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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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.

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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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