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Summer 2009 | Volume 32, Number 2 | Campus

Iraqi Voices

Project fosters love and respect for refugee neighbors

Klawla Hadi and Marwa Al-Mtowaq
From left: Khawla Hadi, and Marwa Al-Mtowaq

Is global cross-cultural interaction influenced by difficult economic times? “Many people withdraw or turn inward because of fear during a recession,” says Seattle Pacific University Associate Professor of English Kimberly Segall, “but if we value reconciliation, it means turning outward.”

With that in mind, she recently completed the Iraqi Voices Project, designed to allow Iraqi refugees in Seattle to tell their stories, and to build awareness of refugee resettlement issues. Segall, who lived in Shaqlawa, Iraq, in the 1990s teaching English and delivering humanitarian aid to Kurdish people there, started the project with the help of a Lilly Service Grant and student interns Lauren Pattie and Emily Yelenich.

They began by interviewing directors of Seattle refugee organizations. It is estimated that four million — or one in five — Iraqis have been displaced, including those within Iraq and those that have fled the country. This represents one of the largest refugee populations in the world today. Thousands have settled in the United States, including as many as 2,000 in the Seattle area.

Through their investigations, Segall, Pattie, and Yelenich met Khawla Hadi and Marwa Al-Mtowaq, two Iraqi women living in the Puget Sound area. Both arrived in Seattle in the mid-1990s. Hadi, 42, fled Iraq for Jordan to be with her husband, who had escaped from the military during the first Gulf War. To get into Jordan, she had to pretend to be a widow, which meant lying to her children that their father was dead. After hours of interrogation at the border, she was allowed to leave and soon enjoyed a tearful reunion. Al-Mtowaq, 21, left Iraq when she was four years old. Her prosperous family departed the same day a bomb destroyed their home, taking very little with them. They spent years in a refugee camp, living in tents. She is currently a student at Edmonds Community College in Washington.

Together, Hadi, Al-Mtowaq, and the SPU team researched Iraqi culture, preparing a multi-media presentation with photos, music, and poetry to be read aloud in Arabic and English. At the event, held on the SPU campus, the Iraqi women shared their life stories, followed by a question-and-answer time with the audience of nearly 200. The evening included a discussion of practical ways to help Iraqi refugees, including hosting a family, meeting a family at the airport, or donating furniture and clothes.

Impressed that the audience enjoyed their stories, Al-Mtowaq also wanted people to know that there are other people like her and Hadi. “There are many [Iraqi refugees], and they need comfort and love and open arms.”

For Segall, the success of the project shows Seattle Pacific is engaged with its world neighbors and reaching out even in hard times. “This is an important part of my vocation as an educator,” she says. “In this time of recession, I want to continue to live and respond to others, not out of fear, but with actions of love and respect.”

—By Tracy Norlen []

—Photos by Luke Rutan



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