York Iraqis And The War With Iraq
By Rhonda Roumani and Farah Akbar
Athir Shayota read with glee the anti-war placard written in Arabic
(No war on Iraq) as he waded through the crowd of protestors
that lined Third Avenue. Shayota, 34, looks like a bonafide New
Yorker, with his black jacket, blue jeans and striped sneakers,
but unlike the other protestors, he has seen Iraq up-close. He was
born in the Chaldea community of Telkaif in the northern part of
An artist, Shayota has spent the last few years protesting sanctions
against Iraq, and the past month protesting the war.
Mozher Gasem, a car salesman who grew up in Falugha, which is 15
miles from Baghdad, has a different view. Its time for
a change; Im not against this war, he said. And Gasem,
who when back in Iraq had signed up as a soldier in the Iran-Iraq
war, is glad that the Americans are the ones trying to topple Saddam
Hussein's regime rather than the Iraqi people themselves. He fears
that the Shiite Muslims, who constitute the majority of the population,
would take control of the government, or possibly the Kurds. Gasem
is a Sunni Muslim.
Shayota and Gasem are a minority within a minority in New York.
They are among the little more than 1,200 residents of New York
City who come from Iraq. (The 2000 Census counts 1,257; the Migration
Policy Institute puts the number at 1,507.) And within this
tiny community or series of communities, since Iraqis are
Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Christians,
Jews, Kurds and Arabs few are willing to talk publicly. Some
fear reprisals against relatives still living in Iraq; Saddam Hussein
is known for torturing relatives of those who speak out against
him. Others fear detention in New York; the Federal Bureau of Investigation
has been rounding up Iraqis. Still others worry what, at this time
of heightened tensions, their fellow New Yorkers might say or do
Sometimes people think Im Egyptian; I dont always
correct them, said one high school senior of Iraqi heritage
living in Staten Island, who, like many others, requested that her
name not be used.
Iraqi-American Council, an Iraqi advocacy group which supports
the war effort, estimates that there are some 250,000 to 300,000
Iraqis living in the United States, with the largest communities
in Detroit and San Diego.
In New York City, the most visible Iraqi presence is probably that
of Congregation Bene Naharayim in Jamaica Estates, Queens, an Iraqi-Jewish
synagogue that claims a membership of hundreds of Jews of Iraqi
descent. There is also the Imam al-Khoei Islamic Center in Jamaica,
Queens, a Shiite mosque that serves some 5,000 Muslims of
whom only about 100 are Iraqis. Its director, Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani,
is himself from Iraq.
Unlike most other immigrant groups, there are no specific Iraqi-American
neighborhoods, in part because of the diversity of the population
back home, and the conflicts between them and in part, some
say, because of the terror inflicted by the current regime.
Some 25 members of Al-Sahlanis family, including his brother,
were either killed, imprisoned, or tortured by Saddam Husseins
government. Al-Sahlanis story is not unusual. Most Iraqi-American
immigrants seem either to have faced persecution themselves or have
family members who have suffered under Saddams regime.
Many Iraqi-Americans describe their relatives in Iraq before the
war began they have been unable to reach them after -- as
resigned to the war, even supportive of it. But Iraqi-Americans
in New York seem more divided about a war led by their adopted country
on a now distant homeland, where family members could potentially
become collateral damage.
To Al-Sahlani, the war is worth it to remove the cancer
that is Saddam Hussein. We tried for more than 30 years to
get rid of this man with no result.
But Amira Mor, a dance instructor of Jewish Iraqi heritage, said
of Saddam Hussein: "We have had worse men than him in the past
and we will have many more in the future," she said. "I
am simply against all war between any nations. I see not one good
reason for wars."
Ali, a Shiite Muslim who grew up in the United States but asks
not to have his full name published for fear of detention here,
is vehemently against this particular war: I am not going
to be naïve and just accept that were going in to help
the Iraqi people and to get Saddam out. If that was the case, there
are many ways to do that.
Ali and other Iraqi New Yorkers blame U.S. foreign policy for failing
to help the Iraqi people in the first place -- by supporting Saddams
oppressive regime during the Iran-Iraq war, by turning a blind eye
to resistors before and after the 1991 Gulf war, and by imposing
economic sanctions on the country.
We saw the first war [in 1991], said one middle-aged
Christian woman speaking in Arabic, who moved to the Bronx two years
ago; she still has a sister in Baghdad. There was destruction
everywhere. It returned Iraq back 100 years, she said. If
they get rid of Saddam, who are they going to bring? Someone better
than him? Theyre going to bring someone stronger than Saddam.
Her 80-year-old mother interrupted her. Let them kill Saddam.
Samer, an architect who grew up in the United States after leaving
Iraq at the age of eight, said the war could not possibly be worse
than the last dozen years of United Nations-imposed sanctions; his
grandmother died in Iraq, he said, because her medications were
no longer available.
Adnan Naum, a 67 year-old former geology teacher and current English
teacher who grew up in Baghdad and who still has two sisters there,
agrees that war is better than sanctions. The Iraqi situation
has not been normal for more than 10 years, he said. I
dont know if its the right way, but the situation could
not go on. The people were suffering because of the embargo.
Najahs family too suffers back home, deprived not just of
medicine but often of electricity and water. She thinks that not
enough people here know about what has been going on in Iraq. Half
the people dont even know about the sanctions.
But Najah, who moved from Iraq 30 years ago and works for a family-owned
Middle Eastern restaurant in the East Village, says there is more
to the story than the terror and the tragedy. "I want all Americans
to know that Iraq is a most beautiful country," she said.
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