Archive for September, 2009

Brave journey-to Iraq and back again

September 5, 2009

by Janet Nicol

Bushra Jamil was a young mother when she and her husband fled wartorn Iraq in 1994 to live in Canada. But, six years ago, with her two children grown, Jamil bravely returned to lend a helping hand in her ravaged homeland.

“It is my role to go back and teach Iraqis whatever I learned in Canada, especially women,” she says in an interview from her daughter’s home in Burnaby. “I always thought that in my life it is not enough just to be a mother and have a job. There is something else for me. I wanted more.”

Today Jamil works in Iraq as an officer with the United Nations. She monitors and reports on human rights conditions of Iraqis, travelling to both stable and embattled regions of the country.

Growing up under Saddam Hussein’s rule, Jamil knows firsthand the experience of living in a society without rights.

“Everyone had to be in the Baath party,” she remembers of her early life in Iraq.

Jamil had been teaching biology and chemistry in a high school in Baghdad, when she came under pressure to join the government party. “So they gave me a choice,” she explains. “[They said] ‘Either become a Baathist or we will transfer you to another job.’ I knew they would transfer me to a very bad place where I would have been humiliated every day. So I said, ‘I’ll make it easy. I quit. I don’t need your job.’”

Jamil says she had faced similar discrimination when she was still a student so she wasn’t too surprised. “When I graduated university, I was among the top 10 students and according to the rule of the time, the top 10 got a scholarship to England — but I got nothing.”

So when the first Persian Gulf War rose up, it wasn’t a difficult decision for Jamil, her husband and two children to pack their bags for Canada.

“I worked here for five years as a biologist in environmental labs,” Jamil says about her initial immigrant years in British Columbia. “I then decided to go back to school and study business management.”

Moving to Prince George, Jamil volunteered with Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society while studying. After completing her business program, Jamil joined the society as a paid employee. “While I was working there, the 2003 war started and, of course, all my family was back in Iraq — my mom and dad, sisters and brothers — everybody. Deep inside I was happy. We were going to get rid of Saddam Hussein,” she says.

“And in May 2003, just after the fall of Baghdad, I got a job in Iraq as a cultural adviser with the Americans.”

It was a long commute from Canada, but Jamil felt that going back to Iraq was something she had to do. And she knew she would be able to return home regularly to Canada to visit her children. “My daughter was 23 and my son was 18,” Jamil says.

“I was divorced. My son and daughter lived with my ex-husband. So everything was OK.”

Back in Iraq, Jamil observed the growing tensions under the American occupation. “I could see people were just watching. Some of them were very happy that they got rid of Saddam Hussein. They cheered Americans. Others were just watching.” As time went on, Jamil witnessed the violence among feuding groups increase and saw many atrocities committed.

“Basically, Iraq turned from a peaceful country with institutions and structures to a lawless, dismantled place. I can’t even call it a country.”

Jamil left her position as a cultural adviser after only four months. “No one was listening,” she says.

Still determined to help, Jamil co-founded a women’s radio station in Baghdad called Radio al-Mahaba. The name means “love” in Arabic.

The only station for women in Iraq, the first broadcast hit the airwaves April 1, 2005. Programs “encourage women to be free and to be assertive, to know their rights and be clear about their rights,” Jamil says.

“The station became so popular,” she adds proudly. “The message became ‘Iraq is one.’ It has to stay united. Women are the power behind any success the country is going to have and if women are not treated well, if women are oppressed, this country will never be anything.”

The show is run mainly by young Iraqi college students. “Many are young women — brave and beautiful. Once the show was up and running, other stations started to compete with us.”

Jamil adds that Radio al-Mahaba is the only independent radio station in Baghdad, financed by advertising and donations. It is not political or run by religious groups or the government. “When we say independent, we really mean independent,” she emphasizes.

More than 10 million Iraqis, mostly women, listen to news and entertainment programs on the station in four languages, including English. Listeners also call in — one of the most popular features of the station — to ask about women’s legal rights, medical concerns and relationship issues. Considering more than 75 per cent of Iraqi women are illiterate, she says, the station provides a vital service.

“One woman listener came to the station during Ramadan and the night-time curfew,” Jamil says. “She came anyway and she fed everyone. She said, ‘You made a difference in my life. I listen to your station all day and think life is OK and there is hope.’”

Programs air 16 hours every day, with male broadcasters working the more dangerous night shift. Jamil says women listeners enjoy the station’s male radio host known as the Love Judge.

“They love what he does because he talks about relationships and love. Men and women call in and they ask questions. They are younger listeners and they feel anonymous. They can ask what they want.”

Considering the daily turmoil that continues in the country, it seems amazing that young Iraqis have love on their minds. “Iraqis are very passionate — very passionate,” Jamil explains. “Love will always be there, despite everything.”

Radio al-Mahaba was on air for only seven months when a massive car bomb targeting a neighbouring hotel destroyed its transmitter and some property. Fortunately, no staff members were hurt, and the station struggled on, its courageous paid and volunteer staff renting a smaller transmitter to keep broadcasting.

Meanwhile, Jamil and others embarked on a successful fundraising campaign in the United States, and the station received a new transmitter from the Harris Corporation and a large sum of money from California-based supporters.

Jamil was also recognized for her efforts as co-founder of the station, and received the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism in 2007 from Women’s eNews, an American journalism outlet.

“We are not popular,” Jamil told a New York audience in 2007, when she accepted the award. “We’ve been rejected. We’ve been fought. Religious groups are not fond of us — not even the American groups there, though we share the same language and the same objective. But we are determined. And we don’t let fear get into our hearts. That was the agreement we made with everybody in the beginning: no fear!”

Jamil focuses her time now on her work as a human rights officer. And she has no plans to quit, despite Iraq’s uncertain future. “I will continue to monitor and report on human rights violations through my job,” she says. “The radio station will keep going unless it is closed by the authorities. I have great hope that the station will be part of the change.”

Despite her current focus on her homeland, Jamil also recognizes her strong bond to her adopted country. “Canada is a great country and we need to keep it like this,” Jamil says.

“I can take my passport and travel anywhere in the world,” she notes, “while my family in Iraq — there is no way they can go do this. I am privileged because I have my Canadian passport and I cherish that.

“Down the road I’ll be back. I’m not going to stay in Iraq forever. I’ll do my job. Then I’ll say, ‘OK, I’ve done my part and I’ll come back.”

Even back in Canada, Jamil’s sense of purpose will not be over. “I want to volunteer — whatever I can do to give back to people.”

Reprinted from “The Canadian Immigrant”, September, 2009