/ FALLUJAH, Iraq — Shehad has left the mosque only twice since her family sought refuge two years ago. Her skin is pale and young...

Share story


Shehad has left the mosque only twice since her family sought refuge two years ago. Her skin is pale and young, long hidden from Iraq’s sun-stained streets.

The Hassan family thought Fallujah, a traditionally Sunni city, would welcome Sunni refugees fleeing Shiite threats. But the city, a wounded place that has seen more fighting than most, has barely been tolerant. Neighbors rarely acknowledge their existence or offer help. Access to jobs and schools is limited. Shehad was 13 when her family woke to gunfire and a handwritten note pinned to the front door of their Baghdad home. If they didn’t leave, it threatened, they would be killed.

When they moved to Fallujah, the seven-story mosque was unfinished and empty. Now, 10 families, all with children, are hiding here.

Body-stiffening cold, concrete floors wake Shehad each morning. “There are not enough blankets in the world to stop that cold,” she says. The families in the mosque have learned to live without electricity or running water, carpet or drywall. The mosque is naked concrete.

At daybreak, before the men line the streets to search for day labor, they collect water from the neighborhood tap or the Euphrates River in jerrycans and two-liter soda bottles.

When water arrives, Shehad’s day begins. She splashes her face and pairs up with her best friend, Raina, to do the laundry, look after her little brother and wash the dishes from the previous night’s meal. Water is used sparingly — just a corner of a towel is dampened.

Late in the afternoon, the mosque echoes with the squeals of toddlers flicking marbles on the center, main floor, where birds resting on balconies have made a mess.

Filtered, shadowless light from the mosque dome starts to disappear. Life here stops after sunset. Kerosene and expensive batteries are the only sources of light.

Shehad says she still hears gunshots and helicopters. She has lost neighbors and friends who were killed or had to move. She prefers her inside world, she says. She doesn’t want to go outside.

On the floor, near a wall of used bricks, she hurries to finish her chores. Dinner will be served much later, by oil lamp. Tomatoes, beans, rice, potatoes.

Then, from memory, she tells her brother stories in the dark.