About a week ago, I was sitting at home thinking about what would happen tomorrow. Would I be able to see my brother and parents like I do every day, or will we all just die by drone strikes? I’m very scared for my brother and my parents, since the drone strikes began five years ago in my hometown of Waziristan. I'm always thinking, Why me? And why is my family a part of this war? My family and I have been living in this village our whole lives. I have some great memories attached to this place, and I am worried now that I might have to leave all of those memories behind.
Earlier this week, I was walking back from school with my friends to my house, which is five kilometers away from school. Because no buses or trains go the same route as my school, my friends and I have to walk there every day. We don’t mind though, because the view of the mountains beyond the village is beautiful. As we walk along the road, they are always next to us, reaching for the sky and they always make me feel happy. Sometimes my friends and I bet one another that one of us will reach the top before we graduate middle school. We know that only very strong mountaineers have been able to reach the top. So, it’s kind of a joke. But somehow I like to think we can all make it up there someday. That morning on our walk the weather was dry and sunny. But that afternoon the sky was grey and I smelled smoke in the air, as I was walking back home with my friends Ishraq and Ali. The smoke reminded us of food cooking, so we started talking to each other about what we were going to eat for lunch when we got home. On our way back from school, we always take the same route and we see different grocery stores, a clothing store, food stores that used to make my friends and I hungry. But today was totally different because we saw that all the stores were closed. The shopkeepers were all standing on the sidewalk, looking confused, huddled together, while a few were talking to the police officers and soldiers that lined the street. When my friends and I saw the soldiers, we asked each other if one of us knew why the market was closed and why the police officers and soldiers were here. Nobody knew why the soldiers were there. So, my friend Ali went up to one of the police officers and asked, “What are you guys doing here?”
“Hey, kid,” said the police officer, “You should go home and stay inside you house with your parents”.
Then Ishraq asked one of the shopkeepers what was going on. The man was standing in front of his store. He told us that a drone strike occurred on the other side of the market. The man said, “The visitors from the outside have attacked us. Go home and stay with your parents.”
“Who are the ‘visitors from the outside’?” I asked Ishraq.
Ishraq gave me a look like I was crazy. He laughed and said, “They are the same people that my father told me are claiming to help us rebuild our country.”
“How do you rebuild a country by bombing it?” asked Ali.
“That’s the question of the year, Ali,” said Ishraq.
As we ran back to our homes, we told each other to not come out of our houses. Since this was the first drone strike in our village, we didn’t know how to react to the situation.
I walked into the living room where my father was watching the news. On the screen I saw my village and the people of my community frightened, standing in the rubble from the explosion. They were crying and desperate. My father turned to look at me and told me not to go outside today. My six year old brother, Mahiraj, walked into the room and my dad said the same thing to him. He said, “You guys need to stay home for a while. You are not going to school for the rest of the week.”
Mahiraj cheered behind me, dancing and celebrating because he didn’t have to go to school anymore.
“Mahiraj! Be quiet,” my mother said, as she entered the room from the kitchen. I could smell the delicious lunch she was cooking for our family. My stomach grumbled.
Three days later, the government made an announcement that the whole village was clear of danger, and everyone was allowed to come out of their homes. I was relieved to know that I could go back to school and see my friends. But for Mahiraj, it was a different story. He cried because the long hours of playing with his toys in his bedroom were over. And now he knew that it was time for him to get back to his studies and homework. The next day on my way to school, I saw that the market that was completely closed a couple of days ago was open today. I could see that people were still scared because I heard them saying, What if another drone strike comes and attack us? The fear of drone strikes had very negative effects on our lives. When I arrived at school, half of the class didn’t even come that day, and most of them were my friends. When my teacher arrived in class, she was surprised as well, and she asked us if we knew why the students were not there. We couldn’t answer her.
After discussing a story for our lesson, she told us, “People are still a little scared, and they don’t want to send their children to school because they are afraid of another drone strike.”
The fear of drone strikes had impacted the whole village and it made people afraid to live in their own country where they had been born and raised. When I came home from school that day, I saw my dad watching the news. He told me to come sit next to him and watch it with him. While I was sitting with my dad, my mom brought lunch for me, and she told me not to drop anything on the floor. The media reported that there was a good chance of another drone strike by the United States. I saw that the media was also showing the damages of the last strike. They showed the people who lost their family members in the strikes. While I was watching the news and finishing eating my lunch, my mother told me to start my homework. After finishing my homework and helping my brother with his homework, I went to sleep.
Hours after going to bed, we were woken up to a big noise from outside. After getting up, I went outside my room and I saw my parents coming out of their bedroom. They looked afraid. My brother was crying, as he walked into the hallway with us. We didn’t know what this noise was. But, after a few minutes, we started to hear our neighbors, and this made me think that everybody was outside. We were all trying to find out what had just happened. My dad and I decided to go outside, and while I was looking for my shoes, my mom told me to be careful and to take care of my father.
When we were outside with our neighbors, we saw smoke billowing up the street. It looked like it was coming from my friend’s Ishraq’s block. My stomach dropped and I felt like crying. “Dad,” I said, holding back the tears, “I think that’s Ishraq’s house.”
“We don’t know yet, Mohammed,” my father said. I could see that he was worried that I was right.
From the distance I could see someone running towards us. He was covered in grey dust. It was my friend, Rifat, who sits next to me at school. He was crying. “Mohammed, it’s Ishraq! The drone- it hit his house!”
Rifat’s father, who was behind him, approached my father.
“They are all gone. The whole family.”
With this news, tears started coming out of my eyes. I heard the neighbors crying all around me. At the same time Ishraq’s words came to my mind, last week when we were on our way to school, he said, “We all need to leave from here, Mohammed. It’s not a safe place to live anymore.”
Back inside the house, my father gave the bad news to my mother and brother. My mother sobbed. My brother held her, burying his face in her arms.
The following day, my father announced. “We are going to move to the United States. I’m going to the U.S. Embassy to get the forms and information about immigrating.” We all knew that my father was right.
I felt guilty that it was Ishraq who had said this to me first. I had told him it was a stupid idea and asked him in that moment, “How can you think about leaving a country that you’ve lived in all your life?”
One year later
My family and I have been living here in the U.S. for a year now. The name of the town we live in is called Sunnyside, Queens. It’s definitely not as sunny as Waziristan. It rains here a lot more. My mother is still cooking the same delicious food. My father has another line of work that is not the one he had at home. But he seems to not mind that very much. My brother is happy because he plays video games now that he used to never play before. And I am attending the public high school.
On my way to school, I see tall buildings and they are nowhere near as beautiful as the mountains at home. I take an underground train, called a subway, where I often see rats running between the train tracks and people in rags lying in corners and on benches in the station. I saw these kinds of people in movies when I lived back home. But I never saw them in person and at first I felt afraid. The people I see in my school are from different countries and different cultures. This is totally different from my old school, where I only attended classes with people from my own country, who share the same culture. Another thing that has made me feel like I’m an outsider is that the food in my new school is inedible. I can’t recognize the ingredients. I still don’t understand how my classmates’ favorite food is a cheeseburger.
I still care about the people and the families from my village back home. Here, we are safer. Ishraq would say, “Oh wow. You’ve finally listened to me, now that I am gone.” I like to think about walking to school with Ali and Ishraq talking about our goals for the future, our hopes, with the mountains alongside us. Now, as I travel to school, with the tall buildings above me, I try not to feel like the outsider among the people of the country we once called, ‘visitors from the outside”. I’ve had language difficulties and it’s made me remember how easy it was when I made friends back home. It makes me realize what good friends Ali and Ishraq were to me. Ishraq would remind me that I’m a good joke teller. So, as soon as I can google translate my jokes that I will present to my classmates here, I will see how they respond. I hope Ishraq is right, so that I don’t get too embarrassed.