For Wael Jarbou and his University of Toledo teammates, these August days are filled with football practice, meetings, lifting weights, and then more practice and more meetings. There is little time for anything else.
But Jarbou manages to include prayer and reflection each day - his thoughts jump halfway around the world to his native Iraq, where the fate of many of his relatives is, at best, uncertain. Prayer is his only means of helping them now.
“The situation has gotten worse; it is chaos in many ways,” said Jarbou, a junior offensive lineman. (His name is pronounced why-EL jar-BOW.) “It is almost impossible to communicate with them now. There is no mail and the phones are out. What little information we get is usually bad. All we can do is pray for them and hope that their lives improve very soon.”
Jarbou, who emigrated to the U.S. from Iraq with his parents and brothers and sisters at age 10, was part of the Chaldean Catholic minority in the predominantly Muslim country. His sect has lived in that part of the world since biblical times, and many of his closest relatives remain in Iraq.
“My aunts, uncles, cousins, many of them are still there, trying to hang on,” Jarbou said. “I talked to my family there before the war began, and they were doing pretty well, but once the bombing started, things have been very hard for them. In our neighborhood in Baghdad where I used to live, my cousin's house was knocked down by the bombing, and the whole neighborhood is real messed up.”
Jarbou, whose immediate family lives in a Chaldean community in the Detroit area, said one of his aunts, who is a nun, had a visa but could not leave the country once the war started. She had to travel through the western desert frontier and cross the Iraqi border with Jordan, where she passed through a U.S. military checkpoint. When she arrived in Detroit, Jarbou's aunt was hesitant to recount the horrors from the homeland.
“It is very difficult to talk about. We really wanted to hear the truth, but she didn't want to tell us,” Jarbou said.
“In one city where I used to live, she said you can't walk down the street. People are selling their clothes on the street to make money so they can eat. Then in Baghdad she said it is worse - it is lawless, it is chaos.”
Jarbou, whose father owned three bars when the family lived in Baghdad, said a close friend of his recently tried to open a bar in the capital city, but he was shot by people who don't approve of that type of business.
“Unless the American soldiers are standing right there, people will just shoot each other for nothing,” Jarbou said. “If someone wants your house, they can come in and take it unless you have a weapon to defend it. You can't leave home after six o'clock because it is so unsafe. People get shot for no reason.”
Jarbou vividly remembers the chaos that surrounded the Gulf War in 1991. He said a certain degree of lawlessness accompanied that conflict. “There was a lot of robbing and killing then too, and it sounds like the same thing being repeated now. All of the Chaldeans, we are very worried about our families back there. We don't know what is going to happen to them.
“If this continues for very long, they might have to sell their stuff. What else are they going to do? Inside the communities things are terrible. It gives you a very frustrating and helpless feeling. Being worried every single day, it wears on you. All we can do is pray for them.”
Jarbou (6-5 and 296 pounds), who played in five games for UT last season and is listed as the No. 2 strong tackle for the coming season, said he remains convinced that the recent war in Iraq was necessary to remove the Saddam Hussein regime and end the decades of persecution of the Iraqi people.
“There is hope that things will get better. It will take time, a lot of time. But ultimately this is good for the people of Iraq. They have lived a nightmare because of him and now they have awakened and they will get to see what real life is like. There is optimism for the future. Once we get a government in place, things will calm down.”
UT head coach Tom Amstutz said he has been supportive of Jarbou throughout the conflict in Iraq, and more so in recent months, when Jarbou lost his father to cancer.
“His is a very unique situation,” Amstutz said. “This is a very strong young man to have gone through all of this, and stay focused on his work here. A lot of kids in college have issues they have to deal with, but Wael has had quite a bit more than his share.
“The human spirit is so strong. Sometimes these kids amaze me with what they have to go through, and the way they handle it. Wael has maintained his work in the classroom and on the practice field, even while he has been dealing with the loss of his father, and the situation in Iraq with all of his relatives.”
Jarbou, who was home in Detroit with his father when he died, said he maintains a personal vigil in hopes that his family in Iraq will be kept safe, and that he plans to live his life as his father did.
“He died in my arms, and I will use him as a driving force in my life. He brought his family to this country from his native Iraq to give them a better life. He was a very good man. He put his whole family on the right track, and now we will try and be like him, and if we can't be like him, we will die trying.”