In September 1991, Aseel Albanna was about to finish her last year of architecture school in Baghdad. Wanting a break from the years of war and hardship, she took a trip to the U.S. But a planned four-week visit turned into a 20-year stay.
Family members in Kentucky arranged for her to complete her architecture degree at the University of Kentucky. She then lived and worked in Louisville until she moved to Washington, D.C., in 2005.
But as U.S. troops completed their withdrawal from Iraq last month, Albanna headed in the other direction, visiting her homeland for the first time in two decades.
"I can't believe I'm here!" she says shortly after landing in Baghdad. "I just have sheer joy inside me."
She doesn't recognize much as the car pulls away from Baghdad airport. When she enters a residential district, the memories come flooding back.
"Oh, looking at Baghdad-style houses, this is what I remember. These are the old houses, the flat roofs; now I'm in Baghdad, now I see it," she says.
But it's not long before her initial euphoria starts to fade into disappointment.
"What? Jadriya used to be a beautiful neighborhood. Oh, my god. This is really shocking," she says.
Like most neighborhoods in the city today, Jadriya is full of checkpoints, blocked-off streets, compounds surrounded by concrete blast walls, electrical wires running haphazardly everywhere. And everything is covered with thick dust.
"This neighborhood used to be all brand new, beautiful houses, beautiful yards, beautiful streets, beautiful greenery, and now I don't know how to describe it. It's a mess," she says.
Visiting Her Old Home
Later that day, she heads off to visit her old house in what was once a largely Christian neighborhood. Most of the Christian families, like hers, have long since fled, and her street looks dilapidated.
After an emotional pause to soak in the scene, she approaches the house where family and friends gathered for a small party the day she left Iraq.
"I can't believe that I'm actually standing in front of my door 20 years later," she says.
The yard is overrun with tall, wild grass. Gone are all the fruit and olive trees of her memory. The concrete outer wall is cracked and crooked, the iron gate reinforced by scraps of sheet metal. An old generator sits in front of the house.
Inside, the house is a time capsule, with furniture and paintings and knickknacks untouched for years. Her parents stayed until 1998 and visited frequently until 2003. Since then, it's been abandoned and is quietly deteriorating.
"It's like there's no more life left in it. What I have left is only memories, because right now I barely recognize it, to be honest. The only thing that's still here is the breeze, that Baghdad breeze," she says.
For the next few days, Albanna swings between moments of joy and excitement to shock and sadness as she visits her old high school, her favorite markets and Rashid Street, one of her favorite streets in the city.
"Wow, everything's closed down," she says of the street. "This feels like a ghost town right here. This used to be the busiest, absolutely busiest street of Baghdad — it was just alive."
Nearby Abu Nawas Street, overlooking the Tigris River, doesn't seem much better.
"This used to be the river walk of Baghdad — wide sidewalks looking over the river, full of people day and night, families, children," she says. "This is more like the pure Baghdad, pure before all the added layers of security and trash and antennas and wires."
And it too lacks life. The once-popular fish restaurants have been torn down.
"But the Tigris is still there, and the wind's still — it feels like Baghdad," she says. "I think the spirit of Baghdad will never change, no matter what. The Baghdad and Iraqi people will endure, but visually, I think the city's just completely destroyed. It used to be a beautiful city, and I'm searching really hard to find its beauty."
Given Baghdad's current condition, and the life she's built for herself in the U.S., Albanna can't see herself moving back to Iraq. Still, she is reluctant to leave the country again. This time, she hopes it won't be another 20 years before she returns.
"I am searching for the bright side of things; I am searching for hope. It can't get any worse, and it will have to get better," she says. "But it's reality; it's sad at the moment. I do of course have hope that it will come back and revive itself again. I can see the amazing potential, but it feels like a big loss."