Once Upon a Time I Was a Gulf War Refugee
This is a story about my home away from home, Switzerland. My connection with Switzerland started very early on in life when I was a newborn. I was born in Geneva, Switzerland where my father was continuing his studies. My parents developed a great relationship with the hospital and delivery doctor (who also delivered four of my other siblings) – and not to mention a special bond with the country. I spent my early childhood years there until my father got his business degree, and then every summer after that, until this very day. While it’s not your typical summer go-to place (like Cannes for instance), it means a lot to my family and I. Little did we know that Switzerland was going to mean so much more than just a summer vacation, and that I’d be a Gulf War refugee.
On August 2, 1990, we were spending our summer in a small town in Switzerland called Rolle. We had been spending our summers there for some years. The town was not a touristic place, but it was perfect for us. My friends, siblings and I rode our bikes, played in the park, played by the lake, and rode our bikes again. The grown-ups loved the weather and the nature. A large number of our relatives also vacationed in this town, so it was a blessing that we were all together during such a rough time.
On that day, I had just woken up and walked into the living room to find our nanny engrossed in the TV news, and my mother nowhere to be found. The nanny, upon realizing I was standing there in my pyjamas waiting for breakfast, exclaimed “Look, Alya! Iraq invaded Kuwait! Look! Look! War!” I was almost 7 back then. I had no idea what Iraq was, who Saddam was and what a war was. I didn’t know how devastating the situation was. I imagined men fighting with swords, bows and cannons. I remember a strange feeling deep down in my stomach. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t happy either. I knew something was wrong, but I was just confused. I shrugged it off and went to find something to eat. It didn’t sink in yet that my father was still in Kuwait.
My father had work to do, and didn’t accompany us that summer. Relatives and friends lived in the same and nearby buildings, but the majority of my close family was in Kuwait. A few days into the war, my grandmother and maternal aunts left Kuwait by way of Saudi Arabia. My father and grandfather refused to leave, as did some of my maternal uncles and everyone else on my father’s side.
Since the school season was going to start soon, people volunteered to teach us students in make-shift classes at the embassy. Later on, when that proved to be slightly impractical, and the embassy was swamped with work, some parents enrolled their children in local schools.
For those of us in Rolle, a few Swiss women volunteered to teach the Kuwaiti students in our area. The officials in town offered some rooms in the local town Chateaux, a historic landmark, for us to study in. We were grouped into 3 different classrooms and were taught French (we were in the French-speaking area of Switzerland). After a couple of months, our teachers made us put on a show for our community. I remember my mother and the other women crying and clapping at the end.
For us kids, life went on easy enough. We didn’t understand the things the grown ups did. So we stuck with what we know: playing. The women gathered daily, each time at a different home, to do Quran readings and prayers for Kuwait. What I realize now is that for the adults, the situation was agonizing because they didn’t know what the future of the country was.
A lot of the families were well-off, but immediately after the war, all assets in Kuwaiti banks were frozen. The Kuwaiti embassy handed out money to Kuwaitis to provide sustenance for themselves and their families. My aunt tells me that at first, she cried when an embassy official gave her an envelope with money. She said she couldn’t believe how in the course of one day, your whole life gets flipped upside down. She couldn’t believe that we were now refugees.
We used to live such a privileged life in Kuwait, with housekeepers, cooks and drivers and now our mothers had to clean, cook and drive us everywhere. This was not a vacation anymore. This was life in a foreign country. And we didn’t know how long we were going to stay there. How did my mother manage 4 kids under the age of 7 without her husband? I still don’t know. I remember her crying because she didn’t know how my father was doing.
We stayed in Switzerland for one and a half years before coming back. When Kuwait was finally declared free, my father wouldn’t let us come back right away because the weather was too polluted, and he didn’t want us to see the country in such a destroyed state. I don’t remember much after that except that my father surprised us with a visit, and my brother upon seeing him burst into tears. He realized that he hadn’t seen his father for more than a year. It was one of the most important and remarkable times in my life.
I still cry when I remember the atrocities that happened. I cry for those we lost. I cry for those who were hurt. I cry for the land. I cry for my country. Sometimes I think to myself, had I been older at the time, what would I have done? If I was in Kuwait, would I have fled?
The truth is, I don’t know. I can’t imagine living in a war for one day, let alone 7 months. I never learned the worst of it until I became older. I still learn new things about the war, things I never heard about before. I learned that my grandmother was taken prisoner. I learned that our house was home to pursued Kuwaiti soldiers. I learned that my father is the bravest man I know. But most of all, I learned that no matter how long wars last, their damage is still the same. Physically, emotionally, environmentally. Rape, murder, looting, pollution. They happen in every war-torn country, and their effects can never be fully erased. But with time, and the grace of God, we move on and continue living.
I do know this, though, that when the time came to return to Kuwait, my heart was filled with an indescribable feeling. Because you know what they say: home is where the heart is…
And I was coming back to it.
– Alya Al-Othman
Originally published August 2, 2009