The Forgotten People

by Nadya Connolly Williams, February 11, 2011

The following is an interview with Salam Talib Hassan, an Iraqi refugee living in California, who was included in a Q&A in the Fall 2010 issue of War Crimes Times with Conor Curran and Josh Steiber, two young veteran resisters.

A computer engineer by profession, Salam Talib had moonlighted in Bagdad as a translator and driver for foreign progressive journalists during the early years of the US invasion and occupation. Despite the fact that the journalists he worked for were ‘alternative’ (i.e. told the truth about the war), Talib earned death threats and attempts on his life by Iraqi insurgents, which eventually forced him to flee to the US in 2005. Afflicted with polio as a child, Talib walks with the aid of crutches, adding a significant challenge to his life and mobility. He now lives as an asylee (a person who has achieved asylum status) as a graduate student in Berkeley, but continues his journalism and anti-war activism. Despite the compelling and overwhelming evidence that he qualified for political asylum, Talib endured a long and arduous road to legal status in this country.

“In 2003 and ‘04 there was lots of media coverage of the civilian casualties,” Talib says. “Now there’s a systematic blocking-out, largely due to the danger which drives out foreigners and reporters.” He is clearly agonized by the destruction of his country, the nearly eight years of vicious bloodletting and the sorry plight of nearly 5 million displaced people, out of a population of 27 million. Iraqis constitute the world's largest population of refugees. But numbers can never convey the human toll of war, with a low estimate of 150,000 deaths to a staggering high of one million. Before the US invasion Talib’s family was persecuted by the Sadaam Hussein regime, however during the recent war his family has seen the disappearance of one son, the assassination of another, and the attempted murder of still another. As usual, civilian non-combatants are the great majority of the victims, first of the attacking US and allied forces, and now increasingly from random violence.

A list of his journalist friends and colleagues reads like a “Who’s who” of progressive media: Dar Jamal, Naomi Klein, Christian Parenti (of The Nation), Aaron Glanz (of Pacifica Radio), Medea Benjamin (of CodePink), and others. Had Talib not had his professional skills, along with legal and financial help from his foreign journalist colleagues, he might have been stranded in a border country like Jordan or Syria. Or in America he might have lived the typical Iraqi refugee experience: crowded into a low-income apartment with four to five others for four months of free rent, $200 per month in cash, $200 per month in food stamps, and a bus pass – all with a four-month limit - then, “so long, you’re on your own!” Recently, the four months of federal assistance has been extended to a total of eight months.

Seven and a half years of occupation, destabilization, and destruction of all aspects of infrastructure and security, and now deep civil strife, have produced up to 2.7 million internal refugees, as well as more than 2.2 million external exiles, according to the UN. Nearby Syria and Jordan are the only Middle East countries that will accept people with Iraqi passports, and both have taken in the great majority, with about a third of a million registered with the United Nations. However, Iraqis have no legal status in these countries. The typical refugee in Syria and Jordan subsists on $75 per month from the UN High Commission on Refugees. The Bush regime allowed a paltry 500 Iraqi exiles per year to enter the US, raising the quota just before leaving office two years ago.

In fact, of all the Western nations, Sweden has welcomed the largest number of Iraqis fleeing violence and death, receiving more than the United States and Canada combined and giving them full social, educational and financial support in the semi-Socialist country. Needless to say, the Swedes have wondered out loud why their tax money has had to pay to house, feed, educate and employ the victims of America’s wars (Afghan and Kurdish refugees abound as well). To this end, the mayor of Sodertalje, a large suburb of 85,000 inhabitants outside of Stockholm, travelled in person to Washington, DC in April 2008, to ask Congress why they are footing the bill for America’s aggression.

When Talib was contacted by a group in Olympia, Washington to create the Iraq Memorial to Life, he became immediately involved. Started in March, 2009 on the war’s sixth anniversary, the Memorial’s coalition grew to include Veterans For Peace, the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. More than 3,000 laminated white paper sheets – each inscribed with the names of Iraqi civilian casualties - were displayed in rows like a cemetery in the grounds of a local park. The memorial was replicated later that year on the mall in Washington, DC with 5,000 plaques for Iraqi civilian dead and 4,000 plaques (provided by Arlington Cemetery) for US military deaths. Many other cities have followed suit.

“I do not want the effects of war on civilians to be forgotten,” he said.

Activist Cindy Sheehan participates as well in the Memorial projects, and it was through a posting by the Memorial’s leader in Olympia that Talib ended up meeting and hosting Conor Curran and Josh Steiber in his Berkeley home on their first cross-country speaking and biking tour in November, 2009. Talib also accompanied them on a month-long road trip in the summer of 2010, crisscrossing the US to speak out against the war.

Salam Talib is collaborating with another activist, Hanan Tabbara, to finish a documentary film about Iraqi refugees. They have hours of footage shot during each of the past two summers and are looking for grants to complete the project. In late 2009 they aired a FSRN (Free Speech Radio News) documentary called, “Guests in the Waiting Room: Iraqi refugees in Jordan.” He points out that since the violence is primarily in cities, most refugees are urbanites from a (formerly) highly educated and wealthy country. This adds a special layer of difficulty for them to adapt to unstable income and status as they find themselves disbursed in foreign countries.

See also: www.iraqmemorialtolife.org  and www.hanantabbara.com . Nadya Williams is a free-lance journalist and an active associate member of Veterans for Peace, San Francisco Chapter 69. She is on the national board of the New York-based Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign.

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