Scars of first Gulf War remain for Dijla Al-Rekabi, despite success in Canada

Difficult situations have dominated much of Dijla Al-Rekabi's life — from being a war survivor to a stranger in a new country — but they have also informed the work she does at the Calgary Board of Education.

It took six years in a refugee camp, but Al-Rekabi finally found a better life in Calgary

Dijla Al-Rekabi grew up in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. After receiving asylum in Canada, she moved to start a new life in Calgary. (Andrea Wong)

In partnership with Mount Royal University's Bachelor of Communication-Journalism program and the Calgary Journal, CBC Calgary is publishing a series profiling some of the immigrants and refugees who moved here and how they're helping shape our city. 

When 13-year-old Dijla Al-Rekabi first set foot in the Saudi Arabian refugee camp, she thought it was a prison.

In the previous month, she had lost her home, her community and her brother to the first Gulf War, but she never lost her will to live.

"When a person is in a difficult situation there are two choices," Al-Rekabi said. "We can give up and vanish, or stand up and make the best out of it. We stopped resisting. We started living."

Difficult situations have dominated much of Al-Rekabi's life — from being a war survivor to a stranger in a new country — but they have also informed the work she does at the Calgary Board of Education, helping new immigrants and refugees deal with some of the same struggles.

War upends life in Iraq

Before the war began, Iraq had been the centre of her fondest memories. As a talkative girl with a love for literature, Al-Rekabi was an enthusiastic student, especially when it came to her interest in refugees.

Yet, despite everything she had read about war, none of it prepared her for what would come.

In 1991, U.S. troops assembled to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Al-Rekabi was confident it would be no different than the previous Iran-Iraq war.

That changed when sirens sounded the first airstrike on her city of Najaf .

"I've never seen my parents as helpless as I've seen them during that night," she said. "To be a parent with 11 kids, and you're unable to say 'it's going to be OK.' That's harsh."

The skies were clear on day four of the U.S. air campaign, when Al-Rekabi and her 10-year-old brother Nasseer heard the distant sound of an aircraft.

They looked up to see a cylindrical object flipping over and over as it fell. The shell landed and exploded near the hospital, forcing it to shut down.

Brother's death

Days later, their mother brought Nasseer to be treated for a severe fever, but because the building was damaged there was nothing the hospital could do.

Nasseer did not survive the fever and his body was carried back home in their mother's arms.

"Dijla was speechless," said Al-Rekabi's older sister, Helema. "No tears. No nothing. She stayed hours, days, not speaking. It shook her so hard."

Only after going back to Iraq in 2015 was Al-Rekabi able to retrieve a photo of Nasseer from his elementary school. (Dijla Al-Rekabi)

As the bombings escalated, the roads were soon littered with bodies. Houses began to empty as families fled to shelters.

Al-Rekabi remembers getting ready for bed when her father announced they would also leave. She asked her father how long they would be gone, and he answered, "two hours."

A ceasefire was declared days later, but Al-Rekabi and her family could not return home.

Throughout the country, the Iraqi government was violently putting down uprisings to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

"We've never made it back to that house," Al-Rekabi said.

Refugee camp life

Al-Rekabi's family ran for weeks. They didn't realize how far they had gone until they were stopped at the Saudi Arabian border. With no other place to go, Al-Rekabi's family stayed at the Rafha refugee camp alongside 33,000 other Iraqis.

The camp was a two-by-four kilometre desert area guarded by double barbed-wire fence and military personnel.

During its 12-year operation, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants received numerous reports of arbitrary detention, protests against living conditions and abuse, which, in some cases resulted in death.

"In the beginning we thought it's going to be a few days," Al-Rekabi said. "That's why we were not thinking 'how do we live here?'"

But as days turned into months, Al-Rekabi realized the only way to survive was to embrace her surroundings.

Six years in the camp

During the day, Al-Rekabi attended the off-site school, where she eventually obtained her high school diploma and found momentary escape from the camp. Journaling in her spare time also provided escape.

She lived in that camp for six years.

Men at the camp heading towards a soccer game. Soccer was one of the main ways they would occupy their time. They sewed their own uniforms and held tournaments to play in. (Dijla Al-Rekabi)

Finally her family was selected for third-country resettlement. When they learned they would be interviewed by the Canadian delegation, they were devastated.

As a non-English speaking family with several children and a blind relative, they feared they would not pass the screening process. Despite her family's reservations, Al-Rekabi was determined to speak up and tell her story.

Assisted by a translator and an Arabic-English dictionary, she talked about everything she and her family had gone through. At the end of their conversation, Al-Rekabi says the delegate replied, "Welcome to Canada."

New home, new challenges

The move to Canada, however, posed a new set of challenges.

Al-Rekabi's father had always been the sole provider, but without recognized credentials he was unable to find work. When both of her parents encountered serious health problems, Al-Rekabi took on the role of caregiver for the family.

Along with working part-time and attending the University of Calgary, Al-Rekabi carried the lingering weight of trauma.

"There is something so dehumanizing about being a refugee, being in a war, that a lot of us just want to forget it," she said. "I sought counselling when I needed counselling. I talk about it. I write about it. Public speaking has helped me express a lot of the fear, anxiety and the trauma having lived what I have lived through."

'I picked myself up'

Part of that public speaking comes from her role as a diversity and learning support advisor with the Calgary Board of Education. But Al-Rekabi says the most fulfilling part of her work has been sitting down with immigrant and refugee families and empowering them to move forward.

"I can tell them I was once upon a time in their shoes, and I picked myself up, and I am where I am not because of luck," she said. "If I didn't have access to all of these new services, and I did what I did, can you imagine what you can do?"

Nothing will ever erase the experiences of pain and loss, but Al-Rekabi intends to overcome her challenges by refusing to let them hold her back.

"Situations that we catch ourselves in can never explain who we are or what we are capable of," she said. "Stopping to resist and starting to live and enjoying the little things…that is something worthy to live for."