A Country in Ruins
Helping Iraqi women regain both their education and their independence is alumna Reem George’s ultimate goal.
by Krystn Shrieve

photo by Tim Mantoani

Reem George, a Chaldean Catholic Iraqi born in Baghdad, doesn’t remember life without war. So she’s dedicated her own life to creating enduring peace by supporting enduring women.

George earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2002 and this month will complete her master’s program in international relations. She expects to return as early as 2007 to Iraq to start a non-governmental organization to educate women, establish them in the workforce as well as help them deal with sexual violence and the trauma of war.

“Women used to have a voice, but during years of sanctions, they stepped backwards. They were the first to lose their jobs, they went back to traditional lifestyles and got out of politics, and now it’s harder for them to get back to where they once were,” says George, who was born the year before the Iran-Iraq War. “We need to educate women and help them become independent so they can balance a government that, right now, has been taken over by men.”

George, the daughter of an accountant who worked for the ministry of agriculture under Saddam Hussein’s regime, says her family was granted political asylum and arrived in Tennessee in 1992. But the U.N. sanctions against Iraq left people desperate for food, clean water and medical supplies. When she arrived in the U.S., George was a waif at 75 pounds, mostly because of the stress of war.

Although she’s lived half of her life in the United States, George has memories of what life in Baghdad was like before she fled. Certainly there was war, but she also recalls times of relative peace. Girls had a 98 percent literacy rate. Women were artists, singers, politicians. Women working in government jobs earned salaries equal to men in the same positions. And women weren’t afraid.

“Before, women could walk through the streets of Baghdad in the middle of the night and not worry,” George says. “Now they’re afraid to go out unless they’re covered and escorted by a male companion.”

George knew her country changed after she left it, but she realized just how much last summer, when she returned to celebrate her engagement to Alaa Hanna. During her two-month visit, bombings were a near daily occurrence. The day of her engagement party, a suicide bomber targeted the exact spot where her fiance’s car had been parked. The day after the engagement party, a suicide bomber struck her aunt’s neighborhood.

“I didn’t recognize my country; it wasn’t the country I’d left behind,” George says. “Every day I heard reports of people who were killed on the side of the road. Dead bodies were always floating in the Tigris River. My country is in ruins and I say it with the deepest regret.”

Since the seventh century, when Islam spread to Iraq, George says the relationship between the Shiites and Sunnis, who practice two different branches of Islam, has been tenuous. Over the centuries, whatever bond they managed to form was easily broken by outsiders.

“It’s become a vicious cycle,” George says. “We need to stop accusing each other of past betrayals. We need to make that relationship stronger so we don’t need British mandates or American occupation to help us replace an oppressive regime. It will take years to heal old wounds, but I believe it’s possible.”