Miss Iraq – American Style: 14 Compete in Pageant

by Weam Namou

This article was first publishedIMG_6286 by The Chaldean News http://www.chaldeannews.com/miss-iraq-american-style-14-compete-in-pageant/

Fourteen young women from across the United States representing different regional ethnicities of Iraq competed for the title of Miss Iraq USA on March 12. More than 700 people attended the event at Bellagio Banquet Hall in Sterling Heights.

The goals of the event were to promote culture and heritage, create a positive image of Iraqi women to the world, and inspire Iraqi women to compete internationally. To qualify, girls had to be single and living in the United States for at least a year, never been married or have children, between the ages of 18 and 27, and have at least one parent born in Iraq. The winner received nearly $10,000 in gold jewelry, gift cards and other prizes.

“This has been an amazing and humbling experience,” said Melinda Toma, 22, former Miss Iraq USA and currently a pharmacy student. Toma, who was born and raised in the U.S., said being crowned Miss Iraq USA gave her many opportunities and helped her gain much more confidence in herself. “I used to be very shy and timid, but not anymore,” said Toma, who in May will visit an orphanage in Costa Rica to do volunteer work.

Ebtissam Khanafer, CEO of Yallafan Productions and Miss Iraq USA, trained the contestants and hosted the show. For one week, she not only taught the women poise and etiquette, but also the history of their ancestral land, even though she herself is Lebanese.

“We all come from the same part of the world,” she said. “We are all one.”

Lebanon is mentioned more than 70 times in the Old Testament. The New Testament has many passages that talk about Jesus and his disciples traveling quite a bit in Lebanon, which was then called Phoenecia.

“I taught the girls historical facts about Mesopotamia that their parents did not teach them,” Khanafer said, listing the names of Sumerian queens, geographical references about the Fertile Crescent, and the fact that Babylonians made more than 150 different types of bread.

Khanafer said that Miss Iraq is not all about beauty, makeup or body size.

“It’s not about the crown,” she said. “It’s about your personality, what’s in your mind and the legend you will leave behind.”

Lilian Farook, 20, has only been in the United States for one year but she left Iraq 15 years ago, traveling through Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt to come to America. She participated in the pageant because, she said, “I want to do anything positive for my birth country.”

In the beginning of the show, the girls came out wearing similar dresses (first all in white, later all in red) that were provided by Betsy’s Bridal. Later they wore traditional dresses that represented their ethnic backgrounds and at the end, they wore evening dresses. They were questioned by the judges on women’s issues and, in the second round, each was asked, “If you had something to say to the Iraqi government, what would you tell them?”

“I would tell them not to forget where they came from, the Cradle of Civilization,” said Sarah Idan, 26, who went on to be crowned the winner. “We came from the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Jewish. We came from diversity and Iraq is diverse. I would tell them that this is a country for all Assyrians, Arab Muslims and Jews. We must respect each other and live in peace.”

While some Assyrians in the crowd were excited that she mentioned them — and some Chaldeans did not like that she did not mention them — Idan said she did not mean to exclude or emphasize any particular group and had no clue of the rift between the two communities. She is a Muslim who was born in Baghdad, came to the United States in 2009, and now lives in Los Angeles.  No one knew of her background until after she won the title because she labels herself a “Babylonian.”

Idan currently has an administrative positive at a real estate company and is studying business, but plans to switch to media. Her many interests and talents include playing the guitar, piano and harmonica. She writes her own music and also sings in Arabic.

“I was not at all expecting to win,” she said. “I figured since no one knew me in Michigan, why would they pick me?”

She participated in the pageant, she said, because she hoped that by doing so she could achieve her goal to start a nonprofit organization to help people in Iraq suffering from mental illness.

“Having gone through what they went through, many are stressed, angry, sad and depressed,” Idan said. “Nobody wants to talk about this because in Iraq, depression is viewed as shameful, but it’s a serious health issue that needs treatment. Many young girls are joining militias as a result of mental instability.”

A strong believer in equal rights, freedom and education, Idan believes that Iraq would be great if it could achieve those three characteristics.

“It’s not just the government’s fault but it’s also the fault of the people,” she said. “They have to become independent thinkers.”

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