Sami Rasouli goes above and beyond

Sami RasouliBY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE

Sami Rasouli, Iraqi-born, naturalized American citizen, lived in the Twin Cities for over 25 years. Although he was a respected businessman and restaurateur, as well as a husband, a father, and involved in local and international issues, it was only after he went back to Iraq that he truly became the national treasure and local hero that he is today.
Rasouli says it his mission to be a bridge—a bridge between the oppressor and the oppressed, between the U.S. and its Western allies, and Iraq. But it becomes clear as he talks of his peacemaking work, that he is multiple bridges, for even within Iraq and within the West, he builds connection and understanding between factions whose divisions can wreck peace, destroy lives and ruin nations.
When the Iraq war broke out in spring of 2003, although Rasouli had vocally opposed the invasion, he did not initially plan to leave his life in Minneapolis and become a full-time peacemaker. As is often the case, it came to him as a calling that could not be ignored. It was his mother’s death in Iraq in September of 2003 that necessitated his long visit to Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Like many in Iraq, Rasouli, who had fled here in 1976 as a targeted minority under Saddam, was initially hopeful that the dictator’s removal might ultimately be good for his native country.
Having not visited since his emigration, Rasouli had over 40 nieces and nephews he had never seen, as they had never seen his American-born children. And you could say he had a lot of catching up to do.
The sheer devastation, the immensity of the destruction, the tragedy, and the grief, came as a profound shock, however. On his eventual return to Minneapolis, he found that he could not eat or sleep or work. This effect is well-known; some call it survivor-guilt, or PTSD. Whatever you call it, it changes lives, and it changed Rasouli’s. He returned to Iraq in 2004, unable to be a passive observer any more, especially from the false safety of the U.S. At first he didn’t know how to put the need to make peace into action. While visiting the offices of Human Rights Watch where one of his brothers-in-law worked, Rasouli met the Christian Peacemaker Teams, or CPT. These are small teams of non-missionary Christians who do disaster relief work with a peacemaking goal. The idea dawned to have a Muslim counterpart, and the Muslim Peacemaker Teams were born.
In the early days, the CPT provided mentorship and training. After Rasouli had assembled his first team of 15 Iraqi peacemakers, trained in and committed to nonviolence, the CPT and MPT did a first joint mission in May 2005. The mainly Sunni town of Fallujah had just been laid waste by U.S. forces. The CPT and MPT came to Fallujah simply to pick up garbage. They had initially thought that they would rebuild houses, but were quickly dissuaded; Fallujah had 30,000 houses damaged and 5,000 totally destroyed, and it would be impossible to choose just one or two without causing harm to the community. So they picked up garbage. Fallujah is called The City of Mosques. One especially large and prominent mosque invited the teams to attend Friday prayers, and then the owner of the mosque hosted a huge feast for them. This is where another kind of bridge-building came into play as a powerful bond was built between Rasouli’s organization, based in the mainly Shi’ite city of Najaf, and Sunni Fallujah. The owner of the mosque presented 20 beautiful copies of the Qur’an to the MPT to be gifted 10 each to two holy Shi’ite shrines in Najaf.
Rasouli says that what his organization is doing inside Iraq to make peace is to break down “psychological barriers” between factions such as Sunni and Shi’a. The MPT is incorporated in Iraq, and works with a partner organization incorporated in the U.S., the Iraq American Reconciliation Project, or IARP. On the IARP website, the MPT mission is described as being one to “Bring Iraqis together in peace to work for the good of the country. Encourage Iraqi people to be self-sufficient in the face of the violence across the country.” Currently, a major effort is to distribute water-purification systems to Iraqi schools. Iraq has suffered a severe shortage of potable water, exacerbated by the use of depleted uranium, which poisons the water, as well as land and crops. This has led to terrible health crises—hepatitis A and B epidemics, a huge spike in birth defects, and cancers.
That’s the internal Iraqi part. The work the two organizations do together builds bridges between Iraq and the U.S. Money for the water project comes from American and other Western countries’ schools and churches in large part, and the MPT facilitates pen pal programs between children of these institutions and the Iraqi schoolchildren who receive the gifts. The MPT and IARP have sponsored numerous cultural and scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Iraq. And this has all led to a sister city relationship between Minneapolis and Najaf. The resolution creating this was sponsored by then Council Member Betsy Hodges in 2009.
And Rasouli himself travels every year back to the U.S. to further build and maintain all these bridges. He is in town now, and speaking out about the ongoing war in Iraq, about hopes for peace, about what is being done and what can be done to reverse all this war and devastation. This is another way that he is so valuable to our community, because he can talk firsthand about the situation in Iraq, an area that we know our mainstream media does not report on, even today. Sami Rasouli will be the guest speaker in the pulpit of Walker Community United Methodist Church (at East 31st and 16 Avenue) next Sunday, May 10, at 10 am. All are welcome.

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