More than 75 students, Maine residents, and community organizers gathered on campus Feb. 7 to participate in a full-day conference focused on the status of the more than 4.2 million Iraqis who have been displaced since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The Iraqi Refugee Awareness Movement (IRAM), a student organization advised by Assistant Professor of History Jason Opal, spearheaded the event. The Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement sponsored the conference.
Nour al-Khal, former New York Times interpreter and former assistant to U.S. freelancer Steven Vincent, who was killed in Iraq, opened the day's events with an emotional account of her protracted and physically painful journey to attain refugee status in the United States. Iraqi police impersonators kidnapped al-Khal and Vincent and detained them for over six hours. After promising not to kill them, the abductors released al-Khal and Vincent only to shoot them from behind as they walked away. Vincent died, but al-Khal survived three gunshot wounds and was brought to safety by real police officers.
After spending three months in an American hospital in Iraq, al-Khal was turned out onto the streets. When the local media picked up on her story, she fled to Jordan, where she became stranded and unemployed after her visa expired. It was not until Vincent’s widow contacted al-Khal that she received desperately needed help. “We feel we are soldiers who were left behind,” said al-Khal of the Iraqis whose lives are in danger from having aided U.S. forces.
Alaa Rasheed, an Iraqi translator and refugee now living in Worcester, Mass., discussed in a lunchtime address the logistical difficulties for most Iraqi refugees who make the transition into life in the United States. Rasheed described some of the inadequacies of resettlement organizations in meeting the day-to-day needs of refugees, though he expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be resettled.
Laila Al-Arian, a journalist for Al Jazeera English, echoed Rasheed’s sentiments. When covering the story of one woman’s resettlement in Utah, Al-Arian was appalled by the lack of bed, television, and other amenities when the woman arrived in the United States. “She shouldn’t have had to sleep on the floor on her first night in the country after such a long journey,” said Al-Arian. “She was emotional and upset to be away from her family.”
Other speakers included Kael Alford, photojournalist, and Anna Badkhen, journalist, who created the book Unembedded, as well as Jake Kurtzer of Refugees International and Elissa Mittman of International Rescue Committee. Both of these organizations aid refugees in the application and resettlement processes.
The afternoon also featured two workshops. Cheryl Hamilton from the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence and Arian Giantris from Catholic Charities Maine led a session focused on acting locally to offer immediate aid to Iraqi refugees resettled in Maine.
Sophie Sarkar '11, an IRAM student leader, thought the conference forged a relationship between American conference attendees and Iraqis. “It made the issue a reality by connecting the Colby community to actual Iraqi refugees,” she said.
And Maine is connected to the issue, said Opal, the conference organizer. “The most important thing I took away is how immediate and local this issue has become; many dozens of Iraqis are now arriving in Maine and other parts of New England and need any sort of assistance we can provide.”