Giving Thanks on Give to the Max Day: From Minnesota to Iraq

November 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Minnesotans ignited a national philanthropic movement with the launch of the first “Give to the Max Day” in 2009. The idea is to generate buzz around an annual giving day – “The Great Minnesota Give Together” – and provide an online platform for Minnesota nonprofits to receive donations on Give to the Max Day. This year’s Day is today, November 15, 2012.

It has proven an effective idea. During last year’s Give to the Max Day, 47,534 donors logged on to GiveMN.org and gave $13.4 million to 3,978 Minnesota nonprofit organizations, whose missions range from feeding the hungry to protecting the environment to promoting the arts.

I work for a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization, the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project (IARP), and in June of last year I had the opportunity to travel to Iraq as an unarmed civilian. I stayed at the home of Sami Rasouli, an Iraqi colleague, in the city of Najaf. My “security” was Rasouli and a mediocre beard, which helped me pretend to be Azerbaijani when we passed through security checkpoints.

When I arrived in Najaf, I unexpectedly found out that I would be teaching English classes four nights a week—starting that night. I got to know my students well over the next five weeks and had meals with many of them. We talked about politics, literature, history, and the war. I felt extremely humbled when some of them told me stories about losing family members or friends to the violence.

One student had played on Iraq’s national tennis team. He told me how his coach and three of his teammates had been stopped in the car they were driving, ordered to get out, and executed. It was luck that he wasn’t in that car. I thought about all of the thousands of times I had driven to and from tennis courts and about my college tennis teammates. What if our places in life had been reversed?

I was privileged to be able to travel to Iraq and learn from colleagues and students. Today, on Give to the Max Day in Minnesota, I am privileged to live in a state that remembers every year to give back. Minnesotans are generous throughout the year, but this is a special day to give back to the thousands of nonprofit organizations that save lives and make lives better every day.

A delegation from Minneapolis organized by IARP is currently in Najaf. In their presentations about Minnesota, the delegates are talking about the many Minnesotans who resolutely protested the occupation of Iraq and the manufacture of weapons made with depleted uranium at Minnesota-based factories. The delegates also mention in their presentations the generosity and commitment to civic life through support for nonprofit organizations in our state. It’s a proud day to be a Minnesotan.

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An IARP delegation is currently in Najaf, Iraq.

Luke Wilcox is the Development and Communications Director of the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project, which has a Give to the Max Day page at http://givemn.razoo.com/story/Iarproject.

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Photos from Trip

August 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

Finally, photos of the amazing people I met and places where I spent 5 weeks.

Luke’s Iraq Trip

Also check out this video of my first presentation since getting back to the US and this recent article in the Star Tribune about my trip and IARP’s Water for Peace program.

5 Weeks in Iraq

July 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

For the last 5 weeks, I’ve lived and worked with the Muslim Peacemaker Teams and my host, Sami Rasouli. Tomorrow I fly back to Minneapolis.

It has been an eye-opening and life-changing experience. The many Iraqis that I’ve met have invariably been welcoming, generous, and kind. This despite the fact that the illegal U.S. occupation of Iraq continues, and despite the death and destruction that my country has brought to theirs.

My visit was very different than the “visit” of most Americans. I came to Iraq as an unarmed guest seeking to build respectful relationships between people. My American counterparts in military uniforms came to Iraq armed to the teeth, seeking to storm the country into submission.

American soldiers are still here and Iraq is still an occupied, “war-torn” country. When Sami and I visited Baghdad, he said, “Look what’s happened to this city. It was such a beautiful place when I visited it growing up.” Now buildings are destroyed or riddled with bullet holes. Concrete walls and military checkpoints divide neighborhoods. Garbage and rubble are everywhere and roads are in disrepair.

Among the most frustrating effects of the war and U.S. occupation are the lack of electricity, which comes and goes every couple of hours, and the lack of clean water. The American occupiers and the Iraqi government have not yet been able to restore basic services.

Despite the death and destruction of the war (at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead, perhaps more than 1 million), daily life continues and Iraqis are working hard to rebuild. In the English class that I helped teach, Sami and I taught the word “resilience” to our students. It was ironic that we were the teachers.

As Iraqis work to end the occupation and begin to rebuild, Sami and MPT are doing critical work to help ensure that what is rebuilt is a peaceful, nonviolent civil society. The sectarianism and violence that the U.S. invasion created is not historically part of Iraqi society. MPT witnesses to the peace and brotherhood that is.

Besides providing critical humanitarian aid such as clean water and medical care, MPT members put themselves in the way of war, violence, and sectarianism. For example, when Fallujah, a predominantly Sunni town, was bombed and destroyed by American forces, MPT members traveled from Najaf, a Shia town, to Fallujah to help clean up the streets and stand in solidarity with its residents. MPT members in Fallujah sent 400 bottles with messages of peace written by high school students down the Euphrates river to Najaf.

Spending a month with Sami and MPT members also taught me about the difficulties of operating as an independent, non-governmental organization in Iraq. There is little financial support available. For my month in Iraq, I set $2500 as a goal to raise for MPT. Currently I’m at $1000 and have only 1 day left to reach the goal. If you can, please consider making a financial contribution to MPT and/or spreading the word to help us reach $2500. Financial support is, in my opinion, an important way for Americans to support Iraqis rebuilding their society and country. The link to donate is http://givemn.razoo.com/story/Mpt.

I will also be speaking about my trip at a number of events in Minnesota in the coming weeks. One event is on Thursday, August 4 at 7:00 pm at St. Joan of Arc Church, 4537 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis. The Facebook event page is here. Would love to see you there.

Peace,
Luke

“Iraqi” – De-Homogenizing the Label

July 18, 2011 § 1 Comment

If there’s one general insight that has stayed with me from the IR501 (International Relations and Religion) course I took in grad school, it’s that categories suck. “Christian,” “American,” “Arab,” “Muslim,” “Liberal,” “Friend,” etc. serve an important purpose of helping us order the complex information we process every day, but they also simplify and homogenize that complexity.

One example is the category of “Iraqi” in American media. When the majority of printed pictures of Iraqis portray “terrorists” or scenes of death and destruction, “Iraqi”–which is an incredibly diverse category–can be reduced to “violent terrorist” in the minds of those who digest media uncritically.

During my month here in Najaf, my host Sami Rasouli has introduced me to many Iraqis who don’t fit the category, “Iraqi” (as it has been defined in America). For the sake of exploding / adding nuance to that category, I’d like to share a little about a few of these people. They have invariably been generous, welcoming, and kind—perhaps better descriptors for the category of “Iraqi”–but they are also diverse.

Fatin, Wathiq, and Me

Fatin, me, and Wathiq

Fatin is a conservative, observant Muslim who visits the shrine of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali nearly every night with her husband, Wathiq. She is also a feminist artist whose paintings appeared in the exhibit, “The Art of Conflict,” in Minneapolis in the summer of 2010. She traveled to Minneapolis on a ticket paid for by a grant that the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project received from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. In Minneapolis, she talked about her art and the experience of Iraqi women during the war, a voice that has often gone unheard. She believes that her faith empowers her as a woman, rather than the common assumption in the West that it oppresses her.

« Read the rest of this entry »

Care for Collateral Damage

July 9, 2011 § 8 Comments

Over the last two and a half weeks, my host Sami and I have visited a number of medical facilities in Iraq: the public hospital in Najaf, a prosthetics and orthotics center, and the public hospital in Nasriyyah. All confirmed the disastrous human cost of the Iraq War.

Since 2003, at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the U.S.-led war. Some estimates put the number at over 1 million. Iraq’s “health has deteriorated to a level not seen since the 1950s,” seventy percent of children suffer from trauma-related symptoms, and there are perhaps five million orphans in Iraq–almost half of the country’s children.

« Read the rest of this entry »

Three Days in Karbala

July 5, 2011 § 4 Comments

Last week I spent three days in Karbala, a city about an hour north of Najaf. Like Najaf, Karbala is a holy city for Shia Muslims, containing the shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas. A group of artists who work with the Muslim Peacemaker Teams hosted me.

« Read the rest of this entry »

Rutba, Iraq: “Getting in the Way of War”

July 3, 2011 § 3 Comments

This is an article I wrote about some of the work of Sami Rasouli (my host) and the Muslim Peacemaker Teams.

On May 29, 2003, a group of American peacemakers left Baghdad for Amman, Jordan. In the middle of the desert, they blew a tire and flipped into the ditch, injuring several of the passengers. « Read the rest of this entry »

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