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Letters to My Dead Father

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(Duration: 5:22)

Guffran

Guffran, 16, sits on the floor of her home, holding a letter she wrote to her father. A Shiite Muslim, Guffran's father was gunned down on the streets of Baghdad in 2006. (Kelly McEvers/NPR)

Ten years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, NPR is taking a look back, revisiting people and places first encountered during the war.

In 2006, NPR aired a story about a 9-year-old girl who loved her father so much, she wrote him letters to take to work with him. Even after he died, in a carjacking that appeared to have a sectarian motive, she still wrote to him.

We expected to find the angry, grief-stricken girl who had pounded her fists and thrown herself into the mud when she first heard her father was killed, back in 2006.

Instead we found a poised, tall, gazelle of a young lady. Now 16, Guffran says she spends most of her time studying.

Her father had hoped she would become a doctor. But the teenage Guffran has a different plan.

"I like science, I like physics, but I don't like chemistry," she says. "And medical [school], it's all about chemistry, and I don't like it."

Guffran says she wants to be another kind of doctor, a Ph.D. in English, which she insists on speaking with us. Her dream is to teach English language and literature at a university — and maybe to be a writer.

"I like to write, I love to write. And when I feel bad or feel sadness, I catch my paper and my pen and write what I feel," she says.

Moving To A New City

About a year after her father's death, Guffran and her mother and brother moved to the southern Iraqi city of Kerbala. They now live with an uncle and his family. They have exactly one room for studying, eating, receiving guests and sleeping.

The uncle controls everything they do.

"When we want to rent a house, my uncle doesn't allow us," Guffran says.

Multiply this story times the estimated 1 million families in Iraq who've lost fathers and husbands to decades of war, upheavals and privations.

The Iraqi government did compensate Guffran and her brothers after their father was killed; each got about $1,000. But the support ended there. Guffran's mother used to make money as a seamstress. The relatives won't let her work now.

What's more, there's very little chance they will ever know who killed Guffran's father, says her mother, Um Haidar.

Um Haidar says she knows the killers were Sunni Muslims who wanted to punish her husband for being a Shiite Muslim. She says there were people who witnessed the killing. But they were too afraid to come forward.

"No one could do anything at that time," Um Haidar says. "It was very dangerous for them, because they know the killers would come and take revenge for them upon the whole family."

This is another lingering problem of the Iraq war — so many unresolved cases.

Um Haidar says despite it all, she has to move on and put her hope in her kids.

Dreams Of Her Father

But Guffran can't move on, despite her studies and her dreams to become a professor. She says she feels like her father died yesterday.

She misses him so much, she still writes him letters.

We ask her if she can read one. It's written on stationery bordered by flowers and hearts. The letter begins:

Oh my father / who lives deep in my heart
You are the most precious present that god has given me.
You are the candle that lightened my path.
You have left me / and went away
What did it do? What fault did i do?
You left me very young / they have taken you from me.
I was a little flower / and you were the water for me.
They have taken you away from me.
Daddy
This is the word that burns my heart ...

In English, it might sound sappy. In Arabic, it's poetic.

At least once a week, Guffran thinks of her father and starts crying. Only picking up her copy book and writing can help her feel better.

"I have a friend, she love me so much, and she tell me always to move on and forget my father. He was in heaven. And he's happy now," Guffran says. "Yes, but I can't. When I remember it, I go crying."

Flipping through the book, we see drawings any teenage girl might have: cartoonish figures of girls with frizzy hair and skinny jeans.

But there are somber pictures, too. One is a man and a girl, sitting on a park bench in front of a giant sunset. He has his arm around her. She looks like she's grown up and ready for something.