APRIL 2003

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New 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 Iraq.

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. “It’s time for a change; I’m 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 to them.

“Sometimes people think I’m Egyptian; I don’t 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.

The 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-Sahlani’s family, including his brother, were either killed, imprisoned, or tortured by Saddam Hussein’s government. Al-Sahlani’s story is not unusual. Most Iraqi-American immigrants seem either to have faced persecution themselves or have family members who have suffered under Saddam’s 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 we’re 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 Saddam’s 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? They’re 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 don’t know if it’s the right way, but the situation could not go on. The people were suffering because of the embargo.”

Najah’s 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 don’t 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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