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Violating Sanctions

An American Woman’s Listening Tour Through the Axis of Evil

Archive for the Iraq Category

Barely Breathing….

June 11th, 2009 | Username By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | Comments 1 Comment »

When working with refugees, one holds one’s breath.

Not like the way we did when we were kids, when we’d see how many times we could cross the pool without surfacing, deliberately pushing our lungs to their limits.

It’s more like you just forget to breathe for so long that a section of your diaphragm goes numb, until your breath is in a holding pattern not unlike the lives of the families you hope to help.

Yesterday, I learned an Iraqi I thought was dead is alive, married and living in Ithaca, NY.


I had written about Dhia, the resourceful young man who worked at the coffee house across the street from my Baghdad hotel. Dhia, who befriended me and trusted me, before becoming a translator for the US Army, a potentially fatal job during the early months of the US occupation.dhia.jpg

I wrote about how Dhia’s hair-curling coffee and candid conversation were a refuge for me from the tumult of Iraq’s pre-war jittery streets and about how I tried to find him after the war began.

I heard from him briefly via US Army e-mail in the fall of 2003, then never again. (more…)

Mind the Gap

July 22nd, 2008 | Username By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | Comments 3 Comments »

There’s a poetic Spanish phrase that means “the space that is between” to describe those moments when one foot is uprooting from the past but the next foot is not quite planted in the future.


The space that is between.

And so it is with the children I interview at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate’s summer camp outside Damascus, Syria. Summer is a magical intersticio for most children, but these children have wider gaps to mind. They are 10- and 11-year-old Iraqi refugees whose predominant childhood memories are of preparing for war, of escaping war. Of war itself.
They tell their stories in monosyllables, in monotones, through expressionless faces neither reluctant nor regretful. They answer every question patiently, offering nothing more than what is asked, usually with an indifferent shrug of their shoulders.

Suheila, a 10-year-old beauty who steals glances at me at every opportunity, breaks into a wide smile when I catch her staring at me. She seems to like my attention. (more…)

“No Way Are We Leaving Iraq”

July 14th, 2008 | Username By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | Comments 3 Comments »

“There’s an undercurrent of desperation,” says an articulate Ben Bascom, words spilling out faster than I can write. “As soon as [Iraqi refugees] learn I speak a little Arabic, they ask, ‘Can you sponsor me?’ ‘Can you find someone for me to marry?’ They’re not beggars, they’re not used to feeling this way. They’re just like you and me. How can they not ask?

“Every person, it breaks my heart.”
The 23-year-old linguistics major’s expressive eyes widen, reflecting his convictions. “The guy who’s cooking our food. I want to help him. He can’t afford to put food on his own family’s table, but he’s cooking all this food for us.

“I want to help these people.”

He fingers the prayer beads he was given 2 weeks ago for his birthday, celebrated with an international group of activists in Damascus for the summer to assist Iraqi refugees, study Arabic and immerse themselves in Syrian culture.

“One thing I learned,” he says of his month with the Middle East Fellowship (, “[I had been] opposed to the war in Iraq, but I’d started buying into the media line that America was losing the war.

“But, we’ve won. (more…)

Southern Californian Finds Iraqi Relatives in Damascus

July 14th, 2008 | Username By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | Comments 1 Comment »

Sant Sanati had never been out of North American before coming to Syria to assist Iraqi refugees with the Middle East Fellowship ( The son of Iraqi parents who was born and raised in San Diego, he never expected to meet a distant cousin while volunteering at the Greek Orthodox Church’s Iraqi refugee program.
“It’s weird to be on a summer trip and run into someone related to you. The killings, death around them, bodies everywhere, not wanting their kids to through war…

“I don’t wish this on anyone, let alone my family.”

Milad Bassel Metti, a handsome, observant 25-year-old, fled Iraq two years ago this month. He works at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate assisting other refugees with food handouts, vocational training and school tutoring programs run by the church.

“God knows when he’ll leave,” Sant says of his cousin. “He wants to go. He can’t wait. He wants to go somewhere where he can settle down and get a form of stability.”

“My dad has been running a refugee service program for years. I never really approved because he didn’t bring in income. Now, I really realize what he does and why he does it. It’s like ‘wow!’

“I hope I can make a difference. I want to follow in my dad’s footsteps.

“We’ve heard a lot of stories. They did get to me. So many people, their lives were threatened. I mean, I’ve never met anyone whose daughter was kidnapped,” he says of an Iraqi artist who addressed our small group one evening. “She was a beautiful little girl when I saw her. I was like, wow, how could someone even think about putting a price on someone’s head like that?

“What are you going to say?

“What do you tell her?”
[For more information about the Middle East Fellowship’s Damascus Summer Encounter, visit For fun blogs on this year’s Encounter, visit]

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There’s No Place Like Home

July 13th, 2008 | Username By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | Comments No Comments »

Her gold sparkly shoes remind me of Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
There’s no place like home keeps running through my mind as I attempt to interview the slight 10-year-old in her school principal’s claustrophobic office. In a valiant attempt to ease the heat, an overhead fan jerks as nervously as the fingers in the girl’s lap.

But there is no easing the tension. “They told her father, if you don’t leave the country, we will kill you. They cut his finger. The Americans cut his finger,” the translator, a psychologist at the school, repeats, somewhat confused.

“They cut off his finger?” I ask, hoping I’m equally confused.

The girl points to her right index finger, slicing across the bottom knuckle.

Where do you go from here in an interview? We’d already established she was forced out of the third grade 9 months ago when her family fled Kulkush in northern Iraq a week after her father was maimed and that she likes geography.

I look down at her sequined shoes, and learn they’d been given to her in Syria at a church giveaway program. I notice the bald spots where they’ve lost their luster and the worn threads that struggle to hold them together.
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Iraqi Refugees Live in Limbo

July 12th, 2008 | Username By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | Comments No Comments »

The last time he was in Syria, Andrew Griffin found himself sitting in a blacked-out police station surrounded by men he could identify only by the lit tips of their cigarettes. In a small town on the Iraqi border only eight months after the US-led invasion of Baghdad, the Montreal resident had wandered too close to some sensitive location and raised suspicion.

Or, perhaps the men had been bored. Once the electricity was restored, so was his Canadian passport, and the men passed around tea and pictures of their families.
Five years later, Griffin, now 40, is volunteering to help Iraqi refugees who seek assistance from the Greek Orthodox Church in Damascus. Participating in an international immersion program coordinated by the American-based Middle East Fellowship (, he is living in Syria for one month this summer, taking Arabic classes and assisting the Church’s refugee relief efforts. Joining him are 20 other participants from New Zealand, Switzerland, Zimbabwe, the UK and the US.

Well more than a quarter of the 4 million internally and externally displaced Iraqis have fled to neighboring Syria, which has opened its arms to 1.2 million Iraqis, according to the United Nations. A country of 20 million people, Syria is in the throes of its own economic crises: soaring inflation estimated as high as 30%, gas prices that quadrupled literally overnight two months ago, disheartening unemployment pegged at 20%.

Iraqis walk into this economic chaos without homes or a homeland. (more…)

“I Came to Bridge a Gap”

July 12th, 2008 | Username By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | Comments No Comments »

Some tourists come to Syria armed with preconceptions. Sally Tawfik, a music teacher from Houston, Texas, came with an armful of handmade cards from members of her church. sally.jpg

“There are times when you feel connected to people in another time and place. In this time of pain and war, I can’t imagine what you, your family, your friends and your country are experiencing,” wrote Drea Legare in one of the cards Sally carried to Syria for Iraqi refugees.

“I came to Syria to bridge a gap between me and someone not like me,” said the earnest 23-year-old about her participation in the month-long Middle East Fellowship’s Damascus Summer Encounter.
The daughter of Egyptian parents, Sally is putting a picture to her parents’ childhood stories. “My mother has a story about walking home with bread as a little girl. From our bus, I saw a little girl about six years old walking with a big stack of flat bread. I thought, ‘My mother must have been like that.’”

Sally is bridging both generational and cultural gaps while volunteering at the Greek Orthodox Church’s senior center. “[Volunteering here] has taught me the value of just sitting and being with people. That translates love more than anything else.”
[For more information about the Middle East Fellowship’s Damascus Summer Encounter, visit For fun blogs on this year’s Encounter, visit]
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On-Air from Damascus, Syria

July 7th, 2008 | Username By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | Comments No Comments »

During the first 5 years of the Iraq war, the US has allowed only 5,000 of the estimated 4 million Iraqi refugees to resettle in the US.

Today, Emmy Award-winning Lila Garrett aired an interview with me from DAMASCUS, SYRIA, for her show, “Connect the Dots” on KPFK-Los Angeles. We spoke about the plight of the 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, and the work that the Middle East Fellowship ( is doing to support local efforts to assist them.

Listen to the interview here: Skip ahead to minute 38:15, interview runs through minute 52:00.

And help! The Middle East Fellowship is running a 4- or 8-week summer immersion program to allow people of conscience to volunteer to assist refugees. This October, the Fellowship will organize a 10-day delegation to learn more about refugees in both Damascus and Beirut. Donate to directly support Iraqi refugees or find further information at

To support the Iraqi Student Project, which is sponsoring 16 Iraqi refugee students to attend US colleges on scholarship for a limited 4 years, visit
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Future Teacher Learns from Seniors in Syria

July 2nd, 2008 | Username By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | Comments No Comments »

“I thought it was a normal day,” Sasha Sanati describes yesterday’s volunteering at the St. Gregorios home for seniors. “But Helena was crying. ‘What is this life?’ ‘Why am I living?’ I felt bad. She was really depressed,” said the sensitive 19-year-old, tearing up.
“It made me realize not to take anything for granted. I’m learning to appreciate what’s around me. She really touched me.”

Participating in the Middle East Fellowship’s Damascus Summer Encounter program, Sasha is here with her younger sister and older brother for one month. “I feel like I’m living here instead of just being a tourist.”
The young beauty is majoring in child development at a community college in her native San Diego and can see herself teaching in Syria one day. “I’d really, really like to go to Iraq,” where her parents were born and raised before leaving in 1979, she enthuses. “I’d like to adopt a child from Iraq.”

[For more information about the Middle East Fellowship’s Damascus Summer Encounter, visit For fun blogs on this year’s Encounter, visit]
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San Diego Teenager Makes Syrian Seniors’ Days Brighter

July 2nd, 2008 | Username By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | Comments No Comments »

saviora.jpg “It’s a wonderful experience to see a similar country to the country my parents grew up in,” says 13-year-old Saviora Sanati, whose parents left Iraq soon after Sadaam Hussein’s brutal conquest. Savi was born in San Diego where she will start high school this fall. The Middle East Fellowship’s one-month immersion program in Syria is her first time outside of North America.

“I thought there would be bullets flying and bombs dropping [from Lebanon], but it’s totally cool,” says the precocious teen. “It’s safer than the States.”

Savi and her older sister Sasha are spending their summer perfecting their Arabic and volunteering at a senior center run by the Greek Orthodox Church. Since most Arab families absorb each generation into their homes, it is the rare senior without family. The 25 seniors who live at the St Gregorios Center for Orphans and Aged People are quite socially isolated.

The Middle East Fellowship volunteers organized a day to give the elderly women manicures and are creating a game room to improve the seniors’ opportunities for socialization.
“Most of them have no families,” explains Savi. “We’re someone to talk with and laugh with. We make their day!”

[For more information about the Middle East Fellowship’s Damascus Summer Encounter, visit For fun blogs on this year’s Encounter, visit]
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