A Refugee's Story

Posted on 13. Jul, 2009 by in Podcast

Lonnie Isabel and Alaa Majeed discuss the Iraqi refugee crisis in our studio in Times Square. Photo by Drew Garaets.

A war has a way of changing just about every life it comes near.

Alaa Majeed was a house wife at the start of the 2003 Iraqi invasion. She had a husband, two young sons and a successful dress shop in Baghdad.

“A normal life,” Majeed says.

She also possessed a valuable asset–a degree in English from Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and excellent translating skills. Majeed began working with American reporters who came in droves with the military. She translated for dozens of correspondents moving them in an out of dangerous situations. In the parlance of foreign correspondents, she was a fixer.

It’s risky work for anyone, but for a woman it was particularly difficult. Women were strongly discouraged from working with foreigners, particularly men. Soon, Majeed grew from a valued fixer to a prize-winning reporter.

Today, Majeed is one of 5 million Iraqis displaced both inside and outside Iraq. Some of her family remains in Baghdad. A brother, who owned a grocery store, is still in Syria where he fled after his safety was threatened. A few months ago, Majeed won custody of her two young sons, who now live with her in New York.  In many ways she is typical of the millions of Iraqi refugees dispersed in Jordan, Syria, Sweden, Britain and the United States, where only a small number are allowed in.

The Iraqi refugee crisis, one of the largest forced displacements in the world, is an enduring legacy of the U.S. invasion. And, as the Obama administration shifts American resources to the battlefront in Afghanistan, some fear that the plight of Iraqi refugees will be forgotten. In this interview, Majeed–who now reports on refugee issues–reminds us that this must not happen.

“The situation is not natural at all in Iraq,” Majeed says, “About four months ago, I returned to Iraq three and a half years after I left. Thousands and thousands of young Iraq men are in prison. We still have about four million people who are refugees outside of Iraq. And thousands and thousands are displaced in the country. They are camped in the desert.”

The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s second International Journalist in Residence, Majeed was one of six Iraqi women to receive the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award for reporting in Knight Ridder/McClatchy’s Baghdad bureau. In addition to her heroic reporting at McClatchy, she has worked as a translator, reporter and producer for PBS, Al Jazeera International, UPI, 60 Minutes, The Christian Science Monitor, The Nation and NPR.es (London).

Majeed tells her story plaintively. It is a deeply personal story about the heartbreak of visiting her brother, a prosperous businessman who left after an associate was killed and he was threatened, in Syria where almost 2 million other Iraqis reside unable by law to work. And her voice breaks a bit describing her sons’ adjustment to a new land, new schools, and a new language.

As a journalist, Majeed sees the plight of Iraqi refugees as a story that is covered too infrequently in the press of her new country. Working with other refugees here, Majeed knows that others are facing economic hardships and that almost all of them want to return to safer Iraq.

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