Parent Maha Paulus finds path to the future through the past
The Iraq that Maha Paulus remembers is not the smoldering country she reads about in grim newspaper accounts or sees in grainy, anarchic footage on the evening news.
Paulus, a university donor, volunteer and mother of two USD undergraduates (Alexa ’12 and Sammi ’13), has few illusions about the chaos that has enveloped Iraq. But, in her mind’s eye, Baghdad is still a thriving metropolis where grocery shopping doesn’t involve security checkpoints, women walk freely without a hijab and the only Green Zone is found on the lush banks of the Tigris River, where her family and friends gathered regularly for picnics.
“I only have happy memories of my childhood — we just had a regular life,” Paulus says. “At the same time, I was 10 years old. All I knew is that things were as normal as can be. But I couldn’t say that I was living in a free country.”
Paulus’ father — who worked for the U.S. embassy in Baghdad for 17 years before it effectively closed in the late 1960s as tensions in the Middle East simmered — was more conscious of the limitations.
“My father’s dream was to bring his family to the United States,” Paulus says. “He wanted us to live in a free society. He always felt there were better opportunities for us in the U.S. and we just never had a voice in Iraq, especially as Christians.”
As members of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Paulus and family were part of a small, but distinct, minority in a predominantly Islamic world. She attended a private Catholic school in Bagh-dad at a time when religion in the region wasn’t quite the powder keg it is today.
In 1974, as theology and politics in Iraq began to tread a harder line, 10-year-old Maha and her three older siblings left with their parents for Michigan where eventually she met another young Iraqi immigrant named Al Paulus. The couple married and ultimately moved to San Diego where they had three children of their own, Alexandria (“Alexa”), Sammi and Brandon.
The family thrived, as did wholesale distribution company, Trepco. But they could only watch from a distance as their ancestral homeland disintegrated through Saddam Hussein’s reign and subsequent wars.
“I almost don’t know what to say anymore because everything has just gone downhill,” Paulus says. “The country has been destroyed. What’s sad is that I can’t really take my children back to see their relatives and show them where we grew up because everything has changed.”
It was a casual discussion about the situation in Iraq that spurred Paulus to become a USD volunteer. About three years ago, Paulus and her husband attended a President’s Club Twilight Blues event on campus when Rev. William Headley — dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies (KSPS) — approached the couple.
“We didn’t know who Father Bill was at the time,” Paulus says. “There were several open tables but he asked to sit with us. I’m so glad he did.”
The conversation steered towards their Chaldean roots and the Iraq War. Paulus and her husband were on opposite sides: he supported the military action, while she was a stringent opponent.
“I said something about how I believe that war doesn’t accomplish anything, it just brings more misery and pain,” Paulus says. “Father Bill just looked at me and said, ‘I could use somebody like you at the School of Peace Studies.’ I was like, ‘What?’”
Paulus ultimately took Headley up on his offer and has been volunteering on an almost weekly basis, working primarily with KSPS Director of Development and Community Relations Elisa Lurkis to assist with everything from clerical duties to research to helping coordinate special events.
“It’s really inspiring to be around people like Elisa and Father Bill and really everyone at the School of Peace Studies,” Paulus says. “There’s a good feeling that comes over me when I walk into that building because there are just so many people doing incredible things who are passionate about promoting peace and goodwill. It’s humbling and also extremely rewarding.”
Paulus’ volunteer work at the KSPS has made the dire conditions in her homeland more real to her. She has heard wrenching tales from relatives describing children being kidnapped at security checkpoints and Chaldean families having an “X” spray-painted on their homes (“Meaning either convert or get out,” she says). In addition, the Baghdad church where her family worshipped has been repeatedly targeted by bombings.
Such news often causes Paulus to reflect on her parents’ decision to relocate in search of greater freedom. She sums up her daughters attending USD in one word — “pride” — and only laments that her father, who passed away 10 years ago, didn’t live to see them flourish.
“My parents sacrificed everything so that their children and grandchildren could have the opportunity for a better life,” Paulus says. “Now, my children are able to go to an institution like the University of San Diego.”