Preserving the stories of Iraqi refugees to the US is the purpose of the “What Happened?” project of Citizens Reach Out. But helping to create new stories about What Will Happen? is just as crucial.
Ahmed is an example of both parts of this mission. The life path for Ahmed, a 22-year old, changed irrevocably when a bullet went through his chest outside his home in Fallujah seven years ago, paralyzing him from the chest down. He was 15—just 15—when he became completely dependent on others, and he was lucky when he was transported to Jordan—but his luck, such as it was, ran out, as his confinement to bed led to life-threatening bedsores.
Through the interventions of the UNHCR and an Iraqi-American philanthropist, he made his way to Fairmont Hospital in Oakland where he will remain for several months until his bedsores heal.
That’s “What Happened.”
But What Will Happen? Ahmed’s future is here in the USA. When I sat in recently on a meeting at Fairmont Hospital with his doctor, his physical therapists, his social worker and his nurses, I had a sense of the enormous challenges he faces, and the doctor clearly laid out Ahmed’s own responsibilities, stressing, among other things, that Ahmed take an active role in learning English. Ahmed dreams of a career, perhaps as a pharmacist, but before he can pursue a profession, he must learn English, so I thought about how to put the resources of the Bay Area to work for him.
Contacting the UC Berkeley Near Eastern Studies Department seemed a natural step, and they posted my flyers explaining Ahmed’s need for conversation partners. So far, two young women, pictured here have responded, and both studying Arabic. Dalia is an Iraqi-American, while Katya is European-American, and they visit Ahmed regularly (Katya often with another UC student) to help him with English as well as to provide him with American friends his own age. Ahmed’s good nature and hard work are paying off in improved English, but he is giving back as well—Dalia and Katya are getting some help practice with their Arabic studies, and Ahmed converses with both young women over Facebook as well as in their face-to-face meetings at Fairmont Hospital.
Ahmed will continue to need help for some time—in English as well as for finding a living situation suitable for a disabled person. As a first step, CRO is launching a campaign to raise money for a wheelchair for Ahmed. We’re posting it on our Reaching Out link on our CRO website. Please check it out.
Ellen Greenblatt, Board of Directors, CRO
This is the 10th year of the war in Iraq. We knew when the US invaded in March of 2003 that the Bush administration did not have a clue as to the culture they were about to invade or the consequences of this war. Some Iraqis also thought that the Americans would bring a better life, a democratic form that would allow them more freedom to express themselves. Some Iraqis thought the Americans simply invaders, who should not be allowed to be there. Iraqis among themselves had long held tribal customs and a complex society. The result of this collision of forces has been the total devastation of a country. The worst corruption and internal suffering we could not have imagined. The Iraqi refugee diaspora throughout the world has been in the millions and there is no end in sight.
I am praying for peace . . .
We have been busy at CRO continuing to develop a historical archive of stories from Iraqi refugees about their lives during and after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. We call this The What Happened Project. Our most recent news is that our stories have been accepted to be included in the UC Berkeley Library. This has fulfilled one of our most important goals, to preserve these stories of what happened to innocent Iraqi citizens for future generations. The archive will be there for anyone to hear (audio) or watch (video) and learn about what happened to individuals and families living near or in Bagdad between 2003 and the present.
The war in Iraq is clearly not over. Refugees have been coming out in the thousands this last year with more horrifying stories of loss and narrow escapes from the sectarian violence that has ensued. David Harris made this point at our event, Muslim non- Muslim Dialogue which we co sponsored at Dominican University and UC Berkeley this October.
And, our interviews with newly arriving Iraqi refugees tell us that the tragedy of the war is not over.
I just returned from interviewing newly arriving Iraqis in El Cajon, California. El Cajon is a community of Chaldean and Muslim Iraqis. They have lived there since the 70’s, many coming as a result of the Iraq Iran war. It is the largest Iraqi refugee settlement in the country with upwards of 70,000 Iraqis living there. They have established businesses in the heart of the city. Main Street is dominated by Middle Eastern stores and services and looks and feels like any tidy American immigrant town. But, the nature of the newly entering population of Iraqi refugees is beginning to add a new dimension to the city.
With the social services that sponsor the newly arriving immigrants short on cash and resources the life of newly arriving Iraqis is complicated and difficult. We were very lucky to be able to talk to several families and individuals going through the process..
The kids have to adjust too, and the ones who have been in the US the longest play a role in helping the newly arriving ones.
We see a lot of possibilities for bringing the stories of Iraqi refugees to the public, and to helping everyone understand that this war is not over for Iraqis.
I hope you will help us to make this work possible. We have travel and recording costs, and with newly arriving refugees we need translators to help us too. Iraqis have been very generous in giving us their time in telling us their stories. We feel quite honored to be the recipient of these difficult memories.
Peace in the New Year,
On April 20th Joan Baez and the Saadoun Al Bayati Ensemble played at CRO’s sold out benefit concert at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. It was an exhilarating night of Joan’s singing and dancing, authentic Iraqi music, and storytelling by Iraqis who lived through the war. All of you who attended made it possible for CRO to further the work of the “What Happened?” Project, an initiative to make public the consequences of the Iraq war.
Upcoming events include our hosting Haider Hamza, the Iraqi journalist who created the This American Life piece “Talk to an Iraqi.” He and CRO’s Iraqi storytellers will be featured at the Muslim/Non Muslim Dialogue at Dominican University on October 11 in San Rafael, California as well as on the UC Berkeley campus this Fall.
We are reignited in our effort to make the stories of what happened to Iraqis public. We continue to interview and record their stories and make them available on our website. Please continue to pass the word about our work.
You can help us by making a donation to pay for translations, transcribing, and transportation. Just click on the donate button to the right. We remain a volunteer organization so everything you give goes to the work itself.
Best in Peace,