by David Smith-Ferri
A Careful Reordering of our Priorities and Assumptions
Recently I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in the state of Colorado, giving poetry readings and speaking to communities about a unique American-Iraqi partnership called Direct Aid Iraq (www.directaidiraq.org). In Durango, a mountain community of 16,000 in the northwest corner of the state, I read a poem to audience members at Ft. Lewis College. The setting of this poem is Samawa, a predominantly Shiite city south of Baghdad. And the dramatic situation in the poem is an actual interview, at three in the morning, with Suad, a Sunni mother of four, as she is packing her belongings and preparing to flee with her children at dawn.
I’d read the poem in public many times before, and my main purpose was to share Suad’s experience and perspective. Her hope:
My dreams for my children are simple dreams,
the same as other mothers.
To live in safety and security
in a country where they can be educated…
And her fears:
Of course I’m afraid for my children.
Their future is uncertain now.
I’m afraid they will be kidnapped, or maybe they will die from a bomb…
It’s everyday. Everyday we see killing.
What did we do?
The poem suggests that Suad’s words are jagged and sharp enough to lacerate the paper and cause it to bleed, and that that blood will mark the hands of everyone who reads this book. During an open comment and question period after the presentation, a college student referenced the poem and asked if I thought we all had Suad’s blood on our hands. I responded that my point in using the image was different: I wanted to signify that encounters with Iraqis, with their stories, words, and perspectives, would mark us and could, if we were open to them, transform and inspire us. He wasn’t, however, willing to let me off the hook so easily. “Don’t you think our consumptive lifestyle—especially our enormous energy use—drives this kind of war?” he asked. “Don’t you think it makes us partners in crime?”
I’ll leave the question there, unanswered, and I’ll reframe and ask it in a different form: Five and a half years into this festering invasion and occupation, what is our responsibility to Iraq and to Iraqis? What is our responsibility to Suad and her family? To Mustafa, whose back was broken in a US missile attack in the first weeks of the war, who needs physical therapy and social support if he is ever to walk again? To Hussein who lost his eye and part of his skull, barely surviving the explosion of a car bomb while walking to classes at a university? To eight year-old Lateifa who lost her entire family—both parents, three sisters, and three brothers—when a bomb exploded during their visit to a holy site in Najaf? To nine year-old Leila whose legs were run over by a US Humvee?
Every day in the Middle East, a team of Iraqi refugees asks themselves these same questions. Their particular answers give flesh and bone, breath and life to the humanitarian aid and peacebuilding program, Direct Aid Iraq (DAI). They asked themselves these kinds of questions recently when they met Haifa, a fifty year-old Iraqi woman, who had been shot in the face by a militia using phosphorous munitions most likely made in the US. These hideous munitions are designed to cling to and burn a person’s flesh. The munitions that struck Haifa’s face, burned out not only her left eye but the bone structure around it, leaving a gaping hole where her eye had been. They also damaged Haifa’s remaining eye, blinding her.
Two years later, under the auspices of an international NGO, Haifa came to Amman for medical care. She would need at least three operations: to rebuild the bone structure in her left eye socket; to insert a prosthetic eye; and to attempt to restore sight to her remaining eye. Operating with a mandate to cover only the first of these surgeries, the international NGO referred Haifa to DAI for the other two. Raising the funds and arranging these operations would be one challenge, but Haifa would need to remain in Amman for a number of months, waiting for and then recovering from surgeries. Because Haifa was blind, she would need full-time care—someone to cook, clean, and shop for her, someone to help her with a hundred things she previously did for herself. And how would she manage travel back and forth to medical appointments? Haifa would also need social support to help her ongoing efforts to deal with both the trauma of losing her eyesight and the challenge of facing an uncertain future. When Najlaa Al-Nashi, DAI’s coordinator in the Middle East, visited her, Haifa would always cry. “I can’t do anything,” she would say. “I can’t even go to the bathroom by myself.” Najlaa stepped in and became an important part of Haifa’s social support.
These kinds of medical social work considerations and the tasks they engender may not be glamorous or newsworthy, but they are an essential component of peace-work among Iraqis displaced by violence, an essential part of helping people maintain intact lives. This, after all, is the goal: how to support people so that they can participate in building Iraq’s future.
Let’s return to the question of responsibility that the Ft. Lewis College student rightly posed. How do we evaluate our responsibility to Iraqis? I believe that we can’t evaluate it fully or forcefully unless we position ourselves alongside Iraqis, unless we are somehow in relationship with Iraqis, aware of their experiences and the hopes and fears those experiences engender, attentive to what they say they want and need.
This does not mean we must relocate to the Middle East. Being “in relationship with Iraqis,” however, may mean a careful reordering of our priorities. It means seeking opportunities to expose ourselves to Iraqi stories and perspectives, through firsthand accounts of encounters with Iraqis, public presentations, face-to-face meetings with Iraqis in our communities, and so on. It requires cultivating an openness. It means listening to Iraqis’ stories, and carrying them with us. It means a willingness to be “drawn in,” not uncritically, but in such a way that we grant the “inside” perspective the validity and centrality it deserves.
Being “in relationship with Iraqis,” may also mean a careful reordering of our assumptions. It means learning to trust that Iraqis are the best source for information about their own experiences. It means shedding the notion that the US somehow knows best what Iraq needs. No, Iraqis are the best source of information about how peace can be achieved and sustained in their country. It means shedding the notion that the US is going to rebuild Iraq. No, it is Iraqis who will rebuild their country. Do they need and deserve assistance? Of course. Does the US bear enormous responsibility to support that rebuilding? Certainly. Does the international community bear responsibility? Yes—at the very least for not mounting a stronger and more effective opposition to the invasion in the first place, a charge, in fact, that can be laid at all of our feet.
If we want to support Iraqis in building peace, we can start by genuinely facing the same difficult questions they are facing: what is my responsibility to Iraqis? How can I live it out? My own effort in this respect has lead me to conclude that Americans are best cast in a supportive role. The question for us as individuals and as organizations is the same question that our government should be weighing: who are the wisest Iraqis? What are the best plans and efforts among Iraqis, and how can we support them?
Direct Aid Iraq is one such program lead by Iraqis, with Americans in a supportive role. It began a year and a half ago, out of conversations between Americans and Iraqis in which the Iraqis were asked: if Americans could do something, what would you have us do? “We need medical care, in order to survive, in order to hold our lives together,” these Iraqi refugees told us. “We need money to pay for it.”
The Iraqis we’ve met through DAI want us to listen and to care. They want us to care enough to look closely at our lives, and yes, as the Ft. Lewis College student suggested, to examine our lifestyles. They want us to care enough to reorder our priorities, to be smart and strategic so that we are in a strong position to support them. They want us to ask some obvious questions about the ways we use our resources and to act on the answers: Do we really need the new furniture, the new wardrobe, the new entertainment center? They want us to learn to live with less so that we have something to share with them. They want us to be generous. They want us to take some risks, to trust that generosity now will not condemn us to poverty in the future.
Here’s a slightly different angle on it. The Iraqis we’ve met through DAI don’t want charity. They want justice. These aren’t people who have been injured and displaced by a natural disaster, but by war—by human folly, greed, violence, and criminality. They want actions that will help restore their capacity to build a productive future. For Americans who also want justice, the question becomes: what are we willing to risk, change, sacrifice in order to be a part of this restoration?
David Smith-Ferri (smithferri [@] pacific.net) is author of Battlefield without Borders (battlefieldwithoutborders.org), and a member of Direct Aid Iraq and of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.
This article was posted October 3, 2008 at Yes magazine. Reprinted with permission.