I climbed three flights of stairs stepping over lovely green plants decorating the apartment building to Ibtisam & Ali's home to meet the woman I had heard so much about. I had searched out her designs online long before we had the chance to meet and I just loved the color and detail in her work. Her designs bring a modern Arabic flare to Western fashion and I was grateful to be asked to help document her business on my photography story telling assignment for World Relief. More than just view her designs I wanted to sit with and listen to the woman who had the courage and strength to pursue her dreams using her seamstress & design talent after so much change and difficulty. Ibtisam & her husband Ali warmly welcomed myself and a World Relief staffer; Tim to their home with sweets already set out for us. We greeted each other and began sharing and I was immediately struck with, and grateful for, their openness and willingness to share so much of their story.
Ibtisam and Ali are from Iraq and both had successful businesses in their home country. Ibtisam designed and sewed everything from elaborate gowns to home decor such as curtains and employed 6 people in her shop. Ali started and ran an aquarium deign and installation company. He ran the only shop of this kind in his hometown and had to learn as he went, even showing us his scares from broken glass the first time he learned to install floor to ceiling fish tanks. His fondness of these memories is so clear in his telling of them. They lived among family and friends and built lives they were proud of in Iraq.
The war changed their daily lives completely. They fled to Jordan an Ibtisam had to leave behind a business she had spent the last 20 years building. In Jordan they were undocumented and this meant they had to scrape together money to live, Ibtisam tearing up telling us that she often had to do so many alternations for the equivalent of 25 cents. Life was very hard for them those 4 1/2 years in Jordan as they lived under constant fear they would be sent back or killed. Ibtisam's older and younger brother were both violently killed and Ali was in contact with former neighbors who had heard death threats against Ali and others. Realizing there was no hope of returning to Iraq in the near future Ali applied to the United Nations in Jordan. As we listened to him tell us about the process he shared he really took a risk not knowing even what he was applying for, "I just knew we cannot make the life here and we cannot go home."
They were contacted by the UN and were called to come in- for what they did not know. They both were separately interviewed by UN representatives from 7am until 7pm about their stories that first time. Ali said he thought the interviewer was tough and he worried she hated him because of the intensity of the interview. Ibitisam agreed that retelling everything and being asked specific details apart from her husband was nerve-wracking. They did not know it then but this and the subsequent 3 interviews that were to come were the beginnings of the refugee screening process. After months of waiting and hearing nothing they gathered outside the UN to await the posting of a list. They described thousands of people in a crush of others waiting and praying their name appeared on this list. They saw their names. At this point as they told their story they both paused, held hands, and teared up. It was clear that looking back this one moment held so much hope and at the same time anxiety for what this would mean for them.
Ali and Ibitsam had no idea where they would be relocated and what this would mean for them. They learned they were assigned to the United States and while they felt relief they also held in that complicated emotions of panic about starting again in a new country where they did not speak the language. Ali asked, "How will I do this life in the U.S.?" They arrived at O’hare in 2008 with 8 other families and with the help of World Relief resettled in this area. Just as the many refugee clients that come to the U.S., their stories do not begin when they arrive here with their IOM bag in hand and they also do not end with arriving in their new country of resettlement. Just to be away from immediate danger is not the end. There is so much rebuilding, cultural and language learning, healing, and life to live yet. There is such much to be negotiated about embracing new and holding on to old. As I sit with refugee clients and listen to their stories I am always impacted by the rich lives they left behind. The vivid memories they share of lives and loves and hardships and joys that they were forced to flee. Ali and Ibitisam shared many more sacred details of their lives and Tim and I listened, asked questions, and sat as witnesses to the rich lives they have lived and are living. I apologized to them for having to recount so many painful details but Ali quickly shook his head and said "no, you cannot forget these hard times." Sharing stories validates the ones sharing and allows the listeners to be stretched to embrace more of our human family and be reminded each of our stories matter too. We sensed that in some of the retelling there is also some healing.
Ali and Ibtisam continue to learn English and more about American culture (we had some laughs about this process) and make amazing use of the resources available to them here. Ibitisam restarted her business here and it quickly began growing. She realized she wanted to pursue a college degree in at a local community college since her training mostly has come from Ali's mother back home in Iraq and her vast experience. She currently studies in the fashion design program and has already been awarded Most Outstanding Freshman Designer of the year! She shared s story at the recent World Relief Spotlight Event that her instructor could not believe the detail work she completed on a wedding dress in only a week. She laughs telling this story because she misunderstood the due date and although she had all semester thought she only had a week to complete it! She asked her to do it AGAIN during class time just to see and show the other students her technique! One of my favorite moments was when Ibtisam was recalled how nervous she was to arrive in the U.S., "I had no English so I wore this badge so nothing will happen to me." She wore a badge around her neck that gave information on who to call if she got lost because when she arrived she could not communicate in English. She produced this badge from a back room in their apartment within 2 minutes and showed it off. We all laughed about how far she and Ali have come since that day. How they can tell their story in English, welcome us to their home in America, and share about running a business here.
They run her business, Ibtisam Sewing, out of their apartment and Ali helps her with design (including designing and printing her custom labels). He beams when he talks about Ibtisam and her successes.
About 3 hours later we left their home with promises to return soon (which I will because I think I am needing a new bag :) and as we made our way back down the stairs and as I edited and culled through images I reflected on how grateful I am to be involved in this work. This good work of listening to stories, of being present with folks who make our country richer and stronger. I am grateful to Ibtisam and Ali for welcoming me and graciously sharing their lives and I look forward to watching more of their story unfold.
Please check out Ibitsam sewing!!!