Minneapolis-Najaf Sister City delegation communicates with art

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“Freedom, safety and peace.” These are the slogans that represent the United States Army in Iraq, says Malki Al Haddad, a visiting lecturer and artist from Kufa University in Najaf, Iraq. 

Lined along the walls of the St. Joan of Arc Church in Minneapolis on “Arab Night” last week were paintings and drawings by Haddad depicting the lives of Iraqis during and after the war. Overwhelmingly profound, but with a strong message of peace and hope, her work represents the work of the Iraqi & American Reconciliation Project (IARP) whose mission is to “promote reconciliation between the people of the United States and Iraq in response to the devastation affecting Iraqi families, society and culture”. 

One drawing stands out (pictured). A large razor, bloody with the Farsi inscription, “USA: freedom, safety and peace” cuts through the throat of an Iraqi child. Haddad explains that while the U.S. announced that it had invaded Iraq to liberate them, especially women and children, the war proved that the U.S. army was responsible for the deaths of many innocent Iraqis. 

Another painting illustrates a woman whose mouth is sewn shut, showing that even after the war, she still has little or no rights. She says about this particular painting, “[This] Iraqi woman is tortured, but she cannot speak for herself so she suffers silently.”

Haddad is visiting the Twin Cities with 12 other Iraqi academics and business leaders from Najaf as part of IARP’s mission to reconcile Americans and Iraqis. The delegation met with business and political leaders in Minneapolis in their first official in Minneapolis since the two became sister cities.

Getting informed, getting involved

• To learn more about Najaf and its occupation, read the Guardian’s interactive guide.

• IARP has a website with detailed information on all their projects

• To sponsor a water filter by making a donation to a school or hospital, visit the Muslim Peacemakers Team website.

Five years ago, Sami Rasouli, an Iraqi American, watched on television as his hometown of Najaf came under combat fire. He felt torn, as he bore allegiance to both the United States and Iraq. He knew then that he had to do something. So he left Sinbad Cafe and Market, his Minneapolis restaurant, and returned to Najaf, starting what would be the birth of IARP and his long-term journey to develop relationships between ordinary Iraqis and Americans.

Letters for Peace and Water for Peace are two very successful IARP grassroots projects. Through the Water for Peace project, interested parties, including individuals, religious institutions and organizations, buy water filters or raise funds that are used for water sanitation projects in Iraq. With only 30 percent of Iraqis having access to water, this project goes a long way towards building back the region. 

At a table at the church, American children write letters that will be sent to Iraqi children in Najaf. One of them is eight-an-a-half year old Gabriel Norman. His letter is simple: 

“I wish your country has a peace party for. I wish there was no war for 2,000,000,507 years.” 

Other letters in the Letters for Peace project are more complicated. Students from the United States and Iraq send each other letters detailing their lives: for instance, an Iraqi child nostalgically writes about days in the past when she went to school and played with other kids. A letter exchange with a U.S. student in return offers her moral support and hope for a undetermined future.