“Daddy, where is Iraq?”

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What?  That isn’t your typical question from your 4 year old daughter on the walk home from pre school.  

“How do you know about Iraq?”  I stammered.

“That is where my friend is from.”

This girl is her best friend from school.  She is all we hear about.

Immediately I saw an opportunity to broaden my daughters horizons.  “Would you like to have her family over for dinner some night so that we could get to know her family?”

“Yes, daddy, please?  Please, please, please?”

After connecting with her mother at school, my wife invited them over for dinner.  No pork is all we were instructed.

Awesome, we are having a family over from Iraq for the evening.  That is the extent of our knowledge of them.  

Despite having such limited information, growing up in America I know that is enough information to stereotype them.  Enough information to draw quick assumptions about them, to judge them, to condemn them, to hate them, to avoid them, and to do my damndest to get them deported back to Iraq.

Thank God that isn’t the way my mind works, and I pray that I can teach my children to avoid that mindset as well.

No pork.  Are they Muslims?  I have know idea, but the fact they don’t eat pork doesn’t mean they are muslim.  My wife doesn’t eat pork, we have friends that don’t eat pork, I do my best to avoid pork.  And, I don’t want to make assumptions, but I want to be able to honor our guests.  

I decided to go vegan for the evening.  I didn’t know if they were muslim, if they were, I didn’t know all their rules about animal products, and I especially wasn’t sure on where to buy Halal meat.  Vegan is always a safe bet when you are unsure.

I also wanted to express our respect for our guests and their culture, and to show a willingness to try and to serve.  I don’t even know how to say hello in Arabic, so I did what i could.

I made middle eastern cuisine.

Something I have never attempted in my life.  Might as well go out on a limb and attempt a brand new cuisine for someone that eats it regularly, and is an expert at making it.  I had to make spice blends that I had never heard of, buy ingredients that I didn’t even know existed, attempt to make new styles of dough.  

It was worth the effort and the energy to embrace the challenge.  Challenges like this diversify your talents and embolden you to expand your repertoire.  I now know what pomegranate molasses is, and that you can mix it with fermented peppers, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, nuts, sweet onions, chickpeas, and spinach.  Talk about sweet, bitter, spicy, sour all mixing to make a flavor explosion.

I couldn’t just make middle eastern cuisine, and wanted to have some fun with similar flavors, but do something more my style as well.

So what was on the menu?

Butternut squash kibbeh, which is a middle eastern style bierock.  It was stuffed with chestnuts, onions, chickpeas, spinach, lebanese 7 spice and pomegranate molasses, then deep fried.

Falafel

Hummus

Butternut squash soup, with pickled root vegetables, fresh herbs, flowers, and marshmallow

Salad

A pretty simple soup and salad menu, perfect for a fall evening.

As I was getting the kibbeh and falafel fried I heard to door bell ring.  Panic set in as I had no idea what to even expect.  I saw a little girl peeking through the window in the door, immediately got over my panic, and asked my daughter to get the door.  She managed to get the door open despite her excitement, and immediately I was overwhelmed with shrill shrieks and giggles.  As the girls ran by, I saw Farah, whom I had previously met at school, and her husband Salaam.

After introductions, we continued into the kitchen to finish making supper.  

Not only were they from Iraq, they were refugees from Baghdad.  They came to the states, only knowing one person in Colorado, not speaking any english, and leaving all of their family back in Baghdad.

I’m not one to hide my thoughts or opinions very well, so instead of trying to hide them, sometimes I just get them right out in the open.  I felt obligated to apologize, to apologize for all that my country has done to their country, for the fear we’ve put into their lives, for the turmoil, for the destruction, and the uncertainty we’ve created.  

Once I apologized, Salaam looked at me and said, “But that is part of war.”

Yes, it is part of war, but the sad thing is, war isn’t necessary.  War is manufactured for a variety of reasons, most of which aren’t for the betterment of the people fighting the wars.

We then found out that they are Kurds.  After learning that I knew that they wouldn’t have like Saddam Hussein, which was confirmed.  However, what he said next really surprised me.

Saddam Hussein was very evil and bad, but what we have after America came in is even worse.  

When Salaam was asked what he did before coming to America, he chuckled a little, and said he was in the Iraqi Army.  He had been tasked as a guardsman for American troops.  He manned the towers around the encampments and would keep an eye out for intruders.  

As we continued to cook, Farah kept a watchful eye over me.  She watched what I did and reassured me that I was doing it correctly, and that it tasted like it should.  That was a huge relief.

Salaam’s english was very good, as he is practicing a lot.  He wants to become a translator.  He currently works as a parker at Budget Rental Cars out at the airport, bringing the cars up to the line he said so customer can take them.  He assured me that Budget treats him well.  When he gets any spare time, he is reading books trying to learn more and more english.  

He is looking for another job, but only because he could make a little extra money.  He said another company would be able to pay him $14/hour.  I’m amazed at what some people are forced to live on, and ashamed at the stress I feel by our own finances.

Farah’s english is ok.  They have only been in the states for 2 years, and she has been at home with the kids.  She wants to go to school in the states once their daughters are in full time school.  

They were both educated in Iraq, which unfortunately doesn’t count for much in the US.  He has a degree in philosophy, and she in history.  How long do you think it would take to learn all about Iraqi history?  And you thought American history was hard.

Salaam and Farah met in college, and explained to us about the dating procedures in Iraq.  Their parents are way more involved and make the final decisions.  After their parents were on board, they were married within 6 months.  The marriage receptions are a little different, but the celebrations are very similar.  Lots of family and friends, food, festivities, gifts, and money.

Once an Iraqi couple gets married, the family builds an extra room onto the their house.  The families expand and once you have several kids, if you have enough money, you build your own house, but as close as you can to your families.  This fosters strong familial ties, as well as a wider community.  They both said what they miss the most about Iraq is the community, but that the safety offered in America was worth the journey.

They said in America people sacrifice community for responsibility.  They say it is responsible to go to bed early.  In Iraq, younger couples are out early into the mornings with their friends, sharing life.  

My wife was shocked, and asked what they do with their children.  They were just as shocked by the question.  They are at home with their grandparents, of course.  Their bewilderment was indescribable.  

Salaam chuckled and said that Halloween in America is his favorite holiday because it forces neighborhoods to act as a community.  How is it that we as a culture have taken a celebration that originally was a communal harvest celebration and turned it into something more juvenile, more evil, more terrifying that what it should be?  Why does it take someone that is used to living within community in the midst of a war zone to point out that fact that this holiday “forces” us into living in community?  It “forces” neighbors to see and visit with each other.  It “forces” children outside and gives them the courage to actually knock on their neighbor’s door.  Something that would hardly ever happen in the daylight hours and in the safety of America.

Overall, in their perspective, Americans have been friendly.  They have been more than helpful with the language, and pointing out better usages of words, or phrases.  But, they said, in the same breathe, Americans can be very mean.  

They have noticed how Americans segregate themselves, isolating themselves into the confines of their own similarities.  How children on the school buses have been mean to their daughters, calling them bad words, telling them how much they are hated, and forcing them to cry.  

We started to discuss the school system here, and how it works because they aren’t happy with the local school.  We don’t blame them, we aren’t thrilled with it either.  My wife broke the district down and how it works.  We started discussing the options of choicing into other schools within the district and how that works.  They started getting excited just knowing that their might be another option.  

Immediately we realized this was our best opportunity to be able to help.  My wife decided to offer her time.  Something that isn’t easily gifted.  Since we are going to different schools to learn more about them, she would take Farah with her.  Farah wouldn’t have to worry about not understanding, not knowing which questions to ask, not worrying that she wouldn’t be heard, and that her concerns wouldn’t be voiced.  If our daughters would be accepted into the same school, we would be able to carpool, and help each other with transportation needs.

The relief and excitement released in the same sigh had enough energy to power our community for the rest of the evening.

I’ve always been curious about the differences in Islam, especially between the Sunni and Shiite.  Salaam was kind enough to break it down as simply as he could, and it’s starting to make a little sense.  

Shiite means to follow, which they do.  They follow the prophets that Muhammad told them to follow and so forth.  While the Sunni follow other leaders and prophets.  The more I think about it, it isn’t too different from the Christian church.  Catholics follow the leaders that they believe Jesus told them to follow, the chain of popes throughout history.  Protestants and the other hand follow other leaders and prophets that they choose to follow.

As our conversation continued, I learned that I needed to look for similarities.  I needed to look at what it means to be in community.  What community actually means, and how I can use what I’ve been given to better the community(s) around us.  As Salaam said, being in community is part of being human, it is what defines us.

White privilege is a word being thrown around quite a bit, and I believe it takes a bit of ignorance for any white person to say they don’t have privilege.  #Blessed is something else that is tossed around carelessly as well.  To be blessed, is supposed to mean to be in a position to use your blessings to bless others.  Thinking through this, I began to wonder how I could use my white privilege and blessings to help Farah and Salaam.  

What about others in my neighborhood that need some help and community?  

Where can I find similarities in the most different of cultures and people?

How can I make a difference?

Salaam’s oldest daughter answered this for me in her 9 year old wisdom.  “It is okay not to know, but it is not okay not to try.”

By the end of the night we found out that their names literally mean peace and joy.  How ironic that we have felt that we need more peace and joy in our own lives.  We were also invited to their house and was asked as a brother to come.  We are excited to visit again, and to try real homemade iraqi food for the first time.

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