Communication Currents

Caught in-between: Iraqi Refugees in the U.S. Tell their Stories

June 1, 2008
Intercultural Communication

Before and during the War in Iraq and after combat operations were declared to be over by the U.S. government in May 2003, some Iraqis in the Northwestern part of the United States communicated their experiences of war and flight through storytelling. Iraqis interacted with the general public not just to gain sympathy. They told their stories because they were alarmed. They were alarmed by another war in Iraq. They were alarmed by FBI visits and questions about terrorism. They were alarmed by implicit allegations of illegal immigration. Human rights and community organizations assisted storytelling by calling meetings in community centers, organizing panel discussions, and providing spaces during cultural festivals. The following story was told by an Iraqi man:

“My name is X. I was born in the South of Iraq, Basra, and I left Iraq 1988 after problem with government. I stayed in Kuwait for more than a year and then the Gulf War. I was arrested in Kuwait, then went back to Basra, and then I participated in the uprising in 1991. And I left Iraq and went to Saudi Arabia. I stayed three years and three monthsin the refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. And I get accepted by the INS, and I came to the U.S. in 1994 as a refugee . . . Then after when the FBI were trying to search us Iraqians here, it gave us the time to speak up. And we have to tell everybody why we left Iraq and why we're here. We came here as refugee. We left our country and our home and our family.”

Iraqis told stories about becoming a refugee because they had fought Saddam Hussein, about coming to terms with traumatic experiences, and settling in other societies, often without choice. Identifying as refugee is Janus-faced. On the one hand, the term refugee has sociopolitical meanings as refugees in the Global North have come to be perceived as a threat to receiving societies. On the other hand, refugees tend to be regarded as victims and dependent on the state or humanitarian organizations. By telling their stories, Iraqis justified their presence in the United States with their history of flight and ensured the public that they were not a threat to national security. Although the stories talked about suffering, they also celebrated endurance, solidarity, and participation in U.S. society. The stories were not victims' stories. They were stories about resourceful human beings with more than a refugee identity. Refugees don't want to be belittled. They want to be given opportunities to build new lives.

One lesson from the stories Iraqis told is that identities are not static but constituted and expressed in particular sociopolitical settings. Refugee is only one among other social, political, and cultural identities for Iraqis. It is an identity that was constructed by Iraqis to respond to the sociopolitical context of the War in Iraq. Like other refugees, Iraqis don't want to be regarded as refugees all the time. In addition to understanding when and why refugees are labeled as such in public discourse, it is important to listen to refugees' voices to make sense of the dynamics between international politics, public sentiments, and identities of migrants.

Another lesson is that human rights watchdog organizations (for example Hate Free Zone) and community organizations (for example the Arab Center of Washington) play an essential role in providing opportunities for refugees to become visible in public, on the one hand and protect their rights, on the other hand. These organizations can provide platforms for refugees and asylum seekers to talk themselves into public awareness. They can also help them to learn how to use the media for a balanced portrayal of the communities in question and assist with advice for practicing political advocacy and communicating with the general public.

Storytelling is one way of reaching out to the general public. Iraqis living in the U.S. are part of its society and care about being a member. But they also care about Iraq and Iraqis. Through the stories they told in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, they affirmed group relationships on several levels. They affirmed Iraqi communities that are dispersed all over the world through narrating collective memories of war and flight. They also affirmed their responsibility to prevent further violence in Iraq. Furthermore, storytelling helped to educate the general public about international relations. Especially in times of war, storytelling adds a human component to violent media images and abstract international relations. Through telling their stories in public, Iraqis helped audiences understand Iraq, what it means being a refugee, and the role of the U.S. in Iraq. In doing so, Iraqis drew the audiences into spaces of collective responsibility. They communicated, for example, that U.S. troops could have done more to support the uprising of Shi'ites in Iraq in 1991 to topple Saddam Hussein.

Overall, telling stories of flight and listening to these stories can help us all understand that we are locked into international, historical, and sociopolitical relations, bear ethical and moral responsibilities for each other, regardless of nationality, and share some basic values like peace and a sense of belonging.

About the author (s)

Saskia Witteborn

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Associate Professor