TEDxBaghdad: Journey to a land of hope

I volunteered for TEDxBaghdad in September by chance, after seeing a post on Facebook. I thought, ‘this is my chance to give back to Iraq and wipe away some of the sorrow of Iraq, however small’. I hope I did.

You see, Iraq was like a fable to me — a country my parents told me about and showed me beautiful photographs of, but I never knew first-hand aside from a few summer trips before 1990. Through fate, I was born in the UAE, in the Iraqi diaspora, where I knew some Iraqis and I thought it was perfectly normal to live an expatriate life. Culturally, I wasn’t too far away from ‘home’. I had a wonderful childhood in Abu Dhabi until the first gulf war started and my parents worried for our futures and my father sent us to Australia. 

I was the only Iraqi at my school of 1000 girls and the only Iraqi at my university which had more than 13000 people. I remember studying for a French exam and pausing to ask my mum to draw a picture of my great-grandfather’s house because I was nostalgic. I had great hope that ‘next year things will be better for Iraq…years came and went and Iraq got worse…until I got to a point of no hope. I questioned my identity time and time again and wondered whether I was destined to be separated from Iraq forever, but deep down, I knew this was not possible. I was raised to be a proud Iraqi and it was a deeply entrenched part of me. I just had to figure out what being an Iraqi outside Iraq meant and what responsibilities that entailed. 

While volunteering for TEDxBaghdad, I worked with Iraqis living in Iraq, expatriate Iraqis who had come to Iraq for the first time, and other nationalities who wanted to share our dream of a better, stronger Iraq. Everything clicked and everyone got to work - really hard! The feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood was touching and many tears were shed. 

Thanks to TEDxBaghdad, now I am more sure of what it means to be Iraqi. Being Iraqi means persevering through tough times, it means being ambitious, it means caring for your fellow Iraqis, it means wanting to see Iraq prosper, it means respect for our elders, it means respect and a sense of chivalry towards women, it means co-operating with other nationalities that want to help us (shout out to Andra, Jan, Marnick, Suzanne, Jeremy, and Nate!). It means wiping away each other’s tears when we can’t help but cry. It means hearing others say to each other galby (my heart), warda (flower), aghaty (my friend) despite all the hardship and all the difficulties. It means being kind enough to cheer up others even when you have bigger problems.

One example of this is my cousin Faisal. Faisal puts his life on the line everyday protecting Iraq as a soldier. He had the heart to cheer me up (me…with my first world problems) on the 2 brief occasions I saw him when he saw pain in my eyes and heard it in my voice as I inquired about the life of a soldier and the atrocities he must have seen, and told my cousins about the years we spent apart. He was strong for me, gave me a big smile and made some jokes to make me laugh, to make light of a difficult situation. One day after I saw him for the first time, I was bawling my eyes out when I heard soldiers were killed in the area where he lives (he actually serves in Diyala, an especially dangerous province) and I rang his older brother to see if he was ok. And how does one ask ‘is my cousin still alive?’ I look forward to the day when there are no more soldiers patrolling the streets of Iraq.

Being Iraqi means rising up to challenges. Being Iraqi means sharing a laugh about our misery. It means staying up all night to make the impossible possible. 

I remember introducing myself as an Iraqi in my first year at university in 2001 and the girl next to me saying ‘I wish I was Iraqi because it sounds so interesting’. 10 years later, I have had the opportunity to meet more Iraqis and I can vouch that they are not just interesting, but full of life despite all the odds. On my plane ride to my other home, ie Australia, an air host asked me where I was from. When I said ‘Iraq’, he said ‘3ala rasi’ which translates to something like ‘I tip my hat to you’. I imagine we are respected because of our forbearance. We can’t let our ancestors down. I am so proud of our rich history and hope it propels us to build onto it. 

Iraq’s most important asset is not its oil. Iraq’s most important asset is its people. We are the ones that will rebuild Iraq and help it reach the great heights it has had no trouble reaching in its rich glorious past. Just have a little bit of hope. You’ll find..it’s contagious. 

Written by Hiba Al-Haimus of the TEDxBaghdad team.

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