Equity & Diversity

Iraqi Pupils in U.S. Deal With Mixed Reactions, Emotions

By Michelle R. Davis — April 09, 2003 6 min read
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When Michigan 7th grader Joseph Bacall switches on the TV and sees American bombs pounding targets in Baghdad, he sees not some distant geopolitical passion play about liberation or invasion. He sees the city his father once lived in.

Joseph’s Iraqi-born parents fled the country in the 1970s, ultimately settling in the United States near Detroit, home to perhaps the largest concentration of the 81,000 Iraqi-born residents of the United States listed in the 2000 Census. For Joseph and others with Iraqi heritage and relatives still living in Iraq, the war launched by a U.S.-led coalition can bring a mix of emotions unique to those who retain strong ties there.

“Sometimes it’s too much,” he said. “A lot goes through my mind. I think of my relatives running away from their houses.”

In Detroit and elsewhere in the country, students from Iraqi families or of Iraqi descent are dealing with a complicated set of issues as the war continues. Some have experienced curiosity or condemnation from peers and teachers.

As hostilities begin in Iraq, a Wayne County, Mich., deputy sheriff stands guard March 21 at the Islamic Institute of Knowledge, a private school in Dearborn with many students of Iraqi descent.
As hostilities begin in Iraq, a Wayne County, Mich., deputy sheriff stands guard March 21 at the Islamic Institute of Knowledge, a private school in Dearborn with many students of Iraqi descent.
—Photograph by Carlos Osorio/AP

Others are awash in a conflicting wave of American patriotism and fear for their parents’ homeland and relatives. In the midst of it all, schools with significant populations of Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans are striving to find ways to bring an extra degree of understanding to the teaching opportunities presented by the war.

When the war started on March 20, Joseph, whose family is Chaldean—a non-Arab ethnic group of Roman Catholics who speak Aramaic—said he spent some time explaining to curious students at St. William Catholic School, outside Detroit, that he was not a Muslim and that, despite having Iraqi parents, he did not support Saddam Hussein.

And when misunderstandings do arise, it’s important to tackle them openly and quickly, said real estate salesman Nick Najjar, a Detroit-area Chaldean, who sits on the city of Sterling Heights’ Ethnic Advisory Committee.

Before the war began, Mr. Najjar, who also has two school-age children, got concerned calls from Iraqi parents about a comment allegedly made by a teacher at the local high school. Parents said the teacher had described Chaldeans and Arabs as “hostile people.” Mr. Najjar immediately called the school district, the mayor, and several other public officials.

The response was immediate and positive, he said. The superintendent issued a letter calling for sensitivity and awareness, as did other officials, Mr. Najjar said. Michigan’s 28,500-student Utica Community Schools declined to comment on the incident, but Pat Lehman, the director of community relations for the city of Sterling Heights confirmed the story.

Striking a Balance

Many Iraqi parents in this country are searching for the right way to provide information without scaring their children. Kato Saadlla, an exile living in Springfield, Va., said he tries to balance facts with comfort when it comes to his 8-year- old son, Hamid. Mr. Saadlla watches news of the war nearly round the clock, looking for a glimpse of relatives whom he lost telephone contact with more than a week ago.

Hamid has had many questions, Mr. Saadlla said.

“He wants to know whether President Bush is going to kill Saddam, and whether civilians like his cousins are going to be killed,” the father said. “I tell him what Saddam did to us, and why I’m here as an Iraqi who left behind all his family.”

Mr. Saadlla, who is a Sunni Muslim, worked with the American military during the 1991 Gulf War. When Americans pulled out of the area, Mr. Saadlla was granted refugee status in the United States. He currently heads an opposition group called the Iraqi National Front.

Mr. Saadlla said he wants his son to understand why he believes the war is important, and that “Saddam is a bad guy and President Bush is a good guy.”

Mr. Saadlla wants to make sure his son isn’t scarred by violent images, so he encourages him to study and play video games instead of watching news coverage.

Still, the war clearly is on Hamid’s mind. Last week, Mr. Saadlla said, his son drew an American flag, saying “I love U.S.A.”

“I say, ‘Why did you draw this?’” Mr. Saadlla recalled. “He said, ‘Because America is trying to free our relatives and friends.’”

Coming Together

Some schools with high populations of students from families of Iraqi birth or descent are restricting discussion of the war. A Detroit News survey of 31 districts in Macomb and Livingston counties, near Detroit, found that most officials said they would limit or ban discussion of the war in class, even at the high school level.

But in the nearby 6,650-student West Bloomfield district in the Detroit metropolitan area, they’re taking the opposite approach.

When the threat of war with Iraq began to loom, and with a significant number of students from Iraqi families among its student population, West Bloomfield High School set up a student board, dubbed the Cultural Information Advisory (or CIA) Council. The council is made up of a diverse group of students from differing backgrounds, said Sharkey Haddad, the district’s community liaison and himself a Chaldean Iraqi.

The students made up six fact sheets about the different nationalities or religions represented in the school. They also helped sponsor a forum featuring clerical leaders in February end discussions about diversity in the schools.

“The students are now able to recognize those unique differences and conduct a debate on the war based on facts, not misconceptions,” Mr. Haddad said.

But he also added that students from Iraqi families may feel inhibited about expressing their views.

“Generally speaking, the mentality of Chaldeans and other Iraqis who come from the old country is to encourage their kids not to express personal opinions in public,” he said. “In Iraq, if you spoke your mind against the government, you would most likely receive some kind of consequence.”

That could be why Bob Simon, a school social worker at Ealy Elementary School in the West Bloomfield district, hasn’t seen much to concern him among the pupils from Iraqi families so far.

Mr. Simon hopes that parents are limiting their children’s media exposure when it comes to the war, and he said the staff was closely monitoring all students for stress levels. He also encourages parents to talk with students about their misconceptions or fears.

“I believe most of our children are aware of the war, and children from Middle Eastern backgrounds are probably tuned in more acutely,” he said.

The Rev. Jacob Yasso, who founded Sacred Heart Church in Detroit in 1974, said he has heard few fears about the war expressed by the children of his Catholic church’s 1,300 parishioners, most newcomers from Iraq. Instead, he said, they talk about their pasts.

“They tell unbelievable stories of atrocities and suffering to reach the U.S.A.,” Father Yasso said. “There are incredible stories of killing and [of] missing persons and forced labor.”

Mr. Haddad, the West Bloomfield community liaison, who left Iraq when he was 16, said he himself is struggling with the images he sees on television. He said his family fled Baghdad after his father was jailed for three days by the secret police for driving an American-made car. Mr. Haddad still has relatives in Baghdad, whom he last spoke with just a few days after the war began.

“They assured us they were OK, but they ended the conversation by saying they hope to hear my voice again,” he said. “To me, that’s a statement that they hope to stay alive during this war.”

Mr. Haddad has not spoken with his relatives since.

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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