Expats in the Big Easy: Migration to Metairie (Part 2)

Ikbal (right) back in her hometown after 30 years of separation, in front of a well-known mosque in Najaf, Iraq (photograph by: Farah Alkhafaf)

The migration of my father’s family was triggered by more than just religious persecution. My father is originally from Iran. My grandfather moved to Iraq with his brother as orphans and worked together to lead a life in Karbala, a Shiite-dominated city in Iraq.

When the Baathist regime rose to power, my father’s family and other families like them were in the top priority for extermination or deportation. My father’s family was deported to Iran and had to leave behind all their wealth and material goods including bottles and diapers for their babies, blankets, and extra clothes.

Stories have been told of families that took this journey by foot through the rough dessert terrain and had been eaten by wolves. Others were picked up by the Baathists to then be killed a few meters away from the border. My paternal family was fortunate to cross over the border and start a new life. Baba was not with his family during this time as he was studying in Scotland and waited with profound apprehension for a letter to pacify his nerves that his parents, cousins, and siblings were okay. My mother explained:

The greatest pressure was on the Shias. They would ask where are you from? Which city? And they would know you are Shii [based on your home town]. But I never lied to anyone to save myself. I don’t lie. I never have my entire life. I’m not afraid. Why would I be afraid? I never did anything wrong. This is my belief, it’s between me and my God. No matter if my belief is right or wrong, I haven’t hurt anyone. Saddam affected those who have their beliefs all muddled and are hesitant and they have hurt others. Whereas Imam Ali has led me unswervingly so I followed him and I didn’t hurt anyone.

Wherever we went after leaving Iraq, whether we went to countries that were Arab or not, Islamic, not Islamic- we saw that the foundation of the family, the thing that kept us together, was the religion. We mixed with people who had different educations, different languages. We left our country. We left our money and wealth. Everything changed for us. But the one thing that always remained inside us was our religion. And we saw that the most important thing in a person is the relationship between him and God. Their faith. So if the religion remains, the basis of our lives remain; the basis of our manners and of the things we learned- to reject wrongdoings.

This is why we left Iraq because we refused to be of those who wrote reports on others. This was oppression. Unfair. This has caused pain for others. They wrote anything, even if it wasn’t true. Those in charge would tell them you can’t be lazy and not report back to us. Sometimes they would give them rewards, let them travel on trips, anything just to let them continue writing and be active. They began to create anything just so they can gain something in return. It was like they sold their principles. They sold their akhlaq. And in return they oppressed a lot of people. They were the cause of killings and imprisonment. Youth went, families were messed up. We refused these things. We held on to our principles.

My mother passed on her principles to her children when raising them in the West. Growing up in the environment of the southern United States with a Catholic majority presence, you don’t always feel welcomed or understood. Core values are challenged when coming from a different background. For example, my parents were raised to segregate males and females, a societal value that is not seen in America for the most part.

In Muslim dominated Middle Eastern countries, it is understood that different sex interactions must be limited: there is no physical contact, and in the time of my parents, in some settings it was also recommended that men and women did not sit integrated in one space to avoid premarital interactions. Dating is not a concept that is commonly accepted in Islam, but neither is arranged marriages.

Islamic societies prefer a courting system, where interested individuals must request permission from the reciprocal families in order to move further in a relationship. Arranged marriages are not permitted in Islam. Consent of both parties is necessary to make a marital bond legal and accepted in the eyes of God. Explaining this concept to my friends in New Orleans often leads to confused looks and a somewhat shy yet perplexed gaze.

As I grew older, my parents had a greater concern when male classmates invited me to their house for parties, or when friends started dating other friends. As a child, I always knew that certain things were not acceptable in my parents’ eyes. But living outside of my home, pressures to assimilate and to “fit-in” were at an all-time high. The challenges then began.

Adolescence paved a period where muddy waters began to mix even greater, and the pursuit for what I, as an individual, believed in, rather than what the society around me and what my parents taught me to accept as true, intensified. My parents fearfully grasped on tight to what they were raised to believe was acceptable while also remembering a religious proverb by Imam Ali, “Do not raise your children the way (your) parents raised you, they were born for a different time.” The internal war ignited; the two cultures clashed, and I struggled to determine which moral codes to accept and which ones to abstain from. I asked my mother what it was like for her:

It was really hard to raise children in the West because we didn’t live with family, I think maybe that’s what it was. When we moved here, our priority became our kids. We taught them what is right and what is wrong. To not hurt others. We taught them their religion and how to maintain it. We did not teach them to hate others; on the contrary, love others and take care of them. That is what we taught our kids. That’s the important thing because we felt there are a lot of people who had hate and evil. There were just so many. We taught our kids what is the difference between Sunnis and Shias. What’s the difference between us and Christians? And the Jewish? They need to know their religion since they are living in a diverse society. So they’ll know how to live amongst diverse people.

I used to tell my children, “You are different than the others. Okay. You are not better, but you are different. And you can live amongst them and do a lot of the same things they do. Study and learn the good things from others, no matter their religion and background, their color. Be good with people. But you be strong and don’t back down from your religion.” That’s the most important thing. We’ve already lost our nation and family. We want them to be proud of their own religion and beliefs. Be a strong person. Don’t hesitate to say who you are.

Part 3: The Masijd

Editor’s Note: This story is one of a series reprinted from the book A Guide to South Louisiana: Stories of Uncommon Culture. Each author was a student in Rachel Breunlin’s “Storytelling and Culture” course for the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans in the Spring of 2017. The Neighborhood Story Project sponsored the project as part of its mission to publish collaborative ethnography in high quality books in which the authors receive royalties for their creative labor.


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