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Issue Date:  April 18, 2008

One man's tale of war

Dr. Osama Al-Salami lost his wife, son and home in Iraq


To mark the fifth anniversary of the toxic American invasion of Iraq, I spent time with Dr. Osama Al-Salami. I invited him to speak to my high school and college students, a total of five classes in three days. During that spell in mid-March, Dick Cheney was in Iraq hailing the war as a “successful endeavor” and saying that progress was “phenomenal” and “remarkable.”

If that were even remotely true, Osama Al-Salami would have never left his homeland where, in his late 30s, he was a nationally known professor and periodontist. But it isn’t true, as the International Committee of the Red Cross stated in a 15-page report issued March 17: “Five years after the outbreak of the war in Iraq, the humanitarian situation in most of the country remains among the most critical in the world.”

Born in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, Dr. Al-Salami, a Shiite and the son of Shiite and Sunni parents, is a graduate of the University of Baghdad. He earned a degree in dentistry and became a professor at the University of Sulaimani and was the head of the periodontics department. He was married to a lawyer with whom he was raising a son. He had a private practice, a beautiful home, a steady income and a deep love of his homeland and its culture.

Then came the American invaders, posing as liberators but who in time would be little more than destroyers. Five years later, in a war that the arrogant Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speculated at the start “could last six days, six weeks, I doubt six months,” Osama Al-Salami has endured physical and emotional suffering beyond imagining. In 2005 al-Qaeda assassins blew up his house, killing his wife, Asmaa, and son, Ahmed. In coming months, he would be abducted four times, twice by al-Qaeda gunmen, once by the police and last by Shiite fundamentalists who mistakenly thought he was a Sunni. Taken by al-Qaeda, he was tortured during a month of captivity and narrowly escaped being beheaded.

Much of this is documented in sworn testimony Dr. Al-Salami gave to the Swiss government last year after he fled Iraq and registered in Geneva as an asylum seeker. In December he came to the United States on a tourist visa after being invited to lecture at periodontal conferences, including one in Washington. “I’m only one of uncounted Iraqis who have been displaced,” he says. “I have a tragic story but not an unusual story. The future of my country is dark. I am one of millions who has suffered. Millions more will suffer.”

With nearly everything lost -- his family, home, income, students -- Dr. Al-Salami was befriended by the Mennonite community in Washington. From late December to mid-March, he was given refuge at the church’s International Guest House. He lives now in an apartment provided by the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that helps the stateless. Christopher Nugent, an attorney with the Washington law firm Holland & Knight, is working pro bono to win Dr. Al-Salami a student visa. He has been nominated for doctoral studies in the United States by the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

Dr. Al-Salami represents the ignored story of the Iraq war, of individual Iraqi lives unraveled by death, destruction and displacement. If posttraumatic stress syndrome is common among returning U.S. soldiers, what must it be like for Iraqis?

Several times during his talks with my students, Dr. Al-Salami wept. His eyes were downcast, his voice sometimes inaudible. He wore a black suit, as if in mourning. He carried a folder with prized documents: letters from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, verifications of his professorship in Iraq, his passport.

Dr. Al-Salami’s belief that “millions more will suffer” in Iraq is not idle talk. Doctors Without Borders reports that Iraq’s hospitals “do not have enough medicines, surgical supplies or even electricity.” More than 2,000 doctors have been slain. More than half of Iraq’s 34,000 physicians have fled. Dr. Al-Salami could have joined them, as did his sisters and brothers who settled in European countries in the 1990s. “I could have gone but I wanted to be with my patients and my students,” he says.

That, too, is part of the pain. A man committed to healing now looks to be healed.

Through willpower and soul power it will happen.

Colman McCarthy teaches peace studies at colleges and high schools in the Washington area.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008

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