Chicago Iraqis react to deepening crisis back home

Ongoing strife causes anguish, exposes rifts within local community

June 20, 2014

(WBEZ/Odette Yousef)
Dheeya Qasim is a founder of the Baghdad Bridge Organization on Devon Avenue in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood. He and other Iraqis in Chicago say the deepening crisis in their native country has taken an emotional toll on them.

President Barack Obama announced Thursday that the U.S. will dispatch 300 military advisers to Iraq to help fight a fast-moving Islamist insurgency. The news could provide some hope to local Iraqis in Chicago, who have watched the deteriorating situation back home with increasing alarm.

The night before Mr. Obama’s announcement, a group of them came together to talk about their anguish at the deepening crisis in Iraq.

They met in an unmarked storefront right next to 50th ward alderman Debra Silverstein’s office on Devon Avenue, in the West Ridge neighborhood. A call to a phone number on a flier in the window resulted in a fellow named Deeyah Qasim calling back. He said he was eager to talk to a reporter about Iraq, and would be at the empty office at 4:30 p.m.

In fact, Qasim gathered at least 40 Iraqis into the space – formally registered as the Baghdad Bridge Organization. A medical technician, Qasim arrived in the U.S. two years ago as a refugee from Baghdad.

The meeting space is comfortable, if sparsely decorated. The floors are covered with carpets, the walls with colorful fabrics. He installed a door to partition a space for women in the back, from men in the front, in keeping with their Islamic cultural norms.

Qasim explained that their gatherings at the space started with his and four other families, who got together socially. He said they decided it would be good for Chicago’s growing Iraqi refugee community to broaden the gatherings, so they pooled together money out of their own pockets, formed a 501(c)3 non-profit, and rented the space.

“They are meeting together and talking,” he said, when asked to describe what people do at the center. “And we give our kids like culture. Because we don’t like to lose our special culture for the Middle East thing, OK? We give our children Arabic language, too, we have many classes…”

Normally, the space is only open on Thursday and Friday evenings, after work hours. But on a Wednesday evening, men and women lined the walls, hoping to share their concerns about recent events in Iraq. One of them was Asaad Al-Ibrahimi, a refuge from Baghdad who came to the U.S. less than a year ago. He spoke Arabic, and 25-year old Shaker Alshummary translated into English.

“It’s affected him immensely,” Alshummary translated for Al-Ibrahimi, “and he has people in Mosul – family members that have died. And it’s took a toll on him mentally, and physically he can’t work.”

Al-Ibrahimi said he has been so distraught, he took a leave of absence from his warehouse job, and hasn’t been to work since June 12. He said many of his young cousins went to Mosul to fight against militant Islamists from a group sometimes referred to as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. They captured Iraq’s second-biggest city last week. One of Al-Ibrahimi’s cousins, newly married, was killed.

When asked whether he felt the U.S. should send soldiers to Iraq, Al-Ibrahimi responded in broken English, “I hope. I hope (the U.S.) send(s) soldiers to Iraqi.”

In fact, he said even though he’s 46 years old and a grandfather of three, he would join the U.S. army if it sends troops there.

But not all agree that this would be an appropriate move. “Actually we don’t need soldiers, just we need support,” said Qasim, “like diplomatic support and equipment support.”

Qasim and many others said they’ve been frustrated watching the news play out from afar. He said all he can really do is implore Iraqis through his Facebook page, or via e-mail, to work together to resist the armed opposition to Iraq’s government. “Don’t give the chance for the terrorist people to have control for another city,” he said.

Qasim and many others blamed “foreign terrorists” for the recent wave of violence in Iraq, and said they’ve been aided by arms and other support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular. Most shared Qasim’s sentiment that if Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Kurds and Christians come together, they can drive the militants out.

But Hakim Hammadi disagreed.

“All the Sunnah in Iraq, they are feeling they are outside the square of government,” he said, referring to Iraq’s Muslim minority group. Hammadi blamed Iraq’s Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki for excluding Sunnis and other minorities from sharing power. “This the wrong balance to government in Iraq,” he said.

Hammadi was the lone Sunni in the group on Wednesday night, and he dismissed others’ claim that “foreign terrorists” caused the problem. The 60-year old attorney, who came to the U.S. as a refugee two years ago, was also a member of the Ba’athist Party, which ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Despite their assurances that Iraqis of Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and Christian backgrounds all partake congenially in activities at the Baghdad Bridge Organization, the discussion exposed deep rifts. When Hammadi said he believes the only way forward for Iraq is to split into three separate states – one for Shia, one for Sunni, and one for Kurds – many scoffed at the notion.

Among those who refuse to entertain the idea of partitioning Iraq was Rina Abdulamir, a 19-year old student at Northeastern University. Abdulamir has been in the U.S. since she was a small child, but teared up when she spoke of her homeland.

“I wish to go back there, I wish to go back there and we all build it together – all Shia, Sunnis, Kurds,” she said, “And I wish to work with my degree that I got here, since I’m working on my justice degree.” Abdulamir said she could imagine working in the Iraqi government, or as a lawyer.

Despite occasional tensions in the room, after two-and-a-half hours of discussion, everyone said they were grateful to be heard. They said part of their stress has been feeling like nobody outside their community cares about events in Iraq. They said just getting their voices out there made them feel better.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.