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Eastern Washington Legislative Conference 2015: Raising Prophetic voices

Letters, relief, dialogue build peace

By Mary Stamp

Sarah Ahmed, a young Muslim peacemaker, founded Because I Love Peace, a U.S.-Iraq letter writing campaign to build bridges across a media-generated “sea of hate.”

In her peacemaking visits to the United States, she learned about and began working with the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East to bring healing in her homeland.

Mustafa Mahmood and Sarah Ahmed
Mustafa Mahmood and Sarah Ahmed tell about life in Iraq.
You can watch a short video of Sarah Ahmed's workshop on The Fig Tree Youtube Channel.

During recent presentations at Gonzaga University and the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference, she expressed hope about building reconciliation through dialogue among religious leaders.

“We have been taught to hate Americans and Israelis as enemies.  Some also hate people of other faiths,” she said.  “Media and politicians promote those ideas.  People start to hate people, but the letter-writing project shows that people are the same and have the same values.”

As part of her presentation at Gonzaga, Mustafa Mahmood, a Gonzaga engineering student who is also from Iraq, painted a picture of Iraq as more than a war-torn country. 

Growing up there, he learned of the culture and history of the region of Mesopotamia, through which the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow.  Its 33 million people are diverse—Arabic, Kurdish and Assyrian.

Ancient Iraq was the home of Sumerians and Babylonians who developed cuneiform writing, and advancements in math, algebra and medicine, Mustafa added.

After the Ottoman Empire fell, Iraq was colonized by Great Britain from 1917 to the 1940s.  There was relative stability from the 1950s to 1970s when the Baath Era of Saddam Hussein began.  It ended with the U.S. invasion in 2003, he said.

Iraq has had hard times since then.  Baghdad is in ruins.  There were many casualties.  More than 2 million refugees, including Mustafa’s and Sarah’s families, fled to Syria and Jordan.

Committed to peace and justice, Mustafa volunteered one month last summer in Iraq and worked with Sarah to provide food and supplies to thousands of displaced minority Christian families.

“The new government,” he said, “is weak and corrupt.  That led to the emergence of extremism and ISIS.”

Sarah, also a human rights and women’s rights activist, said that what is happening to people in Iraq, “from persecution to starvation to killing, affects the people in more ways than the rest of the world can imagine.

“The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was bad, but now there are many ‘Saddams’ competing for power,” she said.  “Before the war, we were not free, and I don’t think we are free now.”

Along with aiding Iraqis displaced by ISIS, she serves as a volunteer dentist in a medical center in Baghdad.  Her parents left Bagdad and went to Jordan when she was 19, but she stayed to finish her studies in dentistry.

Sarah’s commitment to peace led her to visit the United States several times.  

In 2009, a U.S. summer study program in public policy stirred her interest in activism.  On returning, she organized Iraqi friends. 

After earning her degree in dentistry, she went to study at the University of Rochester, but left early to visit her family in Jordan.  She was frustrated to find that her father, who had taught science, had begun to hate Americans.

That sparked her interest in challenging misunderstandings between Americans and Iraqis.

Visiting in Chicago, Sarah led workshops in schools and churches, talking about the war and post-war experiences, and the need for people to educate themselves and others.

Sarah asked Americans to write letters to tell about their lives and thoughts on the war.  Many wrote that they had protested against the war, but were not heard.  She gave the letters to people in Iraq.  Many Iraqis have written the Americans.

Later, at a Peace Action Conference in New York, she met Canon Andrew White, who had come to St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad in 1998.  He restored the church and started a clinic, school and the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME).  

After they talked half an hour, he invited her to come and work with the foundation.  She first came as a volunteer, and now is its director of operations.

In Baghdad, the foundation helps protect Christians, a persecuted minority, but because it is in a Muslim country, 90 percent of those they serve are Muslim.

It primarily is a charity doing relief work—offering food, shelter, clothing, health care, financial assistance, bedding and other necessities.  It also does job training and helps people start businesses, and serves refugees in Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey. 

Its other task is to promote reconciliation and interreligious dialogue.

After the war, Sunni and Shia Muslim groups began to express their hatred, which had been controlled under Saddam.

Because the foundation employs Sunni, Shia, Christian and Jewish people on its program staff, they have contact with leaders of these religions.

Believing that when religious leaders in the Middle East speak and teach, followers will follow them, the FRRME brings religious leaders together to share a meal and stories about their lives and experiences.  The goal is for them to come to know and respect each other, even as they continue to have different beliefs.

Muslim-Muslim and Christian-Christian divisions and violence are the hardest to address, said Sarah, who is hopeful, because most Christians and Muslims are moderate, not extremist.

Their faiths teach against violence, she said, so dialogue leaders encourage the religious leaders to discuss violence, and then write and sign a document that calls people to stop the violence.

“Reconciliation is about loving the enemy,” Sarah said.  “We do not want the religious leaders to change their beliefs or agree, but to come to accept and love each other.”

The hope is for religious leaders to become friends, understand their similarities and differences, and then accept their differences.

“We expect the public will follow them,” Sarah repeated.

The foundation believes that “without genuine reconciliation, there can never be lasting peace,” because “religion and politics are intimately linked in the Middle East.”  So “if religion is part of the problem, it must be part of the solution.

“While we have contact with some religious leaders, we do not know ISIS leaders.  They have no defined leaders and do not want a solution.  The more mysterious they are, the more powerful they are by making people fear them,” Sarah said.  “ISIS is media savvy.  Media show what they want the world to see to create fear.

“If media stop showing what they do, ISIS will lose power,” she said. “Similarly, media do not show real Americans to Iraqis.  That’s why I take letters.”

From her U.S. visits, Sarah has much support from Americans, so she does not blame them for the war.

“American air strikes do nothing to ISIS, but they kill children and more innocent people,” she said.  “War does not work.  Justice works.  We need to win people who hate and espouse eye-for-eye living that blinds everyone.” 

Sarah shares stories to invite letters and support, noting, “There is no reconciliation or relief without help.”

She challenged people “to embrace awareness as a lifestyle, so if I touch you, then you will touch others,” she said.

“Iraqis have lost so much.  Many people who lost someone may have no heart for reconciling or forgiving, but it’s the only way,” Sarah said.  “If we change attitudes, however, action will follow.”

Believing prayer is important, she invites Americans to be in solidarity with brothers and sisters in Iraq by being aware and by praying. 

For information, call Scott Cooper of Pax Christi Spokane, which hosted her in Spokane, at 358-7342 or visit frrme.org.



Copyright © March 2015 - The Fig Tree