. For this interview, Rasha brought the photo Rula had given to her in Syria. “It’s funny,” Rasha says. “I don’t know why I kept this photo. I left it in Arizona and when I went back I would always see it there in my room. The last time I went there I decided to take this photo with me back to Utah. I always remembered her.”
Both women have made long-range education and career plans. Rula is studying to qualify for dental school. Rasha plans to go to medical school to be a gynecologist, which she believes would provide an alternative for Muslim women who prefer a female doctor. If that doesn’t work out, she will pursue chemical engineering.
“There are so many things in my head,” she says. “I love education. It has always been my priority.”
So Rula and Rasha are both attending the same school again, just as they did in Syria, taking up the educational pursuits that were interrupted years ago. Says Wylie, “It was amazing that two students who started their education as refugees in Syria both ended up here. Their dream of an education ultimately led them back to each other.”
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