For Now, They Struggle (Part I), by Dahlia Wasfi

Sam Hamill, Writing for Peace AdviserCommemorating Ten Years of Poetic Resistance, PAW Post No. 15

During the month of February, Writing for Peace  commemorates the Tenth Anniversary of Poets Against the War with Daily PAW Posts from a host of contributors.

*Parental Guidance Warning –The poets featured during our February Daily PAW Posts write of war and its effect on the human heart. Writing for Peace has not censored these poems, and we encourage parents to review the content before sharing them with children.

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The human consequences of an unnecessary war will be unspeakable.”

~Mark Doty, Statement of Conscience, Poets Against the War (Nation Books).


Among the poems that flooded in following Sam Hamill’s 2003 call to action, were many Statements of Conscience. While they varied in voice and perspective, they shared a common sorrow and outrage that this preemptive war on a sovereign nation, without any connection to 9/11, would wreak death and destruction in our names.

For Dr. Dahlia Wasfi, the daughter of an American Jewish mother and an Iraqi Muslim father, who had spent much of her early childhood with relatives in Iraq, “the bombing of Basra was equivalent to the bombing of Yonkers, New York.” As her Iraqi family was devastated by economic sanctions and the U.S. military action funded by her own U.S. tax dollars, Dahlia experienced a crisis of conscience that changed her life.

The following two part excerpt is from Dr. Dahlia Wasfi’s upcoming book.

 For Now, They Struggle

By Dahlia Wasfi

(Part One of Two)


“Dahlia, come here,” my father called. The resignation in his voice told me that something was wrong.

On the east coast of the United States, it was 7 p.m., January 16, 1991. In Iraq—my father’s birthplace—it was 3 a.m. the following day. I was upstairs in my parents’ house in Delaware, during winter break of my sophomore year at Swarthmore College. When I heard his sad command, I tiptoed to the balcony overlooking the family room. I thought that if I stepped delicately enough, nothing would be disturbed when I reached my father. My efforts were futile. Peering over the railing, I saw him standing by the television.

“They started bombing,” he said. The assault of Gulf War I had begun.

I looked down at my father over the banister with helpless despair. He stared at the television screen with helpless despair. I wanted to reach down into the TV and stop what was happening, maybe even stop time until I could figure out a solution. But I could only stand motionless, frozen at the balcony, trying to process what I was seeing. Even as I tell this story years later, my stomach churns as it did that day, for the hopelessness and helplessness of that moment. Fear and sadness instantly overcame me. My relatives were among the millions of Iraqis who had no say in their government’s actions, but who would now pay dearly at the hands of the most powerful military in the world. I couldn’t help my dad. I couldn’t help my family.

Moments later, once the initial shock of the news passed, I found myself nervously humming. I soon realized the song was R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” For me, it was.

My father was born and raised in Basra, Iraq. Graduating from Baghdad University, he earned a government scholarship to study in the United States. He completed his graduate studies at Georgetown University. While in DC, he met and married my mom, a nice Jewish girl from New York. Her parents had fled their homeland of Austria during Hitler’s Anschluss and immigrated to the United States. Was it love at first sight? I don’t know, but my sister was born in 1969, and I arrived in 1971. To pay back his scholarship from Iraq, my father taught at Basra University from 1972 to 1977. Thus, my early childhood was spent in both Iraq and the United States. For me, the bombing of Basra was equivalent to the bombing of Yonkers, New York. I had family in both places.

Upon returning to the Swarthmore College campus for the spring semester, I was dumbstruck by the mostly pro-war atmosphere. This militancy was in stark contrast to the peaceful traditions of its Quaker founders who had established the school in 1864. The Quakers, a Christian denomination also known as the Religious Society of Friends, are known as a peace church, because of their teachings’ emphasis on pacifism. While Swarthmore no longer has any religious affiliation, it prides itself on being an institution that still reflects many Quaker values. As the current brochures describe, “Foremost among [these values] is a commitment to the common good and to the preparation of future leaders who will influence favorably a changing and complex world.”[1]

However, in the early months of 1991, as far as I could tell, Swarthmore was a breeding ground for warmongers. Flags and pro-military banners hung from the dorms of Parrish Hall, the main building on campus. Their messages remain burned in my memory. On a white sheet, students had written, “By Air, By Sea, By Land: Bye-Bye, Iraq.” Hanging from the next window: “U.S. Troops:  Simply the Best.” They made me cringe. The blatant disrespect for the lives of Iraqi victims was sickening to me. I thought, what the hell is going on? Why didn’t the best and brightest understand that war is unacceptable, no matter who is directing the tanks? Why was the anti-war sentiment drowned out at this supposedly ‘liberal’ institution?

Internally, I condemned the hypocrisy of militancy on a campus that purported to reflect peaceful traditions. But the Swarthmore disconnect between image and reality was mirroring the hypocrisy that I despised within myself. I was living the American dream at one of the top—and among the most expensive—schools in the nation. Meanwhile, my government rained down terror in the form of cruise missiles on Iraqi families.

I had only vague pictures in my mind of a few of my relatives in Iraq. But I had very lucid and distinct memories of my childhood years spent there. The missiles that trailed across the Arabian night sky that January of 1991 fractured the calm over Iraq, as the war itself shattered my world and my memories to pieces. There was no question that the regime of Saddam Hussein was politically repressive. But now, Iraqis suffered under brutality from within and aerial bombardment from without. Iraqi families were under attack. My fellow students were celebrating. Yet, even though I had insights no one else could have, I said and did nothing for our victims. At the time, assimilation was a higher priority for me than speaking the truth. I reeked of selling out.

More than 100,000 Iraqis perished during the forty-two days of Gulf War I, but I was lucky. My blood relatives survived. The worst was yet to come, however, because US and UK aerial assaults had purposely targeted Iraq’s electricity plants, telecommunication centers, and water treatment facilities. These attacks were in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, relative to the protection of civilians in war.[2] In a matter of days, life for Iraqis became desperate. There was no potable water, no electricity, and—with economic sanctions in place—there soon would be no means of rebuilding.

On August 6, 1990, severe economic sanctions had been imposed on Iraq, four days after Iraqi troops entered Kuwait. (In sad irony, that date was the forty-five year anniversary of another Western targeting of a civilian population, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.) All of Iraq’s exports and imports were banned, in order to induce Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.[3] Though withdrawal was completed by the end of the 1991 Gulf War in April, those brutal sanctions remained in place. Once stored resources were depleted, Iraqis had begun to starve. It was a stringent medical, cultural, intellectual, and nutritional embargo that victimized the already-suffering Iraqi people. I knew the direct correlation between my government’s actions and human suffering. I did nothing.

Most of my cousins had been born after my immediate family left Iraq in 1977. I had never met them, and I had only faint memories of aunts and uncles, and of my paternal grandmother who had already passed away in 1979. I knew I had many relatives suffering under desperate conditions in Iraq, but I was emotionally, as well as geographically, distant from their pain. With English as my one and only language, I couldn’t have spoken with them on the phone—even if US and UK forces hadn’t bombed the telecommunications centers. I condemned the hypocrisy of my government for starving the Iraqi people while claiming to punish Saddam Hussein. But the hypocrisy I despised was within me. I continued my life, business as usual, graduating in 1993, and moving on to medical school, with a sadness I could not explain.

Between 1991 and 1997, I finished my Bachelor’s degree at Swarthmore and earned my medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. During the same time-period, economic sanctions achieved the chronic malnourishment of nearly 1,000,000 children in central and southern Iraq.[4] According to Philippe Heffinck, then UNICEF Representative in Baghdad, “It is clear that children are bearing the brunt of the current economic hardship.”[5]  By the following year, the mortality rate of Iraqi children under five years old was a shocking 500,000 deaths higher than predicted since 1991.[6]

I knew these figures, but I didn’t have time to think about them. I had begun a residency in general surgery, first at the University of Maryland, and then back at Penn for a year of research. I was constantly working, ever more sleep-deprived, and miserable.  Yet I remained unconscious of the internal contradiction fueling my unhappiness. After three grueling years, I convinced myself that changing fields would bring me contentment. I switched to a training program in anesthesiology at Georgetown University Hospital, where I began working in June, 2000. My experiences there would prove to be the final straw.

Most residencies are abusive, and this one was no different. But the environment became even more hostile following the events of September 11, 2001.

“I don’t want to operate on any Middle Eastern people,” one attending physician muttered.

“We should blow up the countries of each of the hijackers,” another said vengefully.

These were my supervisors—medical professionals who had taken the Hippocratic Oath. One of the foundations of medical ethics is supposed to be Primum non nocere (“First, do no harm”). I wasn’t feeling that sentiment in what these doctors were saying. And based on the hostility they were directing towards “Middle Eastern people,” I worried about potential backlash against me, if they learned what my background was. I swallowed the lump in the back of my throat, along with my voice, and continued to work under them, business as usual. Protecting myself within my workplace took priority for me during those days, over speaking against injustice. I condemned these physicians for their hypocrisy, but my silence was dishonest as well.

By early 2002, the US had invaded Afghanistan, and the American government was telling lies to build support for invading Iraq. By this time, my relatives—from whom I still was separated—had been starving under sanctions for more than twelve years. Now, we were going to shock and awe them. My tax dollars would help foot the bill.

“We should just nuke ’em,” my attending physician proclaimed.

In September of 2002, overwhelmed by the hypocrisy without and the painful conflict within, I couldn’t continue business as usual any longer. I burned out. I was hospitalized.

I was sure that my stay at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington marked the end of my medical career. With my identity inextricably tied to my work, I reasoned that this crisis was likely the end to my life as well. That finality was what I wanted, confirmed by my new diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder with Suicidal Ideation (i.e., I was depressed and wanted to die). As such, the months afterwards were precarious and delicate times. The tough professional exterior I had developed as a student and resident had shattered, revealing itself as the façade it was. What remained was a lost, frightened, and very fragile soul who had to start life over again—exposed and unprotected. While the drumbeats for another US war on Iraq were growing louder, I was drifting aimlessly through my days, like tumbleweed in a ghost town at the mercy of the elements. Then on March 16, 2003, three days before the launch of Shock and Awe, a single news headline would stop my downward spiral: “Israeli Bulldozer Kills American Woman.”[7] This woman, Rachel Corrie, would show me that goodness still exists on this earth. She would give new purpose to my existence.

After reading that headline, for the first time in a while, I thought about someone other than myself. Also for the first time in a while, I felt an emotion other than depression. I felt anger. Having been completely immersed in news of the imminent attack on Iraq and what it meant for me, I felt blindsided by this report that seemed to come out of nowhere. What the hell is going on here? What happened? From the article:

 In a matter of months, Rachel Corrie went from the orderly peace movement of this small liberal city [Olympia, Washington] to a deadly world of gunfire, violent political conflict and the bulldozer that crushed her to death.

Crushed to death by a bulldozer? I felt my stomach turn and I tasted nausea. What kind of horrific torture did she endure? My God. What the hell is going on in this miserable, Godforsaken world? Who was she?

Corrie, 23, a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, died Sunday in Gaza while trying to stop the bulldozer from tearing down a Palestinian physician’s home

I sat staring at the monitor, the words of the USA Today article blurring as I tried to make sense of the news. She was so much younger than me. I thought to myself that she had no apparent ties to the Arab World. Why was she there? Why was she halfway around the world in Palestine, while I sat in the comforts of the USA? Then the crux of the mystery hit me like a slap in the face: why was SHE dead when I—who wanted to die—was alive and reading about her passing? The horror was unjust; it was nonsensical; it was illogical. The loss of her, someone I’d never known of until that morning, was just stupid. I became indignant.

I searched the internet for everything that I could find out about Rachel Corrie—who she was, where she came from, what brought her to challenge bulldozers in Gaza. (And I wondered, my God, what kind of courage does that take? I couldn’t even muster the strength to stand up to bigoted doctors in my workplace.) I found a picture of her. She was so beautiful.  Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, this young woman had the typical “All-American” look. She appeared slender and graceful, like a dancer. She even looked natural and confident in the standard over-the-shoulder shot which every high school portrait photographer makes you pose. Most of us look awkward. Rachel’s picture looked elegant.

The outlines of most human beings are dwarfed by the hulking form of a D-9 Caterpillar bulldozer, armored and used by the Israeli Army for the destruction of land and homes.[8] Rachel’s frame, in particular, appeared so delicate in the pictures I could find. She was someone who would never experience racial discrimination based on her looks, the way I felt that I had. What was she doing in Palestine? Like everything else I looked at, none of this made any sense whatsoever. This tragedy must be some horrible, horrible mistake.

In the midst of my indignation, I suddenly was struck with self-loathing at what I then perceived to be more internal hypocrisy. Why was I so moved by Rachel’s death? I knew that Palestinians—and many other indigenous peoples for that matter—were dying every day in their struggles for justice. I didn’t want to be racist and mark Rachel’s death because she was American, while ignoring others who died because they were the “wrong” nationality. There was actually another young man shot and killed by the Israeli Army that day in Gaza, within hours of Rachel’s murder. No news of the loss of his life had broken in the papers of USA Today.

But there was something about Rachel and her story that mystified me and captured my attention the way no one else had before. The journey of the next few years would help me decipher why her courage, her life, and her death were so powerful to me. It would take a while for me to understand enough about myself to be able to comprehend why she touched my heart so. In the short term, however, I considered the bizarre contrast of that day in my mind. The headline could have read, “23-year-old, all-American woman visited—and was murdered in—Rafah in Gaza, Palestine, while 31-year-old failed physician surfs the internet at home.” The incongruity made me wonder: if Rachel could travel thousands of miles to learn about people she didn’t even know, then maybe I should go see my family whom I haven’t seen in almost twenty-seven years.


2  Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.
3 Herring, Eric. “Between Iraq and a Hard Place:  A Critique of the Case for UN Economic Sanctions” in Falk, Richard, Irene Gendzier, and Robert Jay Lifton, eds. Crimes of War:  Iraq. Avalon Publishing Group, Inc. New York, NY. 2006. p .223.
5 Ibid.


Dr. Dahlia Wasfi, Writing for Peace AdviserAbout Dr. Dahlia Wasfi

Dr. Dahlia Wasfi was born in the United States in 1971 to an American Jewish mother and an Iraqi Muslim father. After graduating from Swarthmore College with a B.A. in Biology in 1993, she earned her medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1997. Dr. Wasfi has made two trips to Iraq to visit her extended family since the 2003 “Shock and Awe” invasion, including a three month stay in Basrah in the spring of 2006. She is an activist in support of ending the US-led and US-funded occupations (military and economic) of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, and a member of the Writing for Peace Advisory Panel.  Her website is


Writing for Peace February News:

All during the month of February, Writing for Peace is commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of Poets Against the War with a Daily PAW Post. If you are interested in arranging a reading this month in honor of Poets Against the War, please contact us with the details at, and we will be happy to share your information on our site.

2013 Young Writers Contest

The Writing for Peace Young Writers Contest is in full swing, with entries coming in from all over the globe.  The contest is open to writers of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, for ages 13 to 19. Contest deadline is March 1st, 2013. Spread the word to young writers everywhere! You’ll find contest guidelines here.

DoveTales,  An International Journal of the Arts

The first issue of DoveTales will be released this month, featuring poets, writers, artists and photographers from all over the world.  We are also looking forward to seeing the winners of our 2012 Young Writers Contest in print. Watch our posts for news of the journal’s release. The new submission guidelines will go up on March 1st. Thank you for your support!



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