MONTVILLE, NJ - When discussing the value of the Living Lessons presentations at Lazar Middle School this past spring eighth grader Katie DeAngelis said it well, “When you are at an all-time low, there is always hope.”
And hope was the theme of many, if not all, of the 50 speakers who spoke at the event.
The Living Lessons program: Voices, Visions and Values occurs at Lazar Middle School every other year which gives students an opportunity to hear speakers on diverse, challenging and touching stories designed for their grade level.
One of the presenters at the seventh biennial Living Lessons program was Haider Newmani, an Iraqi Journalist.
Newmani never intended to be a war journalist. He went to Baghdad University to get a degree, but not in journalism. However, in 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, and the war hit near his hometown near Babylon, south of Baghdad. He found himself in the middle of the war with his pen and camera ready to capture the story.
Newmani was born under the rule of Saddam Hussein and is no stranger to war. He explained to the students that he lived through three major wars including the Iran/Iraq War from 1980-88, the Gulf War from 1990-91, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He also later reported on several other conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, along with disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti.
Newmani brought home to the students that the children in Iraq, who were born about the same time as them in 2003, have never known peace.
In his emotional stories and photos, he exposed the students to the reality of war.He showed them photos and explained everyday life in a war zone, while stressing the fear, suffering, challenges, and human behavior of both Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers caught up in the reality of war.
Newmani showed a photo of a building that was inhabited by soldiers and surrounded with war equipment. He asked the students what they thought it was. Students guessed, but not one of them was able to tell that the building was a middle school, and it just so happened to be the middle school that Newmani had attended years ago.
He explained that when the Americans invaded Iraq, they needed places to stay. The schools seemed like a perfect spot, so they were taken over. Newmani asked the students how their parents would have felt if this happened to them in Montville, and then he went on to tell them that Iraqi parents got together to protest so that their children could go back to school. The point being parents are parents, whether in Iraq or Montville.
Newmani told the students that children in the United States are very fortunate to have never experienced war on their homeland. He said that war needs to be taken very seriously. It is not a movie or video game. He explained that one of the reasons for giving his talks is to help children of this generation not to make the same mistakes that their parents and grandparents made.
He stressed in his talk that people are people. Just because violence, injury, killing and death occur in war, it doesn’t make them less painful for the people who experience them. A mother mourning her child’s death in Iraq is not any less painful than a mother experiencing the same thing in Montville.
He described the Iraqi children in the beginning of the invasion were afraid of the tanks and signs of war, but after so many years of conflict, it became common place. Newmani showed Lazar students photos of Iraqi children playing on the war equipment. War has become a way of life for them – a lot different than the experiences of Montville students.
His message to the students is that war does not only affect the military but mothers, fathers and children as well, and he showed the effects of war through his touching stories and photography.
He described how American tanks brought tremendous fear to the Iraqi people as they combed the Iraqi neighborhoods. The people, including himself, would be in total fear that their dwelling would be considered a threat to the U.S. If it was, the home would be blown up.
Newmani explained that a tank gunner only had 30 seconds to decide if a home, car or person was an enemy. The tank would not stay longer than 30 seconds because it then became a target for the enemy. Many homes were destroyed and people killed by these tanks just on a feeling of the gunner.
He, his family and his home were in this situation six times. He described that when his family heard the tanks coming down their street, they would hide under the staircase because that was considered the safest place to hide since it would be the last to collapse. When they heard the tank by their house, they would count to 30 in great fear waiting for an explosion. Eventually one day their house was targeted and members of his family were killed.
He and his surviving family had to leave their home and become refugees on the Syrian border. They were told that it would take three or four days to process their papers. Newmani’s parents remained there for eight years. He was able to leave after two.
In that time, he and his family started schools so children wouldn’t lose their education.
He explained how they had to wait in line every day for food and water from the United Nations Refugee Committee. On this line one day, Newmani took a photo of two children genuinely smiling. They were happy. He showed the photo to Lazar students explaining that it doesn’t take much to be happy. One does not need an iPhone, iPad or Play Station.
He told a story about how every weekend he would go to this special bakery to buy bread. A man, who bought his bread before Newmani, was crossing the street when a car bomb went off killing him. Newmani’s point was to show just “how random violence can be in the context of war.”
“Here in the United States, we think of war as heroes against villains. The heroes win, and everything is great, but in reality things are more complicated. Regular people are paying the price,” said Newmani.
He showed a poignant photo of a young boy, whose mother had previously been killed, hugging his father. The father had been arrested and sent to an American prison. The boy, having nowhere to go, camped out in front of the prison for weeks. The photo was of their reuniting. In the background, one could see a line of children waiting for such a reunion. Some children waited for years.
Newmani’s point was that such events change who a child/person is. Those children will always remember their experiences and be changed forever. Their life experiences are defined by war. Their true potential never realized.
He also told a story of a family who was out after curfew because a woman was ready to give birth and needed to get to a hospital. The car must have looked suspicious because it was fired upon. The family all were killed except for one little girl. To protect the girl, her mother threw herself on top of her to save her from the bullets. Newmani showed a photo of the little girl covered in her mother’s blood. He said, “This was gravely unjust. That’s what war is like.”
Newmani described how on hot nights families sleep on their rooftops to stay cool. One night as his family and his neighbors were sleeping on their rooftops, they heard commotion. As his neighbors’ sons looked over to see what was happening, they were shot and killed. Newmani showed a photo of the children in happier times.
In the refugee camp, people wrote on their arms like tattoos. Here Newmani met a girl whose entire family was killed in front of her, and she was tortured. Her tattoo said, “I just want to have my life back.” Even with all this tragedy, the girl was hopeful. She was determined to get an education and come back and help.
But Newmani also described others in war torn streets who picked up weapons, implying that when war and weapons become common place, the results lead to tragedy and violence.
Other photos were shown depicting the destruction and violence of war.
Students wanted to know more about Newmani. Was he ever injured? He told them that he was injured many times. He had been arrested, shot at, and was captured. He was in the military for three years. He also described how he got injured taking photos of car bombings. He described that when he got to the United States, he traveled through the country talking to Americans so he could understand what people felt about America’s involvement in Iraq.
Students left the presentation knowing another prospective of war and its influence on individual lives and the world.
According to the “Living Lessons: Voices, Visions and Values” booklet, Newmani spends his time now between the USA, the Middle East, and Northern Africa and is committed to raising awareness among youth about the long-term effects of war.