By Mara Klecker
It’s early afternoon in Sheikhan, Iraq, in spring 2003. Two girls—5 and 7 years old—play in the yard. They run between the orange trees and the grape vines and they are both laughing.
They don’t know why, but their mother won’t let them play beyond the fence line. She’s worried all the time now. It’s in her eyes and in her voice. She’s scared. But she won’t tell the girls about it. She just tells them not to go outside their yard.
But on that afternoon, the girls begin to understand. They are outside when the first explosion sounded, followed by the gunshots and yelling coming from the jagged hills on the edge of town.
A man comes running toward their house. Or he’s trying to run. His clothes are torn and bloody. Half of one of his leg has been blown off, and he’s scrambling and stumbling. He’s screaming.
The girls see him and look at their mother. He’s probably Yazidi too. Probably speaks Kurdish like them. That’s probably why the Taliban soldiers shot at him. That’s why they can’t invite him inside. If they carried him to the basement to all the other worried faces, the men with the guns and belts of bullets would know that this is a Yazidi home.
The oldest girl, Sawsan, doesn’t cry. She never cries.
Even in the years that followed— long months staying home from school because of bomb threats, of hearing about kidnapping and rape and unbelievable torture, of covering up the windows, of watching the death toll rise on the television—Sawsan does not cry.
But now, 12 years later, on a crisp fall day in Lincoln, Nebraska, in a musty basement full of folding chairs, Sawsan’s voice drops off and catches in her throat. She pushes her long, dark hair behind her ear, drops her eyes to her small hands, folded tight in her lap.
“I miss Iraq,” she says. “The orange trees and my house, my friends. It was beautiful. I miss everything.”
Her sister looks at her. She smiles sad and slow—showing her braces and her deep dimples.
“Not everything,” Diana interrupts, her voice bright.
“In our country, I didn’t think I could be anything. But here. Here, I can be. I’m allowed to be.”
Here—in the gymnasium of Lincoln High School, Diana Elias is allowed to be Homecoming Queen, becoming the first English Language Learner student and the first Iraqi girl to wear the crown.
Here, she can be a hospital volunteer at Bryan Medical Center where her supervisor, MaryBeth Williams, said she’s “always smiling, always willing to help.” She can be a member of the Young Women’s Leadership Council, where the council leader, Sarah Gentes, recognizes her as a “motivated and involved leader.”
Here, Diana is allowed to be a youth cadet in the American Legion’s Law Enforcement Program. She’s allowed—and encouraged—to pursue a criminal justice degree and fulfill her dream of becoming Lincoln’s first Iraqi policewoman.
It’s early September in Diana’s senior year of high school. Many of the students in the hallways don’t know her past. They don’t know about that long day years ago when her mother dressed in a burqa and told the girls to stay silent so the passport office officials wouldn’t hear their Kurdish accent.
They don’t know about the taxi that arrived at 5 a.m. on that day in 2009, the one that would drive them away from their home for the last time.
They don’t know about the eight months her family spent in Turkish hotels and mouse-infested apartments before finally coming to the U.S.—Sioux Falls, South Dakota, first and then Lincoln, Nebraska.
She wasn’t always that way. When Diana first came to the U.S., the only English she knew came from American cartoons. “Tom and Jerry” was her favorite, but looking back, she says she realizes there wasn’t a lot of dialogue to learn from a cat and a mouse.
So Diana—the bubbly girl with so much to say—went quiet for those first couple years. She attended summer English Language Learner classes in Sioux Falls, and could only hold conversations with her younger brother. In the lunch line on the first day, she just held her plastic tray close to her chest, trying to find a way to say what foods she didn’t want on her plate. She ended up going back to her seat with a near empty plate.
Seven months after moving into the apartment in Sioux Falls, the family moved again, this time to Lincoln. By the time Diana enrolled at Lincoln High School, she was more comfortable. And she says her peers were welcoming. She started joining clubs and volunteering. She got involved and she started speaking in English. She learned about the popular songs and movies and suddenly she realized she fit in.
There is so much those students walking past her don’t know. But on that night in early September, it didn’t matter. Because on that night, Diana’s classmates saw how beautiful she looked in that long blue velvet dress. Now they know just how wide her smile can stretch.
“They announced my name for queen and I was so happy,” she says and puts a spoonful of a McDonald’s McFlurry in her mouth. Her eyes are bright and her voice rising, her words rushing. “I heard my name and saw the crown and, oh my god, I went crazy.”
Her sister interrupts.
“It was a big moment,” Sawsan says, reminding her of all of the “firsts” she represents.
Diana nods. “I don’t know how it happened,” she says, still shaking her head. “But they voted for me. They chose me. And I was ‘Queen Diana.’”