Films illuminate struggles, sorrows of Iraqi refugees

It takes a while for Jamal Ali to regain his composure over the phone. The deep sobs go through the headset and through me. It is anguish, a soul-stirring pain I hear and feel. "I'm sorry," he tells me. No need to apologize. 

I had asked the 58-year-old Iraqi refugee and married father of two from Spring Lake Park moments earlier whether he ever saw himself returning to his war-torn homeland. In this case, it is almost like asking someone if they will ever see their deceased beloved mother again. 

Ali, then a Baghdad-based general manager for UPS, fled with his family to Jordan in 2005 after two colleagues were gunned down by insurgents targeting civilians who either were cooperating with or working for American interests. He suspected he would be next. 

"The hope is getting too far away," said Ali, who relocated here in 2009 with his wife and two grown children. "I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel." Ali is one of the countless little-known casualties of war that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003. 

The recent Islamic State insurgency has further fanned the flames of chaos following the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Estimates place the number of Iraqis who were internally displaced by the conflict or sought refuge in neighboring Middle Eastern countries at nearly 5 million and counting. 

Ali is also among a handful of Iraqi refugees selected by Minnesota filmmaker Nathan Fisher to share their stories of struggles and aspirations in a series of short films that will have their official debut at 7 p.m. Dec. 2 at the Ruth Stricker Dayton Campus Center at Macalester College. The event is free and open to the public. 

"Despite the resurgence of Iraq in the headlines, we rarely get personal stories of ordinary Iraqis," said Fisher. "Unreturned," his 2010 documentary about the struggles of Iraqis who fled to Jordan and Syria, won a film award and was critically well received. 

"In helping middle-class Iraqis transform their stories into powerful short films," Fisher said, "my hope is that Americans who see these films will recognize some of their own aspirations and struggles." 

Most of the refugees wrote and directed their own films, with editing and other help provided by Fisher through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Zaid Alshammaa, the 24-year-old son of a fellow refugee and childhood friend of Ali, starred in and directed one of the more compelling vignettes. 

With the Abu Shanab barbershop in Northeast Minneapolis serving as the backdrop, the thinly bearded Alshammaa shares that "threading the facial hair was considered a sin by al-Qaida. They sentenced whoever did that to immediate death."

The tobacco shop worker recalls heading to a barber shop in Baghdad when he was 15. It was crowded so he left, with plans to return. He heard gunshots as he walked away from the shop. "They shot six people waiting for a haircut, and the barber," he says in Arabic. 

After the gunmen left, people, including police and firefighters, entered the shop in search of the wounded and survivors, including a young child whose screams were heard. "A bomb exploded and killed everyone, including the child," Alshammaa said. 

He was later diagnosed with stress-induced diabetes. "I don't know why I decided to leave the barber shop at that particular moment," he says. "I guess it was my fate." Another short film features Amel al-Sammarraie, former deputy director of Baghdad's Children's Hospital, and her husband of 21 years, Mohammed Raif al-Azzawi, a civil engineer.

The Fridley couple resettled here last year during the beginning stages of the Islamist State uprising. "In the early days, after the United States toppled Saddam, we thought everything would be better," al-Azzawi says in the film. 

Then "the militia started to appear, and they quickly got bigger, killing innocent people, trying to get educated professionals like us." The couple's oldest son and a daughter graduated from medical school, and a younger son became a civil engineer. 

In 2011, when the United States said it was pulling out of the country, "We thought it was a good idea to leave Iraq, too." The process took two years. They thought they could bring their children and grandson with them. It was not allowed. 

Their youngest son remains holed up in a Baghdad apartment, unable to work. "We are afraid for his life," al-Azzawi said. In his film, Ali recounts first coming to the United States in 1978 and attending a college in Tulsa, Okla., where he studied to become an aircraft maintenance engineer. 

He befriended an American family. During a celebration, one of the family members asked where Iraq was and "do I have my own camel in my house." "I saw a camel twice in my life -- in the zoo," responded Ali. He worked for Iraqi Airlines before the UPS stint. 

Looked down upon and treated as less than second-class citizens in Jordan, Ali and his wife, an anesthesiologist, had difficulty finding work. Still, his wife was reluctant to leave the Middle East for the U.S. "She refused to go out that first year we got here," said Ali, whose main work is as an Arabic interpreter. 

Their situation is getting better. His son works for an airline. His daughter attends college and plans to marry this year. His wife is working and now out and about. "They liberated Iraq from a dictator, but things got a million times worse," he said. He offered an analogy. "It's like you are in prison, you can't talk, you are not free, but there's food and shelter," he explained. 

"Then they kick you out and throw you in the desert, where there is no food or shelter, and you are now vulnerable (to predators). That is exactly what happened." He is grateful to be here and safe with his family. 

But his heart aches for his homeland. It's the place where he was born, grew up and raised his family, the place where he doesn't know if he can ever return or see it thriving and without bloodshed. "Oh, how I miss the smell of the woods, the smell of the air, playing with the mud, playing with the sand," he said, his voice cracking again over the phone. 

"The bad smell of the cows is still better than all the perfumes in the world. ... I'm sorry." No need to apologize. 

by Ruben Rosario 

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