It was ten years ago this spring that “shock and awe” and “mission accomplished” entered the lexicon of American war-talk. On March 20, 2003, “shock and awe” became words used to describe the opening explosions of the U.S. war in Iraq. Just a few weeks later, on May Day of that year, President George W. Bush stood proudly on the deck of an American warship and boasted that the mission of liberating Iraq had been accomplished.
We all know better now. The violent mission had really just begun with an occupation by U.S. forces that would last a decade, causing many thousands of casualties. Billions of dollars slated for Iraq reconstruction have failed to appear as promised, leaving a country still devastated by the ravages of war even as American troops begin their exit.
But there is another kind of mission being accomplished in Iraq from the bottom-up that offers at least a glimmer of hope. Now, thanks to efforts of a courageous Iraqi-American peacemaker and his cadre of helpers, the words “mission accomplished” have taken on a whole new meaning.
I first met Sami Rasouli while I was gathering stories for my recent book: The Compassionate Rebel Revolution: Ordinary People Changing the World. I interviewed him at the Minneapolis home of peace activists John and Marie Braun, who are his close friends.
Rasouli is proud of the childhood memories he has from his home country and of the extended family that lives there. But he is also very much an American. For years, he ran a popular restaurant in northeastern Minneapolis called Sinbad’s, which helped make him a leader in the local Muslim community and, eventually, a vocal early critic of the war in Iraq.
At 24, Rasouli left Iraq to come to the United States, which he perceived to be “the crown jewel of the hemisphere — a land of freedom and opportunity.” But upon arriving he had trouble finding work and ended up driving taxis for a living until he opened Sinbad’s in 1993. He turned it into not just a restaurant but also “an embassy for Arab culture.” It was the center of his increasing involvement in the local Muslim community and its outreach to other cultures in the Twin Cities.
After the U.S. invasion of Kuwait in 1991, Rasouli began speaking out against the war and participating in anti-war demonstrations — activities that nearly shattered his American dream. He received threats against his life and his business. “People would call me and say ‘go back home to your country,’” he recalls.
Once he was awoken from bed in the middle of the night with a phone call telling him to go to Sinbad’s. There, he was shocked to find that the front window of the restaurant had been shattered, apparently by a bullet. After that he lost many of his Muslim customers who felt threatened and didn’t want to be associated with his anti-war activities. But the incident only steeled Rasouli’s resolve to work for peace.
In November 2003, seven months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq began, Rasouli went home to Iraq for the first time in 27 years to visit his family and to examine the impact of the U.S. occupation. There he had his own experience of shock and awe. He noticed how much the American sanctions had destroyed the country’s infrastructure and affected the health and well-being of the residents, and how disenchanted young people were joining the insurgency. He was so devastated by what he saw that, upon returning to the United States, he sold Sinbad’s and planned for a prolonged trip back.
A year later, Rasouli returned to Iraq with the intention of staying at least five years, with occasional visits to Minnesota to report on his experiences — “to tell the truth” about what was happening in Iraq. In Fallujah, Rasouli noticed the impact of the relentless attacks on that city and the surrounding areas. Some 5,000 homes had been destroyed, along with 30,000 more damaged and about 300,000 people displaced. He visited the refugee camps and worked with humanitarian organizations to deliver food and medicine to the displaced and listen to their stories.
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Angered by that experience, Rasouli formed the Muslim Peacemaker Team, a small group of Iraqis dressed in janitor’s uniforms on a mission to clean up trash on the ravaged streets of Fallujah. In a time and place where guns, bombs and occupying soldiers prevailed, their garbage bags became potent weapons of peace and a symbolic precursor to the rebuilding of the city. The 15-member peace team provided training, consulting and other kinds of support to the refugees. It educated families in the basic domestic chores of life in a refugee camp, such as boiling food to compensate for the lack of available clean water.
Rasouli’s organizing soon swelled into the Iraqi-American Reconciliation Project, the mission of which is “to promote reconciliation between Iraqis and Americans by recognizing the common bonds they share and providing opportunities for communication and understanding.” The organization created a sister city relationship between Najaf, Iraq, and Minneapolis, through which the two countries exchange visiting delegations.
Having strong ties to both countries puts Rasouli in a unique position. “Not too many others can speak both languages,” he says. “I feel privileged being both the oppressor and the oppressed. I would like to be a bridge between them.”
Another integral part of that bridge-building process is the Iraqi-American Reconciliation Team’s Water for Peace project. As recently as 2010, one of every four Iraqis did not have access to sanitary water; the country’s water supplies had been polluted by more than 30 years of war, sanctions and mismanagement, exposing residents to water-borne bacteria. Iraqi parents have been afraid to send their children to schools that lacked safe drinking water, preventing them from getting the education they needed.
During the past year, Water for Peace has installed water filtration systems in more than 80 Iraqi schools and hospitals serving some 42,000 people. Instead of being solely a charitable effort, Water for Peace is part of an overall strategy to improve the relationship between ordinary Iraqis and ordinary Americans. Like the garbage bags in Fallujah, this project is a nonviolent weapon for peace and reconciliation.
Working for peace in a war zone is a risky business, and Rasouli prefers to travel the country without a bodyguard. He has frequently had to diffuse tension and conflict while accompanying American visitors across the border into Iraq. He often encounters resistance from Iraqi guards who are used to Americans with weapons. Rasouli has taken pains to demonstrate that there are U.S. visitors who come unarmed and who are interested in peace.
Last year, on the way to a refugee camp Rasouli suffered a broken hip when his vehicle was hit by an Iraqi truck. (He prefers to believe it was an accident.) After Iraqi doctors botched his operation, he had to be rushed back to Minnesota for hip-replacement surgery. As he recovered with the aid of crutches, he made speaking appearances in the Twin Cities to share stories about the effects of the war. He continues to deal with an ongoing foot injury that resulted from the Iraqi surgery.
Living up to his name, which means “messenger,” Rasouli continues to shuttle between his two home countries, often with Iraqis and Americans in tow. During one of his visits, he brought Iraqi children crippled by cluster bombs to the United States, where they told their stories to an audience of peace activists at a Minneapolis church. He has brought the work of Iraqis to U.S. art galleries. The Iraqi-American Reconciliation Project has also recently partnered with Advocates for Human Rights, the Veterans Book Project, and independent artists Nathan Fisher and Monica Haller to develop the Voices of Iraqi Refugees curriculum for elementary, middle and high school students.
Generations of Iraqi children who have grown up knowing only the devastation of war now have a chance to live in peace. As the war slowly winds down, the work of Rasouli and the organizations he has created are helping to heal the wounds that conflict has inflicted — transforming the legacy of shock and awe into one in which Rasouli’s mission of peace and collaboration can truly be accomplished.