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.