Building Relationship with Iraqis

By Mary Kay Jou, LSW, Ph.D. Candidate

Mary Kay Jou currently is getting her PhD in Social Work at Rutgers University, working at African Services Committee in New York City. Mary Kay has worked with refugees for the International Institutes of Buffalo and New Jersey. She facilitates Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops around the US and the globe, most recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

There are Iraqi refugees from both Bush wars who live in our nation who could serve as a guide as we think further about rebuilding personal, human relationships between the people of the United States and the people of Iraq. I always think it’s important to begin at home, and trust the knowledge and experience of those who have truly lived through all of it, and allow them, as Iraqi Americans, the chance to guide allies from other communities with cultural wisdom regarding the very sensitive issue of rebuilding the relationship between the United States and Iraq.

The idea of a national apology is something that cannot be taken lightly, ever. I happened to be in Canada when the national apology came out for the residential schooling of indigenous peoples. The awkward tenseness of emotion that I experienced from the native peoples I spoke with was powerful to say the least. This apology was incomplete. That’s an understatement when you think of the layers and layers of persecution and oppression that have happened over the course of many years. The apology was only for one piece of it. If there were to be a US apology to Iraq, the correct wording of such an important document cannot be conceived alone. For to do so, and to leave very important information out, adds only to the awkwardness of the experience. Therefore, we need to get in touch with Iraqi American and Iraqi refugee communities and include them in this process. Americans may be very surprised with what they might hear.

Regarding personal vs. national apologies to the Iraqi people, I know that for me, whenever I see American service men and women, in uniform, in an airport, in a subway, walking down a street, I just want to walk over to them and apologize. Whether they are on their way to their first duty overseas, or just coming back, or going back for the third or fourth time, I just want to apologize. But, I don’t. I keep that thought inside, and if I can start a conversation, I find out a little about them, where they’re going, and just let them know that I am with them, respect them and support them for all that they do. As a pacifist, I feel that this is really important to do. An apology may not be appropriate, especially if they really believe in what they are being sent over to do. And you never know where a person’s mind is until they tell you.

I remember working in the Iraqi Kurdish community in upstate NY, and having my social work student intern with me. It turned out that he had served in the first Bush war in Iraq, and hadn’t shared that with me or in his application. When we got to the meeting with the Kurdish community leader, he shared a little of his experiences in Iraq, and asked directly of the president of the organization, “So, can you tell me, was it more good what we did, or was it more bad?” She, the president, looked shocked. Looked at me, and then at the intern and said, “It’s probably about 60 40, but remember, the 40 that was bad, was really, really bad.”

I’m not sure that we are sorry as a nation. I am not sure that there are not Iraqis who were thrilled to see Saddam Hussein toppled, especially those whose communities and families were chemically attacked by him and his people. All of this adds to the awkwardness of the situation. Thinking about all the Iraqi refugees with whom I’ve worked over the years, I mostly remember the uncertainty they had regarding the American interventions. Some good, some bad. We as a nation need to tread lightly and very carefully with, not only the people of Iraq, but with the people of every country and every culture.

New: Read articles on the roles of art, education and health in a campaign for peace at Milwaukee’s Washington Park Beat
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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on April 06, 2009

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