Farewell to Iraq, Day 12

Farewell to My Friends in Iraq: Day 12 by Steve Clemens

We deliberately left the last day fairly unscheduled so we could begin the process of packing – especially all the gifts we were given by the Iraqis we met. We’ve been given pens, keychains, a mirror, a crystalline sculpture, books, jewelry, prayer beads and holy Karbala mud-stones. I purchased an Iraqi flag for the student we help support at Augsburg College as well as a wall map of Iraq – labeled all in Arabic. I’ve gotten a few other small gifts but I’d rather leave any extra money I have for the work of the Muslim Peacemaker Team.

I tell my friends before another Iraqi delegation comes to Minneapolis, I will have to take a convoy driving class and practice lurching forward, slamming on the brakes, blowing the car horn, nosing out other vehicles and totally ignoring all traffic lanes – all to make our Iraqi visitors feel at home once they are in the Twin Cities. This trip has been very instructive to those of us on the IARP Board to realize how over-structured we’ve scheduled our guests when they are in Minnesota. After feeling we had little time to catch our breath here, we now have a much better understanding of the rigors we’ve put others through, especially after the recovery period from jet-lag.

It will take me some time to reflect and collect my thoughts about this experience. We’ve witnessed both some of the challenges our friends encounter as well as the myriad harbingers of hope. Najaf is both very conservative and relatively safe so it is difficult to see it as the same as the entire country. Certainly listening to Cathy Breen’s stories of visiting friends she made before the war or as refugees who have now returned has been quite sobering. Yet despite those obstacles, she still has been overwhelmed by her gracious acceptance into many homes and workplaces. The fact that she has been able to travel alone (with the help of MPT) is testament to both her fortitude, courage, and determination. Her Catholic Worker experience in New York City has helped her cope in a multitude of situations.

We’ve benefited by being an eclectic delegation for this trial run. Fletcher and Joan Hinds from Duluth brought both their experience with Kurdish delegations but also Fletcher’s high energy and ability to connect with others, especially some of the young male drivers we’ve had these 12 days. David Smith’s encyclopedic knowledge of world religions as well as Biblical history has helped all of us get a better picture from the times of Nebuchadnezzar  and Ezekiel, the Tower of Babel and early Jewish and Christian history here to couple what we are learning of Islamic and Arabic history. Joan Haan has been a godsend in connecting with new people and Deborah Kalin’s passion for the empowerment of women and her determination to help document this delegation’s experience on video are valuable additions. And Kathy McKay, the organizer, spokesperson, and leader of our group has been freeing for all of us. But none of this could have happened without the planning and commitment of Sami Rasouli and his colleagues from MPT.

We will all bring back our unique perspectives and interpretations of what we experienced here. An obvious next step is to help nurture the budding partnerships with educational intuitions both here and there as well as new business ventures and potential NGO collaborations. People in Najaf are ready to move on from the Saddam era as well as the disastrous wars and sanctions. Highway intersections are under construction, new hotels, restaurants, housing, and other developments are evident all over - yet there still is the deficit of reliable electricity, potable water, trash pick-up and disposal, … Questions about corruption in the government linger as many fear a culture of favoritism continues – only with new faces replacing Saddam or tribal sheiks. At least from our perspective, the challenges for women in the culture are significant if not monumental.

But what sticks out most for me are the broad, genuine smiles, the hugs, the kissing on the cheeks (although strictly along same gender lines!) when we connect with those who had the courage to visit us first. We have been welcomed, honored, and appreciated –so, whatever the challenges, the human spirit is rising to the occasion. I hope it will not be another 10 years before I am able to return to further experience this land and her people. If we are “sisters” as cities, we need to continue to deepen the relationship. Maybe next Spring, another delegation will come? 

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