An honest cry: New American Jaafar Al Ogaili on illness, friendship

An honest cry: New American Jaafar Al Ogaili on illness, friendship

Why We Wrote This

The fear of COVID-19 was eclipsed by the new facets of friendship that Jaafar Al Ogaili, a Massachusetts college student, discovered. He is one of twelve 21-year-olds around the world in the Monitor’s special global report – 21 in ’21 – that explains how the pandemic is defining their generation.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

A Northeastern University criminal psychology major, Jaafar Al Ogaili lost his vision in a U.S. military grenade accident in Iraq before his family came to the United States as refugees.

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January 22, 2021

Lowell, Mass.

As my father and I pulled up to the house, neither of us thought about who was going to bring the bags to the door. The friend in me required it. I had to deliver these groceries to my best friend, Denise. 

I felt a jolt of nervousness when I stepped out of the car – partly the chill of the air that day last April, partly the concern about getting too close to space occupied by Denise and her children quarantining with COVID-19. It was early days in the pandemic. I was afraid to bring the disease home to my family.

Denise and her children watched me through the windows as I walked toward the open garage door. Visiting this way didn’t feel right. Usually the children run and hug me (“Uncle Jaafar,” they call me). I dropped the groceries in front of the garage stairs to her house, as if a wall divided us. I didn’t want her to open the door – but it was painful not to. I didn’t want to treat her like an infection.     

Returning to the car, I tossed my gloves in her trash can and walked fast to get out, like something was chasing me. Denise called then and said thank you. And, because she treats me in the American way, she wants to pay me back. I said my father bought the groceries and wouldn’t accept any payments. 

Though I’m blind, as I reached the car, I could see the blur of Denise stepping out and waving. I heard the sound of her muffled voice, and could tell she was wearing a mask. 

Special Global Report
21 in ’21: Coming of age in a pandemic

In the Iraqi culture I grew up in, men should not cry. But that moment with Denise pushed me to cry. Between us that day, there was just 20 feet of regular ground. That experience brought back old memories of goodbyes. 

As my father drove away from Denise, I felt like I did sitting on a bus years ago in Baghdad, overwhelmed and preparing to leave everything I had behind me.

It was 2012. My family was moving out of Iraq because my father – a government employee – had been threatened with death by terrorists. Our bus was taking us from Baghdad to Turkey, a three-day drive. I don’t really know why I cried … I just did.

At that time my brothers and I were all around high school age, and I was in a special school for blind children. I was an “A student,” as you would say here – a “100 student” is what they called it there. I played goalball, a sport for visually impaired athletes, for my mother-country team, and was paid by the Paralympic association. My life was shining. 

Then we moved to Turkey and, all of a sudden, I had to leave all my friends, all my memories, all my relatives. We moved to a Turkish province called Amasya, toward the north and close to the Black Sea. As a refugee there, you weren’t allowed to work, to drive, to buy a house. You feel like you’re in a strange place. 

There, my father’s phone was the most important thing in the world. Whenever it rang, it gave us hope that the United Nations was calling to say we might be out. After almost two years, 12-hour bus rides to Istanbul, three interviews, and a 34-hour flight, we were. 

When we arrived in the United States in November 2013, the feeling was indescribable. It gave me hope to study, to seek my career, to accomplish the things I had in mind, especially at that age, when I had all of life opening its arms for me. 

And I was ready. 

The Iraqi boy becomes a man as soon as possible – as soon as he learns a few lessons and faces a few harsh moments. I became a man in the fifth grade. Two years before, I was playing soccer near my home and a grenade from a passing U.S. Humvee exploded near me, causing my visual impairment. I transferred to a school for blind students in Baghdad. It was a boarding school and I learned to cope without my parents helping me. You shouldn’t be responsible at that age, but I had to be. 

That sharpened me more than other people my age. I learned how to act in crisis and other situations of life. That’s why, despite my fears, I knew how to face that April day when Denise called me to say she and her family had COVID-19 and she needed help.    

“Just stay in your house, and I’ll bring you everything you need,” I said. I made that not as an offer, but as a requirement. 

So, when my family and I got COVID-19 in December, my friend Aziz told me the same thing. 

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He brought supplies to the door, talking to me on the phone more than 6 feet away. I realized the quality of some friends – friends who don’t mind risking their lives coming to your door and leaving the groceries there, friends who check in every day to ask how you’re doing. I’m thankful for COVID, and all the pain I got, for realizing this.

I tried both sides. I tried the side of bringing groceries and leaving them at the door. I tried the side of receiving them, from behind the glass door – and just at that moment I knew how Denise felt.

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