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Making Cleveland Home: Immigration Stories

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On Wednesday night we went to the Maltz Museum on Richmond Road in Beachwood for an installment of the "Making Cleveland Home: Immigration Stories" series which featured Professor Peter Haas, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at CWRU interviewing Dr. Dhia Aldoori and his wife, Ms. Alaa Alani, about how they escaped Iraq in 1991 after the U.S./Iraqi War which resulted in Kuwait being freed by left Iraq in shambles.

First of all, we should note the family's history. Dr. Aldoori's father is an Iraqi citizen who met his mother, an American citizen when he was studying at Berkeley in the early 1950's. They married and returned to Iraq where Dr. Aldoori was born in 1954. Thus, due to the fact that his mother is an American citizen, Dr. Aldoori is also. They family returned to the U.S. in 1956 for his father to continue his studies and moved back to Iraq permanently in 1964 so Dr. Aldoori was well-acquainted with the U.S. way of doing things having spent years here although his wife had never visited the United States before moving here permanently. He graduated from medical school in Iraq in 1979 but knew before then that someday he would like to return to the United States. Even though Dr. Aldoori is a Sunni as was Saddam Hussein, Dr. Aldoori despised the regime of Saddam Hussein because he considered Saddam to be a sadistic and unnecessarily cruel dictator (we agree) who created a climate of fear and repression in Iraq.

Eventually Dr. Aldoori met and married Ms. Alani and in 1991, when they left Iraq, they had 3 children ages 5, 3, and 1. What prompted Dr. Aldoori to decide it was time to leave was thatIraq had become a place of rebellion and "pure chaos" and thus he feared for his family's safety. In early April they started to plan and decided that they must attempt to get to Nasarea where American forces were still stationed. It would be a risky car trip with many checkpoints along the way but they were determined to risk it. Dr. Aldoori wisely hid his U.S. passport because if Saddam's forces found it on him he knew they would be in jeopardy to say the least.

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Late the next day they arrived in Nasarea and were soon instructed to go to Safwan Refugee Camp near Abdali in Kuwait to await processing where they remained for 25 days. Actually Dr. Aldoori, as a U.S. citizen, probably could have left a lot earlier but he couldn't refused to leave his wife and children. Conditions in the camp were very, very uncomfortable but the U.S. soldiers were great and did everything that they could to assist the family even going to the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City after 18-20 days and insisting that the ambassador return with them and meet with Dr. Aldoori.

At last they were permitted to re-locate to the U.S. where they lived in close proximity to Dr. Aldoori's mother (she returned to the U.S. after her marriage to his father ended) in Davis, California where he studied for 6 years to be certified to practice medicine in the U.S.

At this point, Ms. Alani became the focus as she talked about how difficult it was to adjust to life here in the United States particularly since she did not know English and had three small children who were learning it faster than she was and soon knew more English than Arabic which made it tough for them to communicate at times. It was quite a culture clash for her as she struggled to adjust to her new surroundings while attempting to maintain the customs of her homeland. A good illustration of this was when her daughter wanted to wear shorts when she played tennis-something that is against custom in Iraq.

In due course, however, things got easier as Ms. Alani learned English in no small part due to soap operas on television wherein the characters "tended to talk slowly and repeat themselves often." She said that "after I learned English, I was free."

Eventually, she became friends with other "neighborhood moms" who were greatly supportive of her and encouraged her to learn to drive and obtain a GED both of which she did and felt immeasurably proud afterwards. As for maintaining their culture, she enrolled her children in Arabic classes at a local Sunday school. Her own mother remained in Iraq but Ms. Alani kept in touch with her via telephone (one call every three months and letters) until twelve years later when her mother finally got to visit the U.S. for the first time.

After Dr. Aldoori became certified, the family chose to move to Northeast Ohio where he is now a Internist working for the Cleveland Clinic in Brunswick. The three children are now grown and have become increasingly more aware of what they and their parents went through in 1991 (keep in mind the oldest was only 5 at that time) and sometimes write about it on Facebook. To be sure, though, Dr. Aldoori and Ms. Alani read what they have to say and comment about it.

During the Q and A, we were proud of Mr. George Koussa, our colleague from "Margaret W. Wong & Associates", when he spoke up and shared his own experience living under a dictatorship in Syria and how much he appreciated living here in the United States. "We can speak the truth here," he said.

This program was presented by Books@Work and the Maltz Museum as part of the Cleveland Humanities Festival.

At the start of the program, we were addressed by Ms. Ann Smith, the Executive Director of Books@Work who explained that brings professor-lead seminars into the workplace. We wanted to know more about this so later that evening we visited the website and read, "by engaging individuals in exploring the human condition through professor-led discussions of high quality narratives, we invite people to challenge assumptions , share their stories, experience mutual recognition and practice critical dialogue. Our participants delight in spending time with colleagues around a table, exploring ideas. They learn about each other and, through the eyes of others, learn more about themselves."

And, as Ms. Smith warmly observed, sometimes the best conversation comes from those least expected to offer it.

By:

Michael Patterson

Community Liaison,

Margaret W. Wong & Assoc. Co., LLC