According to Google Maps, it’s about 6,925 miles from Portland to Iraq’s capital, Baghdad. But that distance didn’t stop some of Oregon’s Iraqi community from recently protesting violence fueled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Women, men, and children marched around the perimeter of Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland, waving Iraq’s flag and chanting “No to ISIS, Yes to Iraq” in unison.
Participants also handed out fliers stating “SHAME ON ISIS, SHAME ON AL-QAEDA, SHAME ON TALIBAN, SHAME ON BOKO HARAM,” as well as a few sentences describing the misconceptions of the word “jihad.”
The protest, which was organized by board members of the Islamic Center of Portland, was largely ignored by passersby and shoppers in the square, and fizzled out within an hour.
But I thought perhaps we could learn something about Iraq and the challenges it faces from those who once called it home – something we can’t learn from our daily consumption of news.
After sifting through many databases (the Census Bureau lumps the Middle East, Europe and North Africa into the “white” category), I managed to find the nationality breakdown of foreign-born Oregonians.
Foreign-born citizens comprise about 376,000 of Oregon’s total population of 3.89 million. That’s nearly 10 percent of our state.
Iraqis are 1,200 of that pool. By contrast, there are 40,000 Iraqis living in Michigan, which is almost 40 percent of the total Iraqi population in the United States.
The Oregon population may be small, but it’s a part of a mass worldwide exodus dubbed the “Iraqi Diaspora.” It’s thought to be one of the biggest in modern times.
Most of the Iraqis in Portland and Oregon came in the early-to-mid-‘90s as refugees fleeing the Gulf War.
These Oregonians say that a physical escape from violence doesn’t necessarily mean an emotional one. Every attack, bombing, and overthrow of power is another stinging reminder of the land they left behind.
I’m a second generation Iraqi-American, but I’ve had about as much exposure to the “Land Between Two Rivers” as the rest of Americans, mainly through a television screen. At times it’s difficult to separate Iraq from the idea of war and sectarian violence.
But I can tell you from personal experience that the best foreign correspondents are your Iraqi neighbors and coworkers. They’ve been following the events in the region ever since they’ve left.
They can navigate the murky waters of Iraqi politics better than anyone else. They can tell you what the weather was like when Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
Just keep an eye out for the conspiracy theories.