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A Tale of Two Dolmas: Iraqi Refugees in the US

Dolma is an Iraqi dish, a work of art really if you've ever seen it prepared. It's made of grape leaves and meticulously hollowed out eggplant, zucchini, and other vegetables stuffed with a delicious mixture of rice, meat, and spices.

I've seen this dish prepared and eaten it together with an Iraqi family -- both in Iraq and now in America.

One might think that living in Iraq would look like a scene out of the movie Hurt Locker, full of horror. Based on Hollywood movies, Americans may think Iraqis fall into one of three categories: the hysterical screaming Iraqi woman, the Iraqi man about to blow himself up, and the Iraqi man shooting at the American. Let me paint a different picture for you. Picture an Iraqi family befriending a lonely American humanitarian worker, inviting her into their home for many cups of cardamom-flavored tea and to play with their three young daughters. As a guest in their home, she marveled at how neighbors, family, and friends stopped by uninvited to be welcomed with Iraqi tea, sweets, and lively conversation. They brought her to weddings and showed her the steps to traditional Iraqi dances. They took her to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, which was given in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, and taught her how to make dolma, a beloved Iraqi dish. And in this way, she was able to experience the hospitable and warm spirit of Iraqis.

This was my experience with an Assyrian Christian family in Iraq. They had been displaced from Baghdad due to the sectarian violence and were living in the northern town of Erbil where I was working with an NGO. Since then, I've often wondered how different our foreign policy would be if Americans could sit in the living room of an Iraqi family -- to share a cup of tea with them and to see the shape of their lives.

Faced with a bleak future for their girls in Iraq and a rise in attacks against Christians, the parents made the brave decision to leave their life behind in Iraq and apply for refugee status in the U.S. Knowing personally the close-knit community they belonged to, I could only imagine how difficult it would be to say goodbye. They would leave behind loving parents, brothers, sisters, and friends. When I left Iraq in 2010, they were on a long waiting list and faced an arduous process ahead. They were not alone. Thousands of Iraqi refugees are on the waiting list to come to the United States.

There are some 1.5 million Iraqi refugees living in neighboring countries, namely Jordan and Syria, who fled the violence during the war. Another estimated 1.2 million are displaced within the country, often living in squalor without access to basic social services. Baghdad, once a cultural hub of the Middle East, is now a city of endless checkpoints, curfews, and car bombings. While the situation has improved since the height of the sectarian violence of 2006-2007, security problems inside Iraq persist. Nearly 3,000 people have died in the last three months alone due to renewed violence. Despite the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, the U.S. has been slow to admit refugees. Uneccessary delays in background checks and other inefficiencies have made the Iraqi resettlement process laboriously slow. Since 2006, the U.S. has resettled approximately 80,000 Iraqis. We must do better. As Americans, we have a moral obligation to assist Iraqi refugees who have suffered the consequences of an ill-conceived American war.

After more than two years of waiting however, my Iraqi friends were granted refugee status and received the green light to come to the U.S. They moved to the nation's capital -- Washington D.C. -- and within six months of their arrival they experienced two very American events -- the second inauguration of President Obama and the Baltimore Ravens winning the super bowl. Recently, I had the chance to visit them. They picked me up at Union Station with flowers in hand. In the car, I was shocked to hear their daughters suddenly speak to me in perfect American English, including their five-year-old. I laughed when they passionately sang the words to every American pop song on the radio.

In their new American home, Awat showed me how to make Iraqi dolma again. As we stuffed and rolled the grape leaves, they shared some of their experiences with me. The particularities of life as a refugee in America -- stories of challenges and community support. Looking back with humor, their 16-year-old daughter recounted how she missed her bus on the first day of school and cried. Not knowing what to do, she called her caseworker who came to her rescue. They proudly shared with me that their furniture, cookware, and household items were donated to them by friends of their American sponsor in D.C. In a gesture of good-will and friendship, an Iraqi Muslim family living in their apartment complex drove them to their church in Virginia on Christmas Day before they had a car.

The road ahead, I know, will not be easy. Finding work has been difficult. Laith found a job as a roofer and Awat is looking for employment while she works odd jobs as a babysitter. There is also the matter of learning about bank accounts, car insurance, and navigating the public school system. They may encounter other challenges too, such as discrimination, due to their national origin. And while their daughters have learned English quickly, Awat and Laith still struggle. One thing I understood was that their decision to come to America was not one based on self-interest, but on sacrifice. Their journey to America was a love letter to their children.

While I worry about how they will adjust to their new life, I know their futures will be bright in the United States. They are the lucky ones. Many other Iraqi refugee families are still living in limbo, waiting for a chance to rebuild their lives.

This is why I hope when we talk about Iraq and the billions of dollars spent on the war, the American lives sacrificed, or how the war has damaged our reputation or hampered us from engaging in new conflicts, I hope that we will also discuss how many millions of Iraqi lives have forever been changed by the war. We must also improve our Iraqi refugee resettlement program and ensure that the Iraqi families who are in the U.S. are provided with the necessary tools to re-start their lives.

Before I left, Awat packed me a container full of dolma. As we parted ways, I told them I look forward to the day when we will eat dolma together after they become U.S. citizens.

Smiling, they waved back at me. "Inshallah," (God willing), they said.

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