Amid the Heated Debates, Iraqi Immigrants Struggle to Make a Living in Arizona

Familiar fare—qeema, biryani, dolma—offers comfort to the thousands of refugees starting life over in Phoenix

Butcher shop owner Sajad Saleh sells his wares at the Al Tayebat Meat Market. (Bryan Schutmaat)
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Perhaps you’ve bought pita bread at the supermarket? Dry, flat: a kind of envelope for holding food. Now imagine something more like a beautiful down pillow where food could rest and relax and dream big dreams.

And you’ve probably never tasted a samoon, a diamond-shaped Iraqi bread, because, if you had, you’d have moved to Phoenix so you could live within smelling distance of the Sahara Sweets Baghdad-style bakery, which is in a strip mall next to the Iraqi halal butcher and the Iraqi grocery store. A samoon, hot from the wood-fired oven, is like a popover that you can really sink your teeth into. It wants hummus the way pancakes want maple syrup.

Can you wrap your mind around a tray—a huge tray, the size of a pool table—that’s nothing but tiny squares of baklava, a giant grid of honeyed puff? There are eight or nine of these trays at Sahara Sweets, just waiting for the moment when Iraqis across the city get off their jobs and race to the bakery.

If you’ve got these images in your head (or in your mouth), then perhaps you can imagine a secure, prosperous Iraqi community under the Arizona sun. There, sadly, you’d be wrong. Thousands of people are making a new life here, but Iraq is just about the most traumatized society on earth, and Phoenix is not exactly easy on migrants, and it all adds up to a real struggle to gain a foothold. Which is why food is such a refuge.

Jabir Al-Garawi founded the Iraqi American Society for Peace and Friendship in Phoenix in 1993. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Both Fatima Alzeheri (left) and Fatema Alharbi arrived in Phoenix as children. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Samoons, Iraqi bread similar to a popover, are baked in wood-fired ovens at Sahara Sweets bakery in northern Phoenix. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Dolma, hummus and gyros line the table at Papa’s Gyros, a local Arizona eatery serving Middle Eastern fare. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Baked disks of freshly made flatbread are tossed at Sinbad’s Restaurant. (Bryan Schutmaat)
A tray of baklava, a sweet treat made of puffed dough, honey and sugar, greets customers at Sahara Sweets. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Ali Mohammed moved to Phoenix in 2013 after serving as an interpreter for the U.S. military during the Iraq War. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Baklava and tea complement a local Arizona/Iraqi newspaper found in Phoenix, a large resettlement community for Iraqis. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Mohammed Essa eats shawarma at a local Palestinian restaurant. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Saad Al-Ani worked as an engineer before leaving Iraq for Syria. He later migrated to the U.S. because of the civil war in Syria. (Bryan Schutmaat)

Meet, for instance, Ali Mohammed. “Just like the champ, except backwards,” he says, clenching his fists above his head like a prizefighter. He’s a genial, round-faced 34-year-old who went to work in 2003 as an interpreter helping the newly arrived U.S. forces train the local police and army. “I was the human device between the Americans and the Iraqis,” he says. “At first it was very normal, but after about 2004 it started to get dangerous. You were riding in the Humvee with the Americans, and the people thought you were a traitor.” U.S. soldiers issued him a Glock pistol, but he didn’t carry it. “I’m a Muslim,” he says, “and I know everyone has a last day for his life.”

The last day for his job was August 3, 2006, when his father was executed by militants. “They attacked him because he was an effective man. A preacher. And because of me.” Mohammed applied for permission to come to the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, granted to those in danger because of their work with coalition forces. “America let me down for a long time by not letting me in. I might have been killed anytime.” Finally, in 2013, he received his visa and joined the growing Iraqi community in Phoenix. “I was thinking the U.S. was going to be much better than Iraq,” he says. “It’s a good place to have freedom. But it’s hard to have a new chapter. It’s not a place to be sitting in your chair and chilling out.”

Mohammed was eager to work. After his stint as a translator he’d been a high-school English teacher in Iraq—he was one of the few recent arrivals we met who spoke the language fluently. Even so, the local resettlement agency in Phoenix wanted to get him a job as a hotel housekeeper. “I told them I could find work myself. I have the Internet so I have the world in my hand.” He got a job at an Amazon warehouse, which he liked—but when the Christmas rush was over, the job was too. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees hired him to ask people on Phoenix street corners for money to support other refugees around the world. “And people couldn’t even give cash—they had to give you their credit card number. So here was a fresh guy stopping people in the street and explaining to them that there are millions of refugees around the world that need your help. The first week I got one donation. The next week I failed to get any. So now I’m looking again.” (Since we saw him this spring, he’s been rehired by Amazon on a temporary basis.)

It wasn’t just that business is slow. This is Arizona, with one of the most restrictive immigration laws in the country and a sheriff’s office last year found guilty of systematic racial profiling. And it isn’t just the locals who can be hostile. Sometimes it’s other Iraqis “who say to me, ‘What are you doing here? Get back to your country.’ I call all these people the dream stealers, the dream thiefs,” says Mohammed. There are days when he’d like to return, and if Iraq ever got safer he might—“but I’m not going back with empty hands. At least I’ll get a degree.”

With his English and his Horatio Alger pluck, Mohammed is far luckier than many other arrivals. Therese Paetschow, who helps run the Iraqi American Society for Peace and Friendship (the organization changed its name after its old offices were vandalized the night after 9/11), says unemployment is common and “mental illness is epidemic—pretty much everyone who gets here is fleeing something horrible, and when you hear that a bomb killed 20 people in your hometown, it brings it all back. And there are so few resources. There are no Arabic-speaking psychiatrists or counselors in the area—the resettlement agencies have counselors for victims of torture, but they’re maxed out.”

If you prod almost anyone in the Iraqi community here, you get the same kind of story. When we met him, Falah al-Khafaji was running a small restaurant, the Al-Qethara, on one of the city’s endless main thoroughfares. It’s a little dark inside, and cool in the desert heat. “Two of my brothers were executed, and a third one got killed with a bomb,” he says. We eat some of his juicy shish kebab, and he shows pictures of his three children, including twins born in 2011. “What is alive has to be continued,” he says. “They give me hope and the power to keep going.”

“Optimism is not exactly an Iraqi value,” says Paetschow one day as we drive to a halal butcher shop stocked with goat and sheep head as well as beef grown on a nearby ranch run by Iraqi immigrants. “If you live in a place where there’s no evidence things will change, you get better at acceptance. You hear the word inshallah all the time—‘if God wills it.’ That’s how the majority approach things, even the Christian refugees.”

And yet the stories of sheer grit and perseverance are overwhelming. Jabir Al-Garawi, who founded the Friendship Society where Paetschow works, came to Phoenix early, in 1993. After expelling Saddam Hussein’s military from Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush urged the Iraqi people to rise up and overthrow their dictator—but those who tried received little support and were brutally suppressed by Saddam’s forces. Al-Garawi, a freshly minted college graduate, was one of the fighters who managed to escape, walking seven days across the desert to Saudi Arabia, where he lived in a refugee camp for two years. He was one of the first Iraqis transplanted to Phoenix, the city chosen by the U.S. government resettlement program, where over time he set down roots, building a small real estate agency. When the second Persian Gulf War began in 2003, he went back to Iraq as a consultant to the U.S. government, only to watch the American mission change from “liberation to occupation,” with all the chaos and violence that followed. So he returned to Arizona, and now he does his best to make life easier for the new arrivals. “They’ve seen so much trauma. Many women are single mothers—their husbands and brothers have been killed. It’s hard for a woman to find a job, because of the language, but also because she wears a hijab, a head scarf. But if she takes off the hijab to get a job, then there’s trouble at home.”

That may explain his eagerness to introduce us to two of the Society’s new employees, Fatima and Fatema. Fatima Alzeheri runs the youth program; Fatema Alharbi is the women’s coordinator. Each is bright-eyed, each is full of energy and each has overcome an awful lot. Alharbi’s dad had once worked in finance and accounting in Iraq before he came to Phoenix, where the only work he could find was as a security guard. Her first month in an American school, in fourth grade, she was riding the bus when a boy pulled off her head scarf. “I didn’t know what to do—I couldn’t speak any English. So I pulled off my shoe and I hit the boy, and then I hit the bus driver because he didn’t do anything.” And then she went on to do what you’re supposed to do, excelling at school, excelling at college. Alzeheri came to the U.S. later, in eighth grade, knowing little English. “In high school I applied for so many jobs—in the mall, in shops. My sister said, ‘Look around, do you see anyone else at the cash register wearing a hijab? That’s why you aren’t getting a job.’” But she did, eventually, working at a Safeway supermarket before heading off to Arizona State University. She’s a wonderful artist—several of her canvases decorate the Society—but she switched majors halfway through school. “Doing art I thought, ‘What am I doing for the people?’”

What she’s doing for the people today is helping the other Fatema coordinate a big potluck lunch. “Food is like a second language in Iraqi culture,” says her colleague Paetschow, who adds that communal feasts are almost the norm. “Extended families eat together, and during Ramadan, if you’re going over to someone’s house for the iftar meal that breaks the fast, it’s probably best not to eat all day even if you’re not Muslim. Because they are going to fill your plate, and you pretty much have to eat it.” Despite that tradition, “there’s no real word for potluck, because that’s not how it’s done over there. Usually it’s someone hosting. There’s not a woman I’ve met who isn’t comfortable cooking for 50.”

Lined up on long tables in the room at the Society usually reserved for English lessons, there’s now pot upon pot of Iraqi delicacies. They come from regions whose names are familiar to Americans from the war news in recent years. Mosul was where Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a gun battle following the U.S. invasion. Today, it was the source of kubbat Mosul, a flat round disk of bulgur wheat and ground beef. Nasiriyah is where the U.S. soldier Jessica Lynch was taken prisoner in the first hours of the war; on this day, though, it was the home of a fish and rice dish that—small bones be damned—couldn’t have tasted sweeter. The biryani came from Baghdad; the dolma—grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat—came from practically every corner of the country. In fact, all parts of the region, given that the map of the Middle East that we know now is a 20th-century invention.

Our favorite—both for the taste and the story—was the qeema. A little background: The neighboring Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala were not just the scene of pitched battles during the recent wars. They are important pilgrimage sites for Shiite Muslims, and the site of huge annual gatherings that mark the martyrdom of Husayn ibn ‘Ali in the seventh century. American TV viewers have seen the throngs that descend on the city’s mosques from across the Shia heartlands of Iraq and Iran, but also the impassioned self-flagellation that some men engage in, cutting their backs with chains till they bleed. The mullahs frown on that display, but everyone endorses the custom of nazri, providing free food to pilgrims. And of all the dishes, qeema is the most traditional. It’s usually cooked by men, in huge vats—they mash chickpeas and beef for hours till it’s the perfect mushy consistency. Think cinnamon-flavored barbecue. Think delicious.

“Those who have in mind the generic Middle Eastern fare of hummus-falafel-tabbouleh-kibbe-baba ganoush and so on will find that Iraqi cuisine is kind of differently oriented,” Nawal Nasrallah, the author of Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine, explains when we get in touch with her to ask how Iraqi cooking differs from other Middle Eastern cuisines. “For one thing, and irrespective of differences in ethnicity or religion, region or even social status, the Iraqi daily staple revolves around the dishes of rice and stew, what we call timman wa marga. White rice (or sometimes steamed bulgur in northern Iraq) is usually served with a tomato-based stew cooked with chunks of lamb on the bone and a seasonal vegetable. One day it would be okra, another day it would be spinach or white beans or eggplant or zucchini. The uninitiated would call the Iraqi stew ‘soup,’ but in fact it functions as part of a main course in the Iraqi daily meal.”

There are rich historical roots to much of the cuisine. One of the world’s first known “cookbooks” was written on cuneiform tablets by ancient Iraqis around 1700 B.C., Nasrallah says. And marga, she notes, was cooked by the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians who once inhabited the area.

***

It’s not that anyone forgets the obstacles they face when they sit down to the food. We turn to the man to our right, Saad Al-Ani, an engineer who left Iraq in 2006 (“Why? Because they put a bullet in an envelope and put it under my door”) and resettled in Syria, only to have to flee the violent uprisings there last year. (“Everywhere I go there’s a war,” he says with a sad smile.) He’s trained as a general engineer, used to working on huge projects across the Persian Gulf—he helped build the massive palace for Yemen’s dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh. “But they won’t accept my certificates here in America, so maybe I’ll teach math,” he says, almost with a sigh. But then he digs into a torpedo-shaped dumpling filled with ground meat, and for a moment that sigh is closer to a smile.

Across the table is Jabir Al-Garawi’s 11-year-old daughter. She’s lived her whole life in the U.S., and her favorite TV shows are “Lab Rats” (a trio of bionic teens living in a California basement) and “Kickin’ It” (lovable misfits at a strip mall martial arts parlor). She’s all-American in her head scarf, and she’s also scarfing hummus and pita.

“Food is like home,” says her father. He’s remembering his trip to Iraq to help the U.S. government after the American invasion in 2003. “I went to the military base, and I saw Jack in the Box. I said to myself, ‘It’s like America, let’s go there.’ When you’re away from home, you want to eat what’s familiar.”

Which is why, on the day of the potluck, when the ever-present TV at the Iraqi American Society for Peace and Friendship broadcast the news that 34 people had been killed by bombs back home, the food brought comfort and Arizona seemed a pretty good place to be.

Four months later, as the terrorist group ISIS threatened to destabilize their homeland, Phoenix seemed even better. “Ninety-nine percent of us still have family in Iraq, and we’re worried about them,” Fatema Alharbi says when we call to check in. Her own father is there, and safe for the time being, but even so. If she hadn’t had to work, she would have joined the crowd that recently gathered on Washington Street—Sunnis, Shiites, Christians—to protest the violence and ask the United States to intervene. “No one wants terrorists to ruin their country,” she tells us.

About Sue Halpern and Bill McKibben
Sue Halpern and Bill McKibben

Sue Halpern and Bill McKibben live in Vermont, where they work at Middlebury College and write books and articles on subjects ranging from therapy dogs to climate change. Being good Vermonters, they make their own granola and try to eat three meals a day together.

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