Layla Alshawi, left, Saif Alnasseri, Sarah Alnasseri, 5, Zeinab Alrubaye… (Kimi Yoshino, Los Angeles…)
The fireworks at Disneyland had ended. It was past closing time and the crowds were pouring out the gates, but we lingered.
Layla Alshawi, the 63-year-old mother of our friends, didn't want to leave. She hugged a light pole, joking that we would have to drag her out.
We'd spent three days at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim with my friend, Saif Alnasseri, his wife, mother and 5-year-old daughter.
Like my husband, whose name is also Saif, he was an Iraqi translator I met in 2007 during my rotations in the Los Angeles Times' Baghdad bureau. A little over three years ago, under a refugee program granted to Iraqis who assisted the U.S. military or media, he immigrated to New Jersey. This was their first trip to California.
For me, the "magic" of Disney had started to wear thin after dozens of visits plus several years of covering the park — from stories about the opening of new rides (and California Adventure) to probes into accidents there.
The novelty of Disneyland had long evaporated.
Now the park has come to hold a different meaning as I experienced it again — this time through the eyes of my husband and Iraqi friends.
I will never forget the moment walking into Disneyland, watching our friends soak in Main Street for the first time as we approached Sleeping Beauty's Castle. They were wide-eyed; their mouths open in a constant state of "wow." All during our trip, I heard the same Arabic word repeated reverently — titshaka — which, in slang translation, is the equivalent of "you're kidding me" and "awesome."
We were really here — the Happiest Place on Earth — all together. It was so hard to believe that four years ago, we were all in one of the Unhappiest Places on Earth.
"If you want to have fun in Baghdad, it's really, really hard to find a place that makes you feel completely relaxed and enjoy your time without fear, without anxiety that something wrong could happen at any time," my friend Saif, 33, said.
"Even at the zoo or the theme park, you always think that something might happen at any time — like a crazy person could blow himself up in the crowd or there might be a random shooting or a random rocket might fall."
My husband agreed: "It might sound like a cliche, but those things happened at least once a day."
After living through that, he said, Disneyland has a surreal quality that is like "an emotional roller coaster moving from one extreme to another."
Since my husband arrived in the U.S. in 2009 after months of red tape, I've heard him remark on numerous occasions how youthful everyone looks here — and how relaxed. In Iraq, a life of fear and anxiety has taken a toll. Forty-year-old Iraqis look 10 years older. And there's an exhaustion, a sadness, that seems to permanently cloud their eyes.
That was part of the culture shock of Disneyland, so much joy all packed into one place.
"Once I entered inside, I felt like I was transferred into a whole different world of fantasy," my husband said. "Everybody's happy and everybody's nice — like it's not a real world."
The uncertainty and the violence that still grips their country is what drove them to leave, even if it meant starting over.
My husband attended pharmacy school with Saif and his wife in Baghdad in the mid-1990s. All three are trying to obtain U.S. licenses, a lengthy process that none has yet to complete.
For Saif and his wife, who are working in the pharmacy at their local Walgreens as a pharmacy technician and intern, this trip marked their first real vacation since arriving in the U.S. in 2008 and was planned after they had passed key tests in their paths to regaining their licenses.
Naturally, Disneyland seemed like the perfect place to celebrate.
As children, they had known about Disneyland. They saw clips of the park on television. When my husband was 11, his uncle brought home a giant book about Disney World after a business trip to the United States. My husband pored through the pages, which were packed with vivid pictures of the Haunted Mansion and other attractions. With his family, they watched "Aladdin," "Sleeping Beauty" and other Disney movies, over and over until they knew the words.
And Saif, our friend, recalled watching news of the opening of Disneyland Paris after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"I thought maybe in the future, I'll be able to go and visit this Disneyland in Paris," he said, "but never thought I'd be able to visit the original one in California."
Yet, here they were, finally, a world away from their old lives. They had just watched fireworks light up the sky and "snow" fall onto Main Street.
Still, it was bittersweet. Saif's wife, Zeinab Alrubaye, said Iraq is never far from her thoughts.
"I was thinking, all the time I was thinking, in Baghdad, it wasn't even safe to go to restaurants. And now we are here. Not only can we go anywhere we want, but we can go to Disneyland."
She thought about her family that's still in Iraq, hoping that they, too, could visit Anaheim. "It's such a nice place, you just wish that everyone you love is there."
My friend Saif said he remembered all the Iraqi children who would never get to experience Disneyland. In Baghdad, he said, "there's always spoilers, even at the nice places" and always fear, especially when the sun goes down.
He reflected on his stolen childhood and his own dreams muted by three decades of war and sanctions.
Then he thought about his daughter Sarah, 5, for whom those bombs in Baghdad are already a distant memory.
"I could see it in her eyes, her happiness," he said. "And I'm really happy for her. She's living my dream."