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Tag: Iraq

The US Book Review of My Book

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The US Book Review of my book The Great American Family: A Story of Political Disenchantment 

The true and gripping story of an all-American girl charged with illegally selling telecommunications equipment to Iraq. However, her co-conspirator turns out to be a CIA operative, possibly working on a project to bug Saddam Hussein and his top henchmen.

The author makes good use of firsthand accounts, skillfully weaving them together to show how the “War on Terror” has blurred or perhaps frayed our criminal justice system. As an Iraqi-American journalist the author has the prefect background to tell this story. Settings are well-depicted and characters come to life so that it’s tempting to skip ahead to learn the resolution. This book takes a hard look at how terrorism, oppression, and sanctions invite hypocrisy, abuse of power and double-dealing. One hopes this isn’t an example of the new normal for America but fears that it is.

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Baghdad, the Gift of God

Weam at School

They say that Baghdad means the “gift of God” in Persian. That definition reflects the memory I have of my birth country, not the news, which is saturated with accounts of prolific violence and a reign of terror. Instead, I visit that place, the past, which contains flavors of a happy childhood, of magic and mystery.

In the 1970s, children in Baghdad owned the streets during the hours when they were not in school. We were like the train gate in control of traffic. When a car drove by, we scattered left and right to make way, and once the car passed, we resumed to jump rope, hopscotch, tag, hide-and-go-seek, and play the all-time favorite game of marbles, where we drew a circle on the ground with a stick, placed all the marbles in the circle, then shot their smooth and brightly colored glass sphere to knock the other marbles out of the circle.

We did not worry about thieves or kidnappers because the majority of mothers stayed at home and watched the children, theirs and the whole neighborhoods’, as if they had binoculars implanted on all sides of their heads.

We didn’t have toys, board games, or electronic games. Television programming started at 6:00 pm, opening up with Quranic prayers, then children’s shows, followed by regular family programming, and the news. By midnight, the screen would go dark and then the colored bars came on, followed by the pink noise and static-filled screen. In the summer, two additional hours were added in the morning to get the kids out of their mother’s hair.

Our district was our amusement park.

We didn’t need waterslides, merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, roller coasters, cotton candy, popcorn, or lemonade. We just had a simple desire to be together, and to be creative.

Once the early morning winter frosts had given way to spring, the wild flowers and fruit trees sprouted over the land the way in which brown and yellow grass turned green here in America. There are more than 3,300 plants and flowers in Iraq. The scent of palm trees, fig trees, citrus trees, berries, Jasmine, sunflowers, and roses – the national flower of Iraq and the United States – is enough to cure ailments and feed the soul before their parts are removed and used for food or traditional medicine.

In the summer, our bedrooms were dismantled and our pillows, bed sheets, and blankets were carried to the rooftop, where they were set up in rows so we could sleep under an open sky. The rooftop was a real entertainment.

During broad daylight, we would go to the rooftop and watch the man in a white tank top smoke, his arms resting over the roofless wall; a woman hang bed sheets, pajamas, nightgowns, and men’s tank tops and pants on a clothesline; our neighbor’s older sister hold up a mirror in a well-lit corner as she plucked her eyebrows; a young student across the street who liked to pace back and forth while reading his book.

In the falling twilight we would crawl out of our beds on the rooftops to chase after the moon that changed direction whenever we changed direction. We’d stand on top of the beds, raise our voice, and call out to our friends next door, asking them, “What are you doing?” Or we argued about who the moon was actually following, us or them, until our mothers would hush us up and scuttle us back to bed. Lovers had their own secret way of utilizing the rooftop, which we were then too young to learn the details of.

Every July 14, we watched the fireworks celebrating the 1958 revolution that took place in Iraq, marking the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy established by King Faisal in 1932 under the support of the British. One July 14, as we competed with the neighbors across our roof, we screamed so loud and jumped so hard that the bed broke and we fell through to the ground. The neighbors laughed hysterically and we got up, all red-faced.

Long before that, Baghdad was the center of learning and commerce where the House of Wisdom was built. The House of Wisdom, was a key institution in the translation movement where Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Syriac works were translated into Arabic and the concept of the library catalog was introduced. When the Mongol invaded Iraq in 1258, they destroyed the House of Wisdom, along with all other libraries in Baghdad, and that has become the story of Iraq’s life.

My family left Iraq when I was nine years old, and I didn’t visit that land until 20 years later. I spent Easter of 2000 in Baghdad, church hopping and eating pacha with relatives. I visited my parents’ and grandparents’ village of Telkaif in Mosul, and slept on the rooftop under the star filled night. Iraq was not the same as I remembered it, but I still had a lovely time.

This article was originally published by Arab America http://www.arabamerica.com/baghdad-gift-god/#.WO5FxRMpPxw.facebook

My Tribal and Powerful Mother

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It was a sunny April afternoon four years ago when I was working on my book that I received a call from Eman Jajonie-Daman, an attorney friend and magistrate at the 46th District Court. She said there were French reporters and filmmakers in town doing a web documentary entitled, My Beloved Enemy: Iraqi American Stories.

They wanted to cover an interesting story about an elderly Iraqi attaining their citizenship and hoped I could introduce them to Warina Zaya Bashou, who, at 111 years old, became the second oldest person to be granted U.S. citizenship. I had written an article about Warina the year prior, having lived only a few blocks from my house.

Warina was born in the then-Christian town of Telkaif in Iraq. One moment I remember clearly about our interview is when she said that the keys to living a long life are work, drinking tea, and not going to see the doctor. But when I called Warina’s family, they told me she had passed away a few months earlier.

I then invited the filmmakers over to my home to help them find another subject. An hour later, three beautiful and gracious French people came to my door – writer and director Claire Jeantet, co-director Fabrice Caterini, and chief cameraman Thomas Bernardi.

We had a little brunch, and they ended up interviewing my mom, who was visiting, about her experience in attaining her citizenship in 1997 – a tremendous accomplishment for her, since she had never gone to school. At that time, I helped her memorize fifty questions and answers about the United States, in Arabic, and I was permitted to be her interpreter during the examination. She had to get seven out of ten questions right. She only got one wrong answer.

“Why did you want to get your citizenship?” Claire, the director, asked my mother.

“I wanted to be like my children,” my mother said, and I interpreted. “They all got their citizenship, and so it was now my turn.”

I told the filmmakers how on the day of her naturalization, I was in a hurry to go to work. My mother wanted to take a picture with the judge, like the others had lined up to do. I did not see the point in a picture, though, and had not taken one when I received my citizenship. We left and ever since, when I thought about that day, I wished I had reacted differently. I did not realize it then, but this was my mother’s first major accomplishment for her outside of her home. She was proud to have received a document that honored her efforts; a reward, something that validated her capabilities outside of being a good housewife and mother.

“Now she got more than that picture that she had wanted sixteen years ago,” I said.

We laughed.

In September, the filmmakers showed the documentary at Visa pour L’Image, the premiere International Festival held in Perpignan, France.

“Oh Weam, your mother up there on the screen made a real impact,” Claire told me through Skype. “The audience loved her.”

Her words further illuminated what I had begun to understand about my mother, now that I myself was a wife and mother. This woman had deep tribal and ancestral powers that few people understood. Born in a village and never having gone to school, although she wished she had, she had impacted not only the lives of her twelve children and nearly two dozen grandchildren, but her story had landed in France and later traveled the world through the internet. And at eighty-years-old, she was not done yet.

That same year, my mother’s health drastically deteriorated. On several occasions, my siblings and I thought we were going to lose her. Later, we were also faced with difficult choices of who would care for her now that she was in a wheelchair and had dementia. In the end, I offered to take her into my home. The process has taught me quite a bit about God, life, and humanity.

My mother and I were so different. She was born and raised in Telkaif, a Christian village, and her parents, who lived on a farm, could not afford to send her off to school. I was born in the Muslim city of Baghdad and my attendance of school was as natural as learning jumping jacks. She married my father at age twelve. I married my husband at thirty-four. She never went anywhere alone and rarely left her home. I traveled the world alone.

Since I was young, I knew I had inherited my love for words, books, education, and adventure from my father. I didn’t realize until later in life that I could not have made my dreams come true without my mother’s teachings of discipline and faith in a higher power. She did not go to school, but she knew who she was, having made her life experiences her education.

This article was originally published by Arab America in honor of Women’s Month http://www.arabamerica.com/tribal-powerful-mother/#.WMlmTk7HNFg.facebook

My Beloved Enemy doc. link http://my-beloved-enemy.inediz.com/?a=391

 

What We Carried: Fragments from the Craddle of Civilization

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Samir Khurshid and Jim Lommasson at the first What We Carried exhibition in Portland, 2011

What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization is an ongoing project currently on view at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan and the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois. The exhibit includes photos and writings chosen from over 250 Iraqi and Syrian refugees of the objects they carried to <!–more–>America, such as abayas, Barbie dolls, coffee cups, Qurans, platters, milk cans, rugs, and flip flops. Some of the actual objects that refugees carried to America from their homeland are included in the exhibition.

Renowned freelance photographer and author Jim Lommasson of Portland, Oregon started this project as a way for Americans to meet the people who have been displaced and demonized in the media.

“It’s a bridge building project,” Lommasson said, explaining how it came about. “I was horrified that we invaded and occupied Iraq. One of the questions I wanted answered for myself is: what did the American soldiers feel about the war in Iraq?”

Believing in the power of pictures, and the idea that photography can change lives, Lommasson used his artistic talents to tell stories he hopes can bring about peace. In 2007, he created a traveling show and book about American troops called Exit Wounds: Soldiers’ Stories – Life After Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lommasson asked the soldiers how they felt about the war in Iraq. He was surprised that the vast majority of soldiers he interviewed admitted that the war was a mistake. Many had regrets, became anti-war activists, and some wanted to go back to Iraq as civilians and help rebuild the country.

“They wanted to tell us cautionary stories,” he said, “that we should not be so gullible for our leaders to bring us to war. Many said, ‘If foreigners came to our cities and neighborhood and started kicking in doors, we would do the same to them as the Iraqis did to us.’”

He realized that the consequences of war are horrific for everybody, so he thought that he should not only interview soldiers who fought in Iraq, but the affected Iraqi people, too. Lommasson sat down an Iraqi woman, who is now an academic in Portland. During the course of their interview, he asked her what she thought about the U.S. invasion of Iraq. She answered, “I thank America for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, but did they have to destroy the whole country to do that?”

That statement stuck with him, and it suggested a new project. Lommasson felt that people needed to hear from those “others” affected by the war. He soon learned that Iraqis, whether they came before or after 2003, shared universal stories.

Poet Dunya Mikhail brought with her a folder of stories written by her friend, famous Iraqi author, Lutfiya Al-Dulaimi, who now lives in Jordan.

“Although there’s an age gap between us, we were friends in Iraq,” Mikhail said. “Once she wanted to throw out this file in the garbage. I said, ‘What are you doing? Why are you throwing this out?’ She said, ‘What would I do with it? They’re already published.’”

Mikhail asked if she could have the file and Al-Dulaimi easily gave it to her. The file came along in the one suitcase that Mikhail brought along with her to America. While at a conference in Jordan last summer, Mikhail met with Al-Dulaimi and showed her the file she’d held onto for twenty years. She said to her friend, “You can keep it or let me keep it. But if you let me keep it that’s even better because they want to place it at a museum.”

Al-Dulaimi thought Mikhail was joking.

“The irony is that she wanted to throw it away and now it ended up in the museum,” said Mikhail.

Rafat Mandwee, a tour guide at the Arab American National Museum, also had from Iraq a blanket, which was over a hundred years old and previously owned by his great grandmother. He also brought a tin milk container, which was used during the 1950s and 60s. After the milk finished, people used it to store water.

“Some of the items people brought with them, like diaries, were sensitive material and too dangerous to bring out during Saddam’s time,” said Mandwee. “If they were caught, they would have risked their life. This required a lot of strength and courage on their part.”

“When you leave, you often leave under the veil of darkness and the things that you bring, you lose more along your travel, depending on your travel path,” Lommasson said. “It’s not really about what people brought, but what they left behind – their memories, cultures, education, families.”

Exit Wounds and What We Carried have traveled to universities, galleries, and museums. They have become books that have been embraced by the participant communities.

What We Carried will be going to Nebraska next where there’s a large Yazidi community.

Lommasson feels that this project is creating a new and unique language to tell stories.

“I wanted the American public to know the consequences of our government and the consequences of ignorance. George Bush told people to just go to the mall. We can’t just go to the mall,” said Lommasson. “We have to become aware and educated. The efforts we do – we have little effect moving the big picture, but we can have an effect on one-on-one relationships.”

This article was written for, and originally published by, Arab America http://www.arabamerica.com/78783-2/

Ibsen, Iraqi Style: The Latest from Heather Raffo

I originally wrote this article for, and it was published by, The Chaldean News  http://www.chaldeannews.com/ibsen-iraqi-style-the-latest-from-heather-raffo/

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The story of a Chaldean refugee family living in New York is examined in Noura, award-winning Iraqi American playwright and performer Heather Raffo’s latest work.

The play, directed by Joanna Settle, was presented as a staged reading on October 7 as part of the Arab American National Museum’s Global Fridays program.

“You are part of our development process,” Settle told the audience of about 100 people. She had also directed Raffo’s well-received one-woman play 9 Parts of Desire. “It’s somewhere between a reading and a staging. This version is tonight-only. It’s critical that you’re here and that you share what resonated with you.”

The play was a re-imagining of A Doll’s House, written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in 1879. That famous work is about everyday, ordinary people, with an emphasis on women’s rights.

Raffo’s Noura incorporates the stories and experiences of Iraqi Americans who must tackle such issues as assimilation, nostalgia, shame, exile and love. The play’s contemporary characters include Noura, played by Raffo; her husband Tariq, who adopted the American name Tim (Peter Ganim); their 9-year-old son Yazen, who takes the name Alex (Logan Settle Rishard, the director’s son); a Sunni doctor and family friend named Rafa’a (Piter Marek) and Maryam (Dahlia Azama), a 26-year-old Chaldean who’s an orphan and was raised at a convent in Iraq.

Noura and Maryam stayed in contact through Facebook, and Noura even helped her financially until Maryam arrived to America. These multifaceted characters come together for Christmas at Noura’s house where unknown truths and past shame and hurts are revealed.

Noura is an educated woman, an architect, who now tutors math. Tariq was a surgeon in Iraq, but when he arrived in America he had to work in a restaurant kitchen. Now he’s working in the ER. After right years in the U.S. the couple still struggles to assimilate. Tariq wants Noura to let go of her attachment to Iraq and the sorrow she feels for what the Islamic State has done to Mosul.

“You should be grateful we are in a place where we can reinvent ourselves,” he tells her.

But Noura is afraid of letting go of that connection, afraid she will lose her identity if she does so. She also feels guilty. She says, “I don’t want to reinvent myself … They never asked what part I played in f_ _ _ing up my own country.”

Through unique and realistic monologues, and plenty of humor, the characters beautifully brought the Iraqi American experience to life and they made the audience consider the question of “Who am I?”

The play came out of a three-year grant workshopping with Middle Eastern women, both Muslim and Christian, on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in New York City.

“I was inspired to do a story off of their stories,” Raffo said.

Born to a Chaldean father and an American mother, Raffo grew up in East Lansing and went to school in Ann Arbor. She holds a BA from the University of Michigan, an MFA from the University of San Diego and she also studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

“I was connected in spirit to my Chaldean heritage, but my identity was an American,” she said.

Raffo visited Iraq as a child in 1974 and then later in 1993. At age 20, she experienced her first war on television, a war between the two countries that she loved. She’d never seen her dad so distraught watching television.

“Out of that came a big need for me to bridge the two cultures,” she said. “As an artist, I was the perfect bridge for Americans because I look like them.”

Raffo has produced numerous works that portray Middle Easterners’ perspective, women in particular. She has taught and performed at dozens of universities and arts centers both in the United States and internationally, engaging students about the politics and arts of Iraq and about her own experience as an Iraqi-American playwright and actress.

“I realized as an artist, especially an actor, your job is to be a conduit of a story, that I had a role to play – saying what wasn’t being said.”

At the same time, she wondered if she would be viewed as a fraud for writing an Iraqi story.

“Who am I to write an Iraqi story?” she asked herself. “I’m a blonde woman.”

But as her Iraqi self emerged to the forefront, she realized, “My inner workings always knew I’m Iraqi.”

She has since used her talents to help Middle Eastern women reveal their own feelings and stories, and she has mentored many young Middle Eastern women.

The audience who viewed Noura was made up of various Middle Eastern backgrounds and they were particularly touched to watch a play that did not stereotype their community but gave it an honest, unique and original perspective.

One audience member expressed his desire for the communities here in America to unite the way that the characters of Noura do on the stage.

“I don’t want our communities to be divided,” he said. “I want good relations between all religions. In America, we’re seeing all the democracy that we didn’t have in the Middle East, and we can teach our kids that.”

Legendary Iraqi-Born Author and Publisher

 

IMG_7857 (2)I’ve been freelancing for the Chaldean News for about ten years. Oftentimes when I interview people, they’ll ask me, “Is the publisher of this magazine the son of Fouad Manna, otherwise known as Abu Jibran?” I’d say yes and they would then list Abu Jibran’s wonderful qualities and mention his accomplishments and contributions as a writer and publisher. Their descriptions made me want to one day meet him in person.

Well, yesterday I had the honor of doing that. We met at the Chaldean Community Foundation and then taking advantage of the pleasant weather, we walked the short distance to Ishtar Restaurant for lunch. For approximately three hours, this legendary and kind man shared with me some of the most fascinating stories, starting with his childhood.

Fouad Manna was born in 1936 in a Christian village which had 96 homes, 500 residents, and no schools. It was during a time when families easily and naturally shared one big home. In his case, there were three families, each with about seven to eight kids. For the most part, they lived off the land, through agriculture or herding. Everyone worked, even the children. But Manna wanted something else. He wanted to go to school.

“I went up to my mom and said, ‘I want to go to school,’” he said and she and her husband helped fulfill his desire. They registered him in a school that was two miles away in walking distance.

He continued in this educational path, and after graduating, studied journalism for a year. One day a man was pushing a three-wheel cart, selling used books. A book that stood out for Manna was by an author named Khalil Gibran. He was drawn to this book and decided to buy it.

“Reading Gibran’s book mesmerized me,” he said. “I felt an immediate connection with the author. It was as if he knew my thoughts and feelings.”

After that, he searched for more books by Gibran and read each one several times.

At the age of twenty, Manna also began his writing career by working for one of Iraq’s newspapers. This was during the Hashemite Kingdom which he describes as “The best government Iraq ever had. Every government that has come since then has been worse and worse.”

During this period, a writer could write whatever they wanted as long as they did not attack the government. The Kingdom of Iraq was founded on August 21, 1923 under British administration and following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Mesopotamian campaign of World War I. It was established with King Faisal I of the Hashemite dynasty receiving the throne.

After the Hashemite Kingdom’s overthrow on July 14, 1958, the new government closed all the newspapers associated with the Kingdom and arrested the editors-in-chief. Manna eventually continued to write in different papers until 1963, when the Baath Party came into power. They too closed newspapers, but they did something entirely different with the editors-in-chief.

“These people were gone, just disappeared,” said Manna.

This reminded me of the Mural of the Revolution in one of Baghdad’s famous squares. The Mural is located on the other side of where the Freedom Monument stands and it depicts, among other beautiful things, a woman whose hands extend upward as she holds peace doves. In 1963, when the Baath Party began to come into power, they considered certain art dangerous, so they removed the doves and left the woman’s hand empty.

Manna realized that he could not live under this type of government, especially not given his writing profession. “Journalists have to address the negativities of the community, to shed light on it,” he said.

So he prepared to leave for America. He arrived to the United States on January 11, 1969 and he has since then made an incredible legacy for himself and his family. His story is uplifting and the lessons he learned over the decades are full of wisdom, the details of which will be included in the upcoming book, Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Writers.

Provoking Americans to Think and Become One Team

 

rainbow-flowerI was scheduled for a 20 minute interview at 2:30 pm by award winning talk show host Ed Tyll on Starcom Radio Network. Within a minute of our interview, I realized this was not the typical interview. It was a political rumble (one of my listeners called it egotistical bullying). I held my ground, threw my own political punches and 80 minutes later, he said, “You’re the most provocative person I’ve interviewed. You’re intelligent and brilliant and you never lost your femininity. I haven’t gone this much over an interview in 3 or 4 years.” He has been in this business for over 40 years. Oh, and he also invited me out to dinner.

Overall, the interview was fun, engaging and I saw, once again, how the lessons I’d learned from Lynn Andrews’ 4-year school about feminine power could be used as a tool to create harmony between people and in the world.

Today, I shared a recording of this through social media. Soon I discovered that, as so happened yesterday, people were having difficulty listening to it because of the aggressive way Ed Tyll started the interview. But keep this in mind: it’s important to listen to the other side in order to create the change. And in this 80 minutes, a big transformation occurs in our conversation.

Ed Tyll said that he does this to provoke Americans to think. Caring about this country, the earth, and world affairs, means that we have to do some independent thinking and open up our hearts. My teacher, Lynn Andrews, often says, “We’re all responsible for the wars in the world. How are you responsible? Because there is a war inside each and every one of us.”

If we don’t heal that war within ourselves, within our own country, it’ll always be us vs. them and we’ll never resolve our differences.

Ed asked me in the end who I believed would win the elections in November. I had difficulty answering, and he said, “What does your gut tell you?”

“My gut tells me that if the democrats don’t resolve their differences and become a team, then Trump will win.”

Link to Interview: http://theedtyllshow.podomatic.com/entry/2016-06-22T23_41_35-07_00

Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program

Iraqi Boy

Program Description

The Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) is a four-week summer exchange program in the United States, which brings English-speaking high school students from Iraq to explore the themes of leadership development, civic rights and responsibilities, respect for diversity, and community engagement. On the exchange funded by the U.S. Department of State, competitively selected American students join Iraqi participants in some of the U.S. based activities.

Participants are between the ages of 15 and 17 and are recruited from all provinces in Iraq. Iraqi adult chaperones/mentors will accompany the students, and are educators or community leaders who work with youth and have demonstrated an interest in promoting youth leadership and social development.

The program continues after the U.S. based exchange with follow-on activities in the participants’ home communities, including through alumni activities focused on leadership development.

Program Cycle

Students travel to the United States in July/August to spend the initial two weeks at World Learning’s Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont; followed by two-week homestays in cities across the United States (including Ann Arbor, Michigan); and conclude their program in Washington, DC.

Alumni conferences following the exchange may be held in Erbil, Iraq.

Program Goals & Objectives, as defined by the Department of State

The goals of the program are to:

  • Promote mutual understanding between youth in the United States and Iraq;
  • Enable the Iraqi participants to understand civic participation and rights and responsibilities in a democracy;
  • Promote community engagement among Iraqi youth;
  • Develop leadership skills among Iraqi and American youth; and
  • Foster understanding and relationships between people of different ethnic and religious groups.

Opportunities for American High School Students and their Families

Iraqi high school students will spend two weeks in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from July 9-23, 2016.  The Iraqi students must stay with local families in a “home-stays” for the two-week period.  Programming for the Iraqi and American students will involve leadership development training, team building, volunteering, participation in sport, music and/or arts programming and day camps, and facilitated discussions on current issues and select topics chosen by the students.  There will also be optional sightseeing, shopping, museum visits, sporting events and other cultural/social outings on evenings and weekends. The American students who participate will receive certificates of completion for the leadership development and teambuilding workshops, and written acknowledgement of their 80 hours of volunteer service.

For more information about this opportunity, please refer to the following websites:

http://www.worldlearning.org/what-we-do/global-youth-programs/

http://www.isr.umich.edu/cps/M-ABLE/

http://eca.state.gov/programs-initiatives/youth-programs

Or, contact the following people:

Barbara Peitsch, Program Director, bpeitsch@umich.edu, 734/239-3513 or

Surry Scheerer, Co-Director, sscheer@umich.edu, 734/646-2885

Miss Iraq – American Style: 14 Compete in Pageant

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.”

‘Stop This Horror’ Says Visiting Congressman

This article was originally published by The Chaldean News  http://www.chaldeannews.com/stop-this-horror-says-visiting-congressman/

UWith Congressman Jeffrey Fortenberry.S. Republican Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska), a strong proponent of using the term “genocide” for what ISIS is doing to religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, visited with leaders of the Chaldean community on March 3 at the Sterling Heights’ Chaldean Community Foundation office.

Fortenberry said he is committed to getting the Obama administration to label what ISIS is doing in Syria and Iraq genocide. (Editor’s Note: A week after this meeting, the Obama Administration did in fact declare the situation a genocide.)

“What will happen if the term ‘genocide’ is passed?” asked Anmar Sarafa, president and CIO of Capital Management. “Will the U.S. ultimately provide protection?”

“This will bring awareness and raise consciousness on an international scale,” replied Fortenberry. “When you have the label of genocide, at least you have a gateway to possible policies that would provide protection and integration back into the society.”

In recent testimony on Capitol Hill, Gregory Stanton, president of Genocide Watch and a research professor at George Mason University, explained that “genocide” actually means the destruction of people, which thus therefore improvises the entire human race. “Our conclusion as genocide scholars is that when lesser terms, weaker terms are used, it is a sure indicator of an unwillingness to act,” he said.

“As a result of this label, people will be able to potentially return to their rightful land,” said Fortenberry, adding, “I feel that the Nineveh Plains ought to be a safe haven so that Christians will be close in proximity and can easily return.”

Fortenberry has had a long interest in the Middle East. At age 18, he went to the Sinai Peninsula, where in 1973 Egypt, along with Syria, launched the October War, a surprise attack to regain part of the Sinai territory that Israel had captured six years earlier. His interest in that region, he said, along with the hype of the Iraq War, made him feel responsible to immerse himself into Middle Eastern affairs.

“The rise of ISIS – the eighth-century barbarity with 21st-century weaponry – has jarred our world and our country,” he said. “What we have to do is join our thoughts collectively to stop this horror, which is undermining our civilization and which is also tied to our national security. The way America works is that you have to engage and you have to engage in numbers.”

Joseph Cella, senior advisor at In Defense of Christians, applauded the congressman for concentrating on an issue that “shamefully has not been given its deserved attention.”

“The world is full of problems,” noted Frank Jonna, CEO of Jonna Companies, “What will distinguish this issue from other issues? What will give it the attention it needs?”

Fortenberry replied, “I was in the room when Pope Francis was given a small cross worn by a Christian man who was killed by a jihadist who told him to convert or die. The man chose Christ, his ancestor’s faith, and he was beheaded. His mother was able to obtain his body and she later fled the country. The horrors of what’s happening to the people have caused us, as an international people, to find ways to help them.”

Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce and a Chaldean News co-publisher, noted that of the more than 2,100 Syrian refugees who entered the United States since Syria’s civil war began in 2011, only 53 are Christians. The rest are Muslim.

“There definitely seems to be partisan favoritism here, discriminatory practices against minorities,” said Manna.

“I have raised this issue with the State Department,” said Fortenberry. “But normally Christians don’t flee to refugee camps because it’s too dangerous for them. They usually go to churches and other safer places.”

“Do you believe that it’s our failed policies that put our brothers and sisters in the hands of these butchers?” asked George Brikho, a former Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Our foreign policy is exhausted and needs to be reset,” said Fortenberry. “There was a noble belief that Iraq would turn out different. Then we pulled out our troops, which I did not agree with, and created a vacuum. We have to think big, collectively and creatively, and this is starting to work. The problem is that our brothers and sisters are suffering in a faraway land.”

“If we topple [Syrian President Bashar] Asaad, not that he’s an angel, isn’t that going to be a lot worse for the people in that area?” asked Brikho.

“Congress rejected the president wanting to bomb Asaad for this reason,” said the congressman. “Asaad is barbarous toward his people, but if he’s gone, could that area be potentially worse? Do we want him to stay in power? No! Do we want him to successfully transition out of power where jihadists won’t be able to run wild? Yes.”

“Why hasn’t the evangelical community gotten involved in this?” asked Manna. “You don’t see them having that same passion for Christians as they show for issues concerning Israelis.”

Fortenberry advised the community leaders to visit evangelical sites and ask them this question, to see how they can come on board for this cause.

“Why aren’t the Muslim leaders, if they’re offended by how the world views them, rise up against ISIS?” asked Sarafa.

“There are people that try to do that but I’m in those circles a lot more frequently and have the opportunity to hear them,” said the congressman.

Fortenberry reminded attendees that the very source of our culture and faith is under threat so people have to work hard to restore it.

“All of you have a foot into two worlds,” he said. “You have a connection to your birthplace and you don’t like America to be beat up. The reality is that the world depends on America, but America will not tolerate you spreading political hatred behind our back and then saying, ‘We need you.’ Gratitude must be shown for what we’ve made and are willing to make for you.”