It’s the end of another long workday at RLAP, I rise from my laptop, in conversation with another coworker across the room. As I walk by *Samira, a favorite Iraqi woman who has worked in our office as translator, in St. Andrew’s library and most recently as one of our start cooking teachers, pokes my right hip.
“Ahh you are getting fat!” she scolds me.Her inquisitive eyes look over my stomach, covered by a thin purple t-shirt and draped with a veil going down to my thighs. She shakes her head with concern. “Your form, ” she mourns, “it’s because you sit at a desk all day,” she concludes.
Our legal director, Stephanie, and the other remaining intern in the office look on horrified.
After being in Egypt, and in particular with Iraqis, for over 6 months I’m neither concerned or surprised by Samira’s remarks. At a party a couple months ago a different Iraqi woman poked at another interns fat and similarly advised a course of action. Once, twice in a day, clients asked Stephanie if she was pregnant when she wore a slightly baggy shirt.
A former figure skater and someone who takes pride in her body, I’ve reached the point where these comments are amusing rather than traumatizing. Though I don’t go to the gym here, (no time!) I do yoga at home (occasionally,) walk a lot and eat a relatively healthy array of foods. (Well if you subtract all the oil and frying). Plus, I cannot be too concerned since my clothes still fit!
Not limited to Iraqis, I’ve had similar experiences with Egyptians. After not seeing an Egyptian friend for a couple weeks, he greeted me with an enthusiastic, “You gained weight!”
“What?!” I said, not reacting with the same nonchalance I showed to Samira today.
“No, it’s good,” he tried to assure me. “It’s in the right places. Egyptians like women who aren’t too skinny.”
Though I explained how my American culture typically views weight, how the youngest boys know women don’t like to hear such comments, he was only amused.
As we walked out the door moments later he commented on how my butt filled out my jeans.
Though my Egyptian friend might have approved, Samira is having none of it. ”You must do 10 minutes of Arabic once a week,” she prescribed.
“You mean aerobics,” I correct. “But I don’t think it will help. If I’ve gained weight it’s because you cook me too much delicious food.”
Brendan, a fellow Northeastern student and coincidently RLAP legal intern, draws her attention to his stomach. Our Iraqi friend is undeterred.”You’re a man. It’s Ok…but Lily! ” Laughing, trying not to, I nod seriously in agreement. “Obviously women like men with bellies.” Missing my sarcasm, Samira insists any weight Brendan gained is inconsequential.
I ask Samira if the aerobics can be belly dancing and she raises her hands and slightly shakes her hips.
“So, is your only concern my stomach?” I ask, remembering another time when an Iraqi commented that my cheeks looked fuller.
“Yes,” she verifies, seemingly slightly concerns I’m stuck on the subject. “Here in Egypt, you’re normal, you’re how they like it.” Unlike my Egyptian friend, she at least has one part of American tastes right. “In America they like skinny,”
She does a model walk, raising her hands and shaking her hips slightly. “You must walk like this in your bathing suite in America. I’m tempted to point out I’m destined to spend the next few months in freezing Boston. Instead I just smile, nodding at the severity of my new challenge.
” You’re Ok now,” she confirms. “But I like you. I want you to be number one!”
The last word: I’m looking forward to some belly dancing classes!
*I’ve changed her name in an effort to not put her on the spot. Though, I actually think she’d be flattered by the attention.
Ten students (American, Canadian and Norwegian ), our Iraqi teacher Azhar, a couple Iraqi friends and myself, are squeezed into St. Andrew’s modest kitchen. Some students jot notes, while others cut onions or mix a concoction containing surprising amounts of garlic, spices and oil.
It’s RLAP’s second Iraqi cooking class, a fundraiser to support out work providing legal, psychosocial and cultural advising, as well as English classes to refugees in Egypt.While working as a legal advisor can become completely consuming, we’ve got to escape our endless interviews and piles of testimonies once in a while. Cooking delicious food and earning money to sustain our work seemed like the perfect break from the routine.
One of the best perks of my work Resettlement Legal Aid Project (RLAP) is the constant flow of sumptuous and inspiring Iraqi food. From frequent parties on weekends–whether a birthday, holiday or a resettlement case won–to homemade lunches sent to work, there always seems to be something to celebrate and a willing Iraqi ready to prepare the goods.When the topic of fundraisers arose it seemed natural to share our wealth of food knowledge with the wider Cairo community.
Some highlights of our first two classes are: 19 students (and me!) with hints about Iraqi cooking and newfound lust for Iraqi food, expats buying meat, (there’s a stereotype here that many expats never learn how to cook and buy meat in Egypt) hilarious translation bloopers (the first teacher who taught only speaks Arabic), new friends and connections(everyone seemed to leave the class with someone’s contact info).
And what caught me by surprise?
Cooking was only one of two draws to the class. More than one student loitered outside the kitchen, questioning our Iraqi friends about their lives rather than the culinary traditions. Working and socializing with Iraqis on a daily basis, it seems I’ve lost all sense of what thoughts about Iraqis and Iraq conjure for many other Americans. Will I get a reality shock back in the States in a few weeks?
Classes and menus are arranged on a weekly basis. Let me know if you’re in town and want to reserve a spot.
Otherwise, you better hope I feel like showing off my newly acquired skills the next time we meet =)
This Saturday afternoon found the majority of the Resettlement Legal Aid staff chowing down on delicious Iraqi cuisine and learning dubka dancing in one of our translator’s living rooms.
A couple weeks ago I posted a video of some Iraqi friends dancing dubka in a park. Apparently it’s a competitive form of entertainment across the Middle East.
Have you seen “Good Will Hunting” when Will rationalizes refusing a hot-shot NSA job?
“Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.? That’s a tough one, but I’ll give it a shot. Say I’m working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. So I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I’m real happy with myself, ’cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never had a problem with get killed. Now the politicians are sayin’, “Send in the marines to secure the area” ’cause they don’t give a shit. It won’t be their kid over there, gettin’ shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number was called, ’cause they were pullin’ a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some guy from Southie takin’ shrapnel in the ass. And he comes home to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, ’cause he’ll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile my buddy from Southie realizes the only reason he was over there was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And of course the oil companies used the skirmish to scare up oil prices so they could turn a quick buck. A cute little ancillary benefit for them but it ain’t helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And naturally they’re takin’ their sweet time bringin’ the oil back, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain’t too long ’til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So my buddy’s out of work and he can’t afford to drive, so he’s got to walk to the job interviews, which sucks ’cause the schrapnel in his ass is givin’ him chronic hemorroids. And meanwhile he’s starvin’ ’cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat the only blue plate special they’re servin’ is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what do I think? I’m holdin’ out for somethin’ better. Why not just shoot my buddy, take his job and give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.”
That’s kind of how I felt today, teaching an employment workshop for Iraqi refugees who will soon be living in the United States.
They sit before me–A man who has worked in the government nearly 30 years, a woman who specialized in surveying, a computer engineer, an engineering student, a petroleum expert and a couple of housewives, among others.
We invaded their country and toppled their government. Every kind of political and social unrest ensued. They all have horrific stories about what personally happened to them in Iraq and why they fled.
They made their way to Egypt, often through transitory countries and spent 1-5 years struggling through the resettlement process.
Interviews, security checks, health screenings and more security.
The more horrific their stories—if they were tortured, specifically targeted, lost spouses, are single woman with no means of support–the more likely they are to be the lucky few selected for resettlement.
Currently most do not have jobs and struggle financially. Some put their children’s education on hold and others live off dwindling savings. Some have money for the moment but no opportunity to earn more.
On a survey I asked them if they had means to support themselves in the United States if they do not find a job immediately. Each wrote, “No.”
Exhausted from years of waiting. Depressed because of all they lost, they look hopefully toward a new life in the country of their occupiers. Their ordeal is almost over.
Yet without fluency in English and a poor economy (9.5 unemployment rate), what will greet them in the United States?
I prepare them for the possibility of working as dishwashers.
One man asks, me a question:
We are not immigrants by choice, we are refugees. We were forced to flee our country. Some of risked our lives and livelihood to help the United States in Iraq. Won’t America give us anything? Won’t anyone help us find jobs?
Voluntary resettlement agencies in the United States receive $900 in federal money for each refugee they sponsor. There are some essential the U.S. government requires VOLAGS to provide newcomers.
The federal money paired with whatever the VOLAG can raise, is expected to cover the refugees first month of rent, food upon arrival, basic furnishings and any job training. English classes and other needs are often not required, though undoubtedly vital to successful resettlement.
Anyone want to calculate how far $900 is going to go toward that?
The International Rescue Mission, one of the main resettlement agencies, reported the average family of four receives $575 in aid a month, lasting a maximum of 8 months. The same report said in its branch in Phoenix, Arizona, the average employment specialist is carrying a caseload of 200 refugees.
I tell the man in my class he cannot rely on anyone, that he needs to learn what resources are available and how to use them.
There is no way to know how much aid he will get in the United States, no way to know who will hire him, if his caseworker will give him the help he needs or he’ll ever work in a high-level position again.
I explain about outlets for job searching, interviews, resumes and building contacts and references. We have lots to discuss and do not get through half of it.
They are receptive, they listen and ask questions.
These individuals will be going to cities and towns across the United States. They are strong independent people, used to supporting themselves. They do not want to rely social services–they want jobs and are willing to take ones they would never consider in Iraq.
They thank me at the end of the workshop. They ask if they can meet individually for more questions and resume writing.
I’m a student, with less education and life experiences than every one of them.
Ours is a crazy world.
* I would love some feedback–about the political/societal aspects of this situation and practical and creative ideas.
Does anyone know resettled Iraqi refugees living in the United States? How are they getting by? How are they being received?
My clients will be resettled anywhere from San Francisco to Boston, Arizona, Arlington Virginia and Detroit–to name a few places.
If you live in any of these locations and want to get involved—i.e. showing a newcomer around or helping them practice English and hearing a story over a cup of tea, shoot me an email. *
In the United States we hear all the time about Arabs, other skin-tones and minorities facing scrutiny at airports. I’ve heard open-minded and well-traveled people comment when an Arab or someone dressed in an abaya or headscarf boards their plane.
In the Middle East there is no room for these irrational fears. At the airport Rachel and Edwin (our TA for the trip) both marveled at the diversity of the people around us. A woman in a flowing orange dress stood by the escalator and a family, Asha guessed, of southern Indians wearing beautifully embroidered caps were head of us at the passport check line.
When I got aboard our flight to Syria an old woman was sitting in my seat. She didn’t speak English but she showed me her ticket. Her ticket was a seat that didn’t exist on the plane. An attendant came and ripped up her ticket and she walked toward the front of the plane–to where I don’t know.
After some more communicative gesturing I took my seat next to an Iraqi man and his friend’s son.
In the midst of writing that last sentence, a commotion erupted a few rows back. I man dressed in white with a gold embroidered hat was yelling Arabic words I couldn’t understand. Flight attendants and others were yelling back. Slightly panicked, I shut my laptop, ready to hop off the plane in a second. The man sitting next to me smiled–and gestured his hands–nothing don’t worry. No problem? I asked in Arabic. No problem he agreed, clearly amused by the commotion.
The Iraqi’s name was Abdu and the boy was Amr. They and more family and friends were returning to Baghdad from Saudi Arabia. He took out his camera phone and eagerly showed me pictures from their hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca to see the Kaaba. The Hajj Is the fifth pillar of Islam and required of all faithful Muslims capable of making it. Abdu clicked through pictures of worshippers prostrated before the black stone, his family and friends, all dressed in the traditional white. He showed me his Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stamp in his passport. I was quite jealous.
Communicating anything substantive was hard, but I couldn’t not ask him about Iraq. How is it? What do you think of Americans? His face grew somber, he lost his kind smile. I had trouble understanding him but pretty sure, between gestures and words he said he had a lot and now he has little. We destroyed things. ‘What do you expect me to say’? He clearly conveyed.
I felt awful–guilty. I didn’t have words or eloquence to discuss anything in Arabic. I was so lucky, an America traveling, typing on my laptop on the plane with no real idea what these people had and are going through.
A older woman sitting diagonally in front of me caught my eye. She looked at me staring. It wasn’t a mean stare, more so of wrongdoing. I stared back for a moment, unsure what to do, not wanting to ignore her. Finally I extended my hand. “Ahlan, ismee Lily.” (Hi, my name’s Lily) She took my hand. She didn’t say anything but smiled slightly.
Later, when reopened my laptop she gave me a worried look again. Abdu did too. “Up,” I gestured with my hand and, “down.” It’s fine now–we only have to turn electronics off during takeoff and landing.
I showed Abdu and Amr pictures of my brothers, Sam and Grayson, sister Cady, parents and Cultural Kitchen class at Hosteling International. He wanted me to listen to his music and gave me a headphone to put in my ear. It was the Koran.I offered him one of mine, but he wasn’t willing to part with the Koran for a earful of Noah and the Whale. “Allah,” he said, pointing upwards.
Safely on the ground in Damascus, I gave him my name. the web address for our group blog. Internet? he asked, moving his figures in typing motions. Aiya. (yes) He smiled and said he would go to the web address.