Meet Haneen Alsafi, recipient of a humanitarian award from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA and quite an inspiration.
Raised in al-Hillah, in Babil, Iraq, she is the daughter of an Arab Shia father who grew up in Baghdad and a Turkmen Sunni mother who grew up in Erbil. As Alsafi explains in an interview, although they belonged to different ethnic and religious groups, “My parents never disagreed with each other’s sects or beliefs, just like the others, we all shared one country and lived in peace.”
She grew up in a small, very conservative city, but Alsafi also spent enough time in Erbil, a city of over 1.5 million people, to develop a connection. There, she was exposed to an ethnically diverse population consisting of Kurds, Assyrians, Arabs, Armenians, Turcomans, Yezidis, Shabakis and Mandeans, and a religiously rich community with believers in Sunni, Sufi and Shia Islam, as well as Christianity, Yezidism, Yarsan, Shabakism and Mandeanism. Her experience in Erbil was eye-opening.
My family would take us every year to visit my mother’s family in Erbil. I was exposed to a diverse population. Although the culture was very similar, the traditions and the languages were different. I think this exposure definitely prepared me to become the person I am today and played a major role in my path and passion in life. We have Kurdish, Turkmen and Christian friends in the north of Iraq. We still maintain friendship with them. It never was an issue for people from different religions and/or ethnicities to become friends.
Like most Iraqis, the people of Hillah were not spared the ravages of war, death and destruction. The city was the scene of heavy fighting during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Although the city was relatively peaceful after the initial invasion, it soon became the scene of numerous terrorist attacks.
Hillah was targeted by terrorist groups through a series of car bombs and suicide bombers. I lost one of my dearest friends in a car bomb in 2006 at the graduation party for the engineering college graduates. Many other bombings followed: in the local market, at the police academy graduation ceremony and at the retirement center. Hundreds of people were killed each time since, as you can imagine, those attacks targeted huge groups of people. We have been close to bombings but luckily not too close to get injured.
Seeking greater safety, Alsafi’s family relocated to Erbil, where she would find peace, for a time. The product of a multilingual environment, Alsafi grew up speaking Arabic as her dominant language, Turkic as a second language, and acquired some knowledge of Kurdish, which she learned through her mother. English, however, was her calling.
I started my English Literature major at Babylon University. Then I transferred to Salah Aldeen University during my last year of college and graduated from Erbil. The reason I chose English Literature is because I wanted to learn to speak English fluently. After the first year in college, I discovered that formal instruction was not the way to learn to speak the language, so I started watching American TV shows without the translation in subtitles. One of my favorite shows was Scrubs, Friends and Grey’s Anatomy. I also listened to a lot of Backstreet Boys, Blue and other music which also helped me understand the slang language. In 2004, I decided to major in English and wanted to learn it because I wanted to work with the Americans in Iraq to help rebuild the country.
Iraq had been invaded or liberated by the Americans, depending on one’s personal political opinion. The only options available to Alsafi, however, were to contribute to a civil war in action or try to pick up the pieces. Consequently, she decided to help rebuild her country.
My first job in 2008 was with the U.S. State Department’s Regional Embassy Office in Babil (REO), where I worked as a consultant and interpreter, assisted both the local government and the private sector to rebuild Iraq into a better place. The U.S. government had invested massive amounts of dollars in projects to assist Iraqis in upgrading their lifestyle; they helped build hospitals, schools, roads and assisted many small business entrepreneurs in starting their businesses and contributing to the economy. We also worked on many educational projects such as opening a TOEFL center and providing books and supplies to schools.
An intelligent, socially committed and patriotic young woman, Alsafi was not naïve when it came to the risks involved in helping to rebuild her country and the dangers posed by religious demagogues and political opportunists.
It was not an easy decision to make when it came to “working with the Americans,” as they say. It was socially difficult to reveal as most people would either consider me a traitor or just a corrupt woman who “wanted to be with Americans.” Although I didn’t care too much about what such people thought, I realized that working at the REO placed myself and my family in danger. In fact, many locals who worked for the [U.S. Department of State] or [U.S. Department of Defense] were kidnapped and eventually killed by militias in Iraq, mostly claiming to be religious groups. I started getting threatening text messages saying: “You betrayed the country; we will cut off your head.” I did not know who was texting me but I felt like it could be the beginning of something nasty. I applied for the Special Immigrant Visa … in the hope of leaving the country. My application was approved and I was ready to leave. It was very sad to leave my family and friends behind, but I had to do this at the time.
Like most refugees and immigrants, Alsafi was overwhelmed when she arrived in America. As an educated working woman in Iraq, she seemed set for success. After all, she was the public diplomacy coordinator for the U.S. State Department/U.S. Regional Embassy in Iraq for nearly three years. However, in the U.S., she faced all sorts of challenges and obstacles.
I arrived in Dallas/Fort Worth in June 2010 and lived in North Richland Hills for nine months. There I suffered from cultural shock and learned first-hand how difficult it was to find a job when you are fresh in the country. I worked many jobs, including Pizza Hut, Apple Refurbishment and a local insurance agency. I also volunteered at North Richland Hills Hospital and Catholic Charities. I decided to move to North Carolina to be close to my sister who lived in Raleigh at the time. I started volunteering with Lutheran Services Carolinas to help refugees and applied for a job as a case manager.
In the years that followed, Alsafi would rise in the ranks from case manager to education coordinator, and eventually to resettlement director/area manager for Lutheran Services Carolinas. It was due to her commitment to serving refugees that she received the Ahmadiyya Humanitarian Award at the 69th Annual Conference of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA that was held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on July 15.
Established in 2011, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Humanitarian Award recognizes the contributions and services of individuals who selflessly strive to serve oppressed and disadvantaged communities around the world. By giving a voice to the voiceless, these individuals honor fundamental and universal human rights guaranteed by the Quran and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Alsafi joins the illustrious ranks of previous recipients, including: Bill Ayres, co-founder of Why Hunger?; Katrina Lantos Swett and Robert George, former chairs of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Veerawit Tianchainan, executive director of the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation; and Dr. Milton Boniuk of the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance at Rice University.
Alsafi is universal in her world view
I respect all religions and faiths. I believe that religions are one way to set rules and teach discipline in people.
Who is Haneen?
I like to help people.
Although Alsafi does not fit the stereotypical image of a religious person and does not actively practice any faith, she is an inspiring woman with a heart of gold. Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq — the 8th-century religious scholar respected by Sunnis, Shias and Sufis — once said, “Do not judge a person on how much they pray and how much they fast, judge them on how they treat other human beings.”
If this is the criteria for goodness, holiness and real religiosity, then Alsafi is a person to be held in high esteem. The Quran states that humans were created to serve, to be the custodians and caretakers of creation. It is incomprehensible why someone who serves the oppressed and disadvantaged would be threatened with beheading. Her wisdom, care and compassion is inspired by solidarity, service and a desire to care for others.
The situation in Erbil has changed since the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, particularly with the rise of ISIS.
Erbil has been protected by the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Kurdish military, since the 1980s when Kurdistan claimed independence from the rest of Iraq that was ruled by Saddam. So, Kurdistan did not see much violence compared to the other parts of Iraq.
ISIS has actually made the Iraqis stronger and more united. The Peshmerga were fighting ISIS from the north and have done [a] great job in protecting [the] Kurdistan region from the ISIS invasion. From the south and mid of Iraq, the people of Iraq got together and formed what they call al-Hashd al-Sha‘abi, the People’s Mobilization Force. They also well liberated many parts of Iraq from ISIS.
Erbil has seen great development in the past 10 years on many levels, especially economically and socially. Many people who left between the 1980s and the year 2000 came back and invested in small businesses. Many Arabs from all over the country found peace and made a living in Erbil. Americans, Europeans and many other nationalities found employment in Erbil and they do live peacefully there.
Erbil also hosts thousands of refugees from Syria, as well as Yazidis and other victims of ISIS from Iraq. Those refugees live in a refugee camp in tents. They receive support and donations from the local government, UNHCR, and the many good people that want to help. Small local nonprofits are now assisting those refugees to resettle back in their cities, towns and villages that were occupied by ISIS and were recently liberated.
In short, rather than contribute to divisions and distrust in the community, ISIS has actually drawn people closer together, Alsafi says. She provides an honest analysis for the greatest challenges facing Iraq and some possible solutions.
One of the many challenges facing Iraq right now is the lack of leadership and the high level of government corruption. The majority of government officials, who are supposed to be the leaders of the country, are all in power for one reason and one reason only: to make as much money as possible. They have no skills and no knowledge. It is so unfortunate that the country is being led by unfit and unqualified individuals. It is also very contradictory and ironic that Iraq was once the bastion of civilization.
There was a time when Iraq produced the best scientists, doctors and scholars in the world. Throughout history, the people of Iraq were among the most educated and well-read. Iraqis have suffered through a series of wars, violence, dictatorship and separation from the rest of the world during Saddam’s regime. When we consider its recent history, it is not strange or surprising that Iraq has yet to find stability. I am really not sure what the solutions are to this mess but perhaps it could start by getting rid of the corrupt individuals who do not add value to the country.
As a service provider, Alsafi shares experiential knowledge on the impact the Trump administration’s policies have on refugees.
The executive orders that put a ban on refugees traveling from certain countries has definitely impacted the population we serve. We usually receive a high number of arrivals each summer. This summer, we received less than a handful of refugees. The ban has been extended until October with few exceptions made. During the ban, LSC as well as many other agencies had to lay off staff in programs due to funding cuts. We hope that things will be better after the ban is over. The resettlement agencies across the U.S. will continue to advocate for refugees and raise awareness within the communities.
Alsafi refutes ill-founded assertions — that refugees are a threat to Western civilization and values, for example — with facts and success stories.
Refugees are definitely not a threat to the Western civilization; they are carefully vetted for a minimum of two years prior to being allowed to travel to the U.S. Refugees add great value to the U.S. economy because they are extremely hard workers who are dedicated to learning about their new country and adapting to its culture.
Through the assistance of refugee resettlement agencies across the nation, refugees reach self-sufficiency within six to eight months after arrival to the U.S. through employment opportunities, at which point they get off government assistance. Employers value refugees due to the skills and the hard work they bring to their business. Almost every family and individual refugee resettled is a success story. I want to offer myself as an example of a success story. We also have many [Special Immigrant Visa] clients from Afghanistan and Iraq who arrived and immediately added value to the economy by finding early employment.
As for those who want to block the entry of refugees and immigrants, I encourage them to learn about the history of the USA, learn about how and why their ancestors made it to this country, and learn about their struggles and the reasons for leaving their home counties back then. America was built, and is built, by refugees and immigrants. There is strong evidence that this population can succeed and make it through challenges.
Far from being disloyal, Alsafi, a refugee herself, has truly embraced America and all that it offers.
The thing that I appreciate the most about the U.S. is that it has a system for everything. Although it might not be effective all the time, it helps to have a system in place. I also appreciate the Bill of Rights that gives us the right to justice.
Despite her love for the U.S., and the fact that she was recently granted citizenship, part of Alsafi’s heart will always remain in her homeland. When asked if she sees herself ever returning to Iraq, a certain nostalgia comes to the surface. “I will one day go back and live in Iraq,” she explains. “If I do so, it will be in Erbil.”
If she does, I think, it will be a gain for Iraq and a loss for America.
*Image: Haneen Alsafi at the annual Muslim Television Ahmadiyya event. >Photo via MTA