What’s in a Name?
The passport depends on the checkpoint. If it’s a Kurdish checkpoint, he uses the one with “Omar” as the first name. If it’s an Iraqi checkpoint, he uses the one with “Ali”. It’s a death wish to be an “Omar” or “Othman” or a “Bakar” in his home town of Basra[i], Iraq, and the rest of the majority Shia country. Omar is a Sunni. In Basra, a Shi’ite dominated city where Sunnis are targets of sectarian cleansing, Omar might as well be dead.
I met Omar at the American University of Sulaimani where he studies English as a Second Language (ESL). He was my student for one term. This is my second time teaching in northern Iraq, and fifth in the Middle East. Students everywhere are great, but the inherent loveableness of Kurdish and Iraqi students draws me back. No matter what horror they have experienced, their humor, compassion and generosity triumph. Omar is no exception. Tall, medium built, with close cropped hair and five-day growth sideburns which connect to his goatee, he could model for a luxury car ad if he traded his hoodie in for a suit. He enjoys watching movies, going to the gym, photography. He loves car racing. Maybe it’s the speed. Maybe it’s the adrenaline rush. Maybe it’s the danger. He has never told me. Omar has fled for his life three times.
Before the war, Basra was a diverse and culturally vibrant city. No one talked about sectarian divides, women went to school, and few women wore hijabs or burkas in public. “You could do anything,” according to Omar.
Basra was the first city to fall to the coalition forces. Following the collapse of the Iraqi government, a number of Shi’ite Islamist groups including the Sadrist Trend led by Muqtada al-Sadr expanded influence in Basra and solidified its stand in the 2005 elections. At the height of its power in 2005, the Sadrist Trend was strong enough to influence local government through its link with the National Independent Cadres and Elite Party and was especially popular among the police forces. Basra became a center of smuggling activity including cigarettes, Afghan opium which transits Iran, oil, gas, and weapons. Violence increased as different Shi’ite groups vied for power.
Muqtada, who has historically had close ties to Iran[ii], created the Mahdi Army, which spearheaded the first major military confrontation against the US led forces in Iraq from the Shia community. The Mahdi Army frequently carried out atrocities against Sunnis and were accused of operating death squads. The army was disbanded in 2008 but remobilized in 2014 to fight ISIS. The Mahdi army enforced strict Islamic rule in Basra, threatening women who wore makeup and punishing individuals who listened to Western secular music.
Omar says Iranian flags fly everywhere in Basra. Pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini decorate hospitals and police stations. Women are covered, and no one is on the streets after 6p.m. “Iranian militias look for Sunnis everywhere.” According to a January 2016 article in The Independent, the redeployment of security forces from the south to fight ISIS left a vacuum that has been filled by Shia militias and gangs. Shia militias drive around in cars with tinted windows and no plates. “The lack of police, in-fighting over government posts and the growing influence of Shia militias have exacerbated the violence.”[iii]
It’s the 2003 invasion. British and U.S. forces enter Iraq from Kuwait approaching Basra on the “Highway of Death”, so named during the Gulf War. The U.S. predicts that the Shi’ite population of Basra will welcome the coalition forces and rise up against Saddam, but they are met with unexpected resistance.[iv] Perhaps the local population remembers the betrayal by the US government when support for their 1991 uprising against Saddam didn’t materialize. The US forces move north, leaving the British to siege Basra. Sectarian violence flares in Basra. Eight-year-old Omar watches as his father and uncles point shotguns out the windows to defend their home from a Shia militia. They exchange fire.
Hearing shooting, British soldiers on patrol in a tank enter their street. The soldiers tell everyone to drop their weapons or they will shoot. The British force seize the weapons, put them in a car, run over the car with the tank, and take the Shia militia into custody. Omar’s father and uncles are spared when his father explains he is a doctor in the Iraqi army and shows his badge. At that time, the US army is creating the new Iraqi army in Baghdad, so the British army arranges for Omar’s father to join the new force. Although Omar’s father is fluent in English and Arabic, has medical expertise and military training, this seems strange to me, but when I question Omar he has no other information. Joining the force and relocating his family takes Omar’s father about a year and a half.
Omar is ten when his father, mother cousin, brother and he move to Baghdad. For two years, the family lives in Aljehad, a place Saddam had built for officers. Trouble follows them as sectarian violence flares. Once again, it’s bad to be an “Omar”, and the streets are filled with gunshots.
It’s 2006 and Omar is almost twelve. In July, in the mixed religious neighborhood of Jihad, masked gunman allegedly from the Mahdi Army, set up a roadblock, check identification card and murder anyone with a Sunni name[v]. This kind of violence is endemic in Baghdad. One day, a Sunni neighbor married to a Shia woman jumps over the wall separating their houses to warn Omar and his family. The Mahdi Army is coming.
What would you grab if you had five minutes to leave your life?
The whole family grab gold, money, passports and clothes and get into a car headed for Syria. Dad will join them later. Omar’s last image of Baghdad is a rocket landing a few houses down from his.
In Syria, the family settles in Bloudan, which is near Madaya, (a city that has been in recent news because its citizens are starving to death due to a government blockade of aid). However, in 2006 Bloudan is a major tourist destination for Arabs. It boasts cool-summer temperatures, parks and springs. Omar spent five years in Syria and describes this time as beautiful.
“The people are beautiful,” he says. “There was no problem with Shia and Sunni and Iraqi.”
Omar’s father is still a doctor but stays with the Iraqi army. According to Omar, the family has enough money for a good life. However, he can’t buy a car because if you’re not Syrian, you can’t buy a house or a car.
When Omar reflects on life in Syria, he shakes his head. ‘Now Syria has nothing,’ he says.
In 2011, conflict flares in Syria. Omar’s cousin is grabbed by the Syrian army for driving a car with Damascus plates. “You’re Iraqi. How do you have this car?” Omar tells me his cousin rented the car, which happened to have a loud speaker system and siren. The police believed this car to be linked to incidents that instigated civil unrest. They beat him with the butt of a rifle, smashing up his face. Omar’s father, still in Iraq with the U.S. army, organizes two cars for the family to flee. Again, Omar, his mother, brother and cousin pack up their lives in minutes. Again, they are forced to run.
The family settle in Sulaymaniyah (Suly) in northern Iraq. In Suly, Omar doesn’t have to worry about being Sunni because here he is Arab and in his experience Kurds hate Arabs. He is quick to point out not all Kurds, but “in five years of being here, my neighbors have never said ‘“hello”’ to me.” It doesn’t help that the family car has Baghdad tags.
The Kurd-Arab conflict has its roots in the Saddam reign. Saddam tried to exterminate the Kurds with the chemical attacks in Halabja in 1988 and other acts of violence throughout his rule. Kurdish animosity towards Arabs has increased since economic stagnation hit Kurdistan in 2013. Contributing factors include the influx of refugees from Syria and southern Iraq, the encroachment of ISIS, the declining price of oil and the ongoing feud between the central government in Baghdad and the regional government in Erbil. The arrival of refugees in Suly has driven up the price of housing, increased traffic and pollution, and squeezed the already limited number of vacant spots in public high schools and universities. As a Kurdish student wrote in an essay “I wish the refugees would all leave and go back to home.”
When Omar arrived in Suly, there were still places in public high schools for Arab kids. He tells me he had good scores in high school, but as an Arab, he says he was given bad final marks on a compulsory, standardized test given to all graduating high school seniors. When Omar went to the Ministry of Education to dispute his scores, he was told he had waited too long. Omar challenged the government official.
“I told him that even if I had come right away, you wouldn’t have helped me.” Omar says, “The official told me, ‘No, I wouldn’t.’”
Receiving bad marks bars Omar from attending public university here.[vi] He says the same is true for his most of his other Arab friends. He has two or three Arab friends who attend public university, but they have connections. For example, one has a Kurdish father who serves in the Peshmerga. He says the Ministry of Education intentionally gives poor marks to Arabs to force them to leave Kurdistan. Now, his only hope for a public university education is to study abroad. (There are some private universities such as AUIS that admit Arab students to its undergraduate program, but they are very expensive whereas public university tuition is nominal.) That is why he takes English classes. He hopes to score well on the Test of English as a Foreign Language and study in Turkey. He says his friends in Syria who stayed are doctors and engineers now. He says he feels ashamed. “Look at me,” he says. “I am nothing.”
Omar is one of many of his generation without hope. He told me he had heard a U.S. army officer say back in 2008 or 2009, ‘We gave Iraq on a plate of gold to Iran.’ Omar doesn’t tell me if he thinks this is true or not. He also doesn’t know if the 2003 invasion was good or bad because he doesn’t know what Saddam would have done. All he knows is that if he can go abroad, he is going abroad.
“After what happened in Basra and Baghdad, I don’t care anymore,” he says. “Everyone tries to kill me if I leave Kurdistan for Iraq. In Kurdistan, I am Arab. In Iraq, I am Sunni. Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul used to be safe for Sunnis, but that changed with ISIS. Now Iraqi people are hated by the whole world. The war of Iraq makes Iraqi people like Palestine.”
I taught in the West Bank in 2012 and understand what Omar means. He can’t stay where he is, but he has nowhere to go. ISIS has carved out a big portion of the north while the Shia control the south. According to another student of mine and his father who was the Anbar coordinator reporting on humanitarian conditions for the United Nations, Hashad Shahby, a Shia militia fighting ISIS, guards Baghdad. The final entry point into Baghdad from the west is called Bzebz, and it is controlled by a smaller militia from Hashad Shahby called Hez Ballah (Party of God). Members of Hashad Shahby sometimes extort money, sexual favors from women, or take cars from the Sunni refugees fleeing ISIS. Other times, they deny them entrance into Baghdad and the refugees disappear. The Kurdish region has taken in 1.5 million Arabs, but its resources are stretched thin because the Kurdistan Regional government (KRG) claims to be broke. Watching the fences go up in Europe while listening to the hate rhetoric spouted by certain Republican presidential candidates, I wonder. Where can someone like Omar go?
On September 1, Omar will turn twenty-two.
[i] Basra is now held by Shiites and secured by Shia militias. In the years following the collapse of the Iraqi government, sectarian violence flared, especially in places like Baghdad and Basra. Omar is a typical Sunni name.
[iii] Salaheddin, S. (2016, January 10). Ira: Crime soars in Basra as army leaves to fight ISIS. The Independent, Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iraq-crime-soars-in-basra-as-army-leaves-to-fight-isis-a6804506.html
[v] Skeers, J. (2006, July 19). Sectarian violence escalates in Iraq.. World Socialist Web Site. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2006/07/iraq-j19.html. Retrieved from website.
[vi] The American University of Sulaimani is an expensive, private university.