Video Games With A Refugee

“Are you American?”

The little boy with the big brown eyes was sitting at the couch next to mine in the lobby of my hotel in Najaf, Iraq. He was dressed in jeans, a button-down shirt and sneakers. He peered at me over the edge of his iPad. I looked up from my email.

“No, I’m Canadian. You Iraqi?”

“I’m Lebanese but I live in Syria. We move back to Lebanon now.”

“Your English is good.”

“I go to the international school.” He held up his iPad. “I’m looking for games.”

“You find any good ones?” I asked, smiling.

“Yeah, you want to play?”

There was something about this kid that reminded me of my own son. Maybe it was the obsession with video games. Maybe it was because he was bilingual. Maybe it was because I was missing my son so much.

“Sure,” I said.

He came over to my couch and plopped down beside me. I logged off my email and put away my laptop. He shook my hand – an oddly adult gesture – and told me his name was Mohammad and that he was 9 years old.

“I’ve been to Syria,” I told him. “I liked it a lot. Where are you from in Syria?”

“Sayyida Zainab. Want to see it? It’s on Youtube.”


Then he showed me this video – bodies wrapped in bloodstained sheets being buried in a mass grave.

“They’re dead,” he said in a low voice.

I couldn’t think of what to say. This kid was 9 and this was his reality. I’ve spent the past seven years protecting my son from the ugliness of the world. Mohammad’s dad probably did the same thing until his country fell apart. After a moment I turned the video off.

“Don’t watch that, it’s sad,” I told him.

“OK. Want to play some games?”

The speed with which his mood changed shocked me. I was still numb from what I had seen.

“Sure, Mohammad. Let’s play some games.”

Yes, Mohammad, be a kid.

He’d downloaded a bunch of free apps. We played one where Obama and Romney shoot ping pong balls at each other. I played Obama and won. It was close, though. Mohammad was obviously experienced at video games.

One of the hotel employees passed by.

“See that man?” Mohammad said. “I hate him. He do this to me to tease me.”

He crossed his eyes. Suddenly I felt protective. Some guy was teasing Mohammad? For a moment it felt like someone had teased my own son.”Can you do that?” he asked.

I crossed my eyes and wiggled my nostrils at him. He smiled.

“My brother can move his ears.”

“I can’t do that. Can you do this?” I rolled my tongue. He did the same.

We searched for more apps as the massacre at Sayyida Zainab replayed in my mind. One app took my photo and Mohammad used a razor to shave me bald. Then we played a game where a cat and dog throw bones at each other over a fence. I tried to let him win while he tried to let me win. I eventually won at letting him win. To assuage his sense of Arab hospitality he fetched me tea. Then we played a parking game.

“My father had a car but somebody take,” Mohammad said, his voice going low again.
I flashed back to the video. What else did his family lose as they fled Syria?

He wasn’t so good at parking. He kept hitting other cars. Eventually he gave up and got onto the app store to look for more games. One ad showed a woman in a bikini. He put his hand over it.

“Don’t look, it’s bad,” he told me.


Mohammad’s two teenaged sisters, jeans showing under their abayas, sat at another couch nearby and occasionally added to the conversation from a distance. They told me they’re on pilgrimage here. Najaf and the nearby city of Karbala are sacred to Shia Muslims. I was here seeing the same shrines.

“How long you stay in Najaf?” Mohammad asked me.

“I leave tomorrow.”

His face fell.

“Oh. Let’s play another game,” he said.

“OK, Mohammad.”

My group was already gathering to visit the local shrine of Imam Ali, which Mohammad’s family had already visited. They were soon headed off to Karbala.

“You’ll love Karbala,” I told him. “The shrine is very beautiful.” Like Syria used to be, I wanted to add.

“You not going to Karbala again?” he asked.

“No. Sorry, Mohammad.”

Everyone was boarding the bus now. Reluctantly I got up and said goodbye. Mohammad looked sad.

“Keep practicing those games, kid,” I said, forcing a smile.

Then I got on the bus and never saw him again.

Sometimes you meet people on your travels that stick with you long after you say goodbye. The 9-year-old boy who likes video games and survived a massacre is going to stick with me for a long time – that and the fact that a couple of those bodies were smaller than he is.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology, and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Visiting The Sacred Sites Of Shia Islam!”

British Airways Will Repay Customers After Fraud Ruling

If you flew British Airways between the U.S. and England from August 11, 2004 to March 23, 2006, you may be in luck. BA was caught charging passengers a fuel surcharge that went beyond the actual cost of the gas. The scandal also involved Virgin Atlantic, so travelers who flew with that airline during the above dates are eligible to get in on the action.

Don’t start getting excited or jumping up and down like you’ve won the lottery. The maximum refund per person will be around $20. Still, that’s four beers or five lattes or a fairly decent haircut (in some cities).

Those who are eligible for a refund can apply online with their ticket info, passport number, or frequent flier card. Those who didn’t fly BA or Virgin can still feel good because, for once, big airlines got caught with their hands in passengers’ pockets.

With most airlines going out of their way to cut costs and nickel and dime passengers with added fees, it might not be the last time something like this happens.

Several BA and Virgin execs involved in the surcharge scandal will be doing some hard time after being charged with fraud.

Related Article

10 tips for smarter flying

The truth behind Priceline’s “Sunshine Guaranteed” vacation package

Priceline recently announced the details of their “Sunshine Guaranteed” vacation package which offers vacationers a “refund if their vacation is rained out.”

As expected, to actually receive a refund from Priceline, the forces of nature must properly align in order to meet the rigid conditions set by the fine print. For example,

  • You must book between June 2 and July 17, 2008 and travel between July 1 and September 7, 2008.
  • Qualifying vacation packages must be 3-8 days in length.
  • Travel must commence at least 12 days after a package is purchased.
  • It must rain more than .5 inches for more than half of your total stay (including travel days).
  • Rainfall amounts are measured at the destination airport of the vacation package.
  • Rainfall will also be audited by a private independent provider of weather information.
  • Rainfall samples must be collected by consumer in quart-sized Ziploc® bags.

Okay, so I made that last one up. But seriously — I can assure you there’s going to be some ticked off people this Summer who book this “Sunshine Guaranteed” package from Priceline and fail to read the fine print.

On the other hand, hurricane chasers might be well off booking a package through Priceline this season.

[Via The Cranky Flier]

How to get your money back from a weather delay

When a flight is delayed or canceled because of weather, you’re out of luck on basically all fronts (hehe get it?). You won’t be eligible for food vouchers, complimentary hotel rooms, or even a refund of your ticket. Oh what to do.

If you’re really hardcore, you can hire a forensic meteorologist, apparently someone who will dig through weather records and show if the weather was as bad as the airline says it was. This does seem a bit of overkill to me, but if you got screwed on a very expensive flight, it might be worth it.

An easier approach might just be looking up the weather yourself. Here’s one woman’s story (via Consumerist): My last canceled flight was blamed on the weather. I called a friend with the internet, had them look up the weather at my destination and en route (which was fine). I went back to the desk and said, “The weather is fine. You sure there aren’t other problems?” That’s when then he said that it was the weather AND technical problems with the plane. At that, I mentioned the rule, and suggested he try to re-book me, which he did.

So that whole thing with the iPhone and checking the weather might be true after all.

10 tips for smarter flying