Thursday, April 14, 2005

Doctor Viana, I Presume

Viana, young girl with big dreams

Malakshah, Iraq

The interpreter stayed back with American soldiers, so I walked around, saying hello to Kurdish people until I heard a reply in English. As I wandered through the tent village, I spotted a family down the way. One girl, standing by a tent with her parents and teenaged brother, replied to my greeting with a clear and confident "hello." As I approached, the family of four smiled. Only the girl could speak English, but she had more than enough to say.

Before I could offer pleasantries, she explained that she had studied English for three years, and wanted me to know that the people in her village needed schools and a hospital. Confident young girls aren't the norm in most parts of the world I've traveled. "How old are you?" I asked.

"Fifty," she answered.
"You mean fifteen?" I asked, and then to clarify, I added: "Fif-teen, not fif- tee."

"No," she said, not in the least rude, just knowing what she wanted to say, right or wrong. "I am fifty years old." And then, to make her own sort of point, she said, "Fif-tee. . . ."

"No," I said, smiling. "Fifty is five-zero. Fifteen is one-five."

"I am fifty."

I wrote "15" on my notepad and held it up. She tapped the page and said, "Yes, fifty."

"Not fif-ty, fif-teen."

But she was not interested in English lessons; she was interested in saying something. "Listen," she said, pointing to herself, "I speak English," then pointed to me, "You no speak English."

Never has someone so politely told me to shut up.

"Okay," I said. "I will not talk. You talk." In reality, I did not completely shut up, I just talked less.

She told me her family had lived in the camp for about a year. The father owned a taxi that was parked beside their tent. I asked if there were security problems in Malakshah, criminals or otherwise, and the family answered through the girl that the only problems were the lack of houses and running water. And, as she was quick to add: "We need schools and hospitals."

The family had a white puppy that looked about three months old. They called it Rocky. When it was obvious that the name struck a familiar chord for me, she didn’t miss a beat.

"I want to be American. I will be American someday." I had not heard this in some time. I often hear people say, "I want to go to America," but not, "I want to be American."

"How do you plan to get there?" I asked.

"London, then Paris," she answered.


"I will study to be doctor in London. Then I will move to Paris. Then I will move to San Francisco and be American."

"You will become a doctor in London. . . . Okay . . . why will you go to Paris?"

"I want to live there for time, for some time, for some time to live there."

"Paris is excellent, but why Paris?"

"I hear is very wonderful," she said, seeming to want my opinion.

"Why London for medical school?"

"I hear they having good school medicine."

"Now, San Francisco . . . " I said, "that is a very beautiful place, but very expensive. How do you know about San Francisco?"

"I see on movies."

"What is your name?"

"My name is Viana."

"Doctor Viana," I said, "the famous American doctor who studied in London and lived in Paris before coming to live in San Francisco." She didn’t seem to follow me, so I made it simple. "You will be a doctor," I said, "you are very smart."

As I walked away, I wondered where courage is born to dream with such determination while living in a tent without running water tottering on the border between Iraq and Iran.