“I grew up in Iran, but I was from Iraq. Then I came here, to America, and I still continuedRead more
By Sami Rasouli, Director of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams.
I arrived in the U.S. for a three-month visit in June, 2012 traveling with 10 other Iraqis: 4 children and 2 adult chaperones participating in the Songs of Hope performing arts summer camp; my wife Suaad and son Omar; and 2 business people. It was the first time in the U.S. for all of them.
When we stepped off the plane into Liberty airport in Newark, NJ, the first thing we heard was a voice over the loudspeaker, “If you see any suspicious activity, please contact airport security immediately.” We thought we must look suspicious with the women covered in Muslim head scarves.
Sure enough, when we got in line to board our connecting flight to Minneapolis, the security guards started looking at us suspiciously. I decided to go over to them with my wife and the 2 women chaperones. I said, “What’s the matter, haven’t you ever seen Orthodox Jewish nuns?”
The security guards were flustered but responded, “Oh, what, of course, please come to the front of the line.”
After looking at our passports another of the security guards said to his companion, “I’ve never heard of Jewish nuns from Iraq.” (Muslims and Christians are also Jews, in a sense, because we share Abraham as our father.)
After arriving in Minneapolis, the 4 children participating in Songs of Hope had a wonderful time with other children from around the world, performing songs and dances from each of their countries. Songs of Hope is a great organization that brings together kids from places as diverse as Iraq, Israel, China, and many other countries.
While these 10 first-time visitors to the U.S. enjoyed their time here and made many friends, they stand in contrast to the many other Iraqis who are denied visa entrance to the United States. When I wrote this column for the May IARP-MPT newsletter, I wrote about the difficulty facing Iraqis who want to get visas to visit the United States. Unfortunately many of the people who were waiting for visas then are still waiting today.
Many people from my hometown of Najaf want to visit their Sister City of Minneapolis to make new friends and colleagues. Najafis from many professions – including doctors, lawyers, teachers, students, parents, business owners and others – are eager to see a different side of Americans than the soldiers and occupation forces. But unfortunately, these applicants for peace frequently are denied visas, and infrequently are given a good reason why.
After decades of war, sanctions and occupation that have devastated Iraq, the United States should allow Iraqis who want to partner and make friends with Americans into the country. This is the least part of what the United States can do, but it is an important step toward reconciliation.
On August 9 I attended a trade export forum with Congressman Keith Ellison in Minneapolis. I invited all of the people gathered at the meeting to come to Iraq to do business. Iraqis are working hard to rebuild their country, but need things like medical equipment and water technology. Iraqis are eager to partner with American business people and expand trade between our two countries, because trade leads to investment, jobs, and economic growth. Countries around the world have been aggressively working in the Iraqi markets, but American partnerships have been conspicuously absent.
This November, IARP and MPT are organizing a delegation to Najaf from its Sister City of Minneapolis. We would like to invite business people to accompany the delegation and meet colleagues in Najaf. Many individuals from a wide variety of professions in Najaf are eager to work with partners from their American Sister City.
Near the end of the Songs of Hope program in St. Paul, one of the Iraqi children had to leave the program for a family emergency. One of the boy’s parts in the program had been to sing a solo in an Iraqi song; when he left it looked like that song might need to be cut from the program. Fortunately, a young Israeli boy stepped up and offered to sing the song.
The Songs of Hope kids and Iraqi visitors who make friends in the U.S. are drawing a beautiful future for the world. They are building a future where Muslim women traveling to the U.S. are not automatically considered “suspicious” in airports, where no U.S. Member of Congress can score political points with her constituency for bashing Muslims, and where there is no more racism and bigotry that causes a man to shoot and kill others simply because of their religion and appearance.
Many Iraqis want to contribute to this future by traveling to the U.S. and building peaceful relationships with Americans. Unfortunately the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the State Department often do not seem to realize this. After having their visa applications to the U.S. rejected for no apparent reason, some Iraqis give up and decide to go to Turkey or Europe instead. For the sake of a more peaceful future, we need to change this.