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Unsettled Lives – The Undergrad Journey of a Displaced Iraqiyya

    By Fatima Al-Rasool

    Transferring during the middle of my college career was a tumultuous experience – I was making a drastic change in majors and moving to a completely different college. In a strange way, however, transferring to the University of Michigan-Dearborn was like coming home. I’d grown up in Dearborn so of course if was familiar to me but in the summer before the semester was starting, I was able to connect with Dr. Sally Howell, which kicked off what continues to be a very close partnership – starting off with Unsettled Lives.

    Unsettled Lives is a project that came out of Professor Sally Howell’s Public History in Arab Detroit course, an extensive research-based class that brings together students, instructors, and cultural organizations to investigate a certain topic. Unsettled Lives is about displaced Iraqis in Metro Detroit – starting from where they came from, the different routes being a refugee had taken them on, and that their lives looked like in Detroit.

    Map of Iraqi Detroit

    The Public History class had already spent a semester gathering data and interviews from Iraqis all over Metro Detroit – young, old, women, men, business owners, students, and everyone in between. They had also decided that they wanted this work – their data and interviews, and the contributions of the Iraqi community, to be exhibited in an installation on campus. To make that possible, a few of Dr. Howell’s students, as well as a few hired research assistants, stayed on during the summer to collect more interviews, work out the logistics, and create the exhibit. I met Dr. Howell during this time and with being part of the Iraqi community, having a background in research and in interest in uplifting my community’s voices, I was brought onto the project.

    It was a learning process for many of us. Since there were several people involved, all with different levels of experience, commitment, and knowledge on the topic, it was certainly a team effort to coordinate all the moving parts of the project. On the bright side, it gave us all the opportunity to learn and try something new: conducting interviews, transcribing and pulling quotes from other interviews, working on the design of the exhibit material, coordinating the exhibit opening event, and also creating the online exhibit. I learned a lot in these various steps but I think the skill that has proven itself to be most ubiquitous in every aspect of my life has to be storytelling. A skill in which Dr. Howell is quite instrumental in teaching – it came out in every part of creating Unsettled Lives. We had to tease out the stories during our interviews with Iraqis, we needed to curate a story for visitors to walk through in the exhibit, and we needed our photos, maps, and other assets to tell a story online. It was truly a collaborative process, working alongside Dr. Howell and the other research assistants to create a project that would be comprehensive and immersive. We spent the summer of 2018 getting to work together very closely.

    The Unsettled Lives Exhibit on Opening Day

    The exhibit opened October 3 in 2018. I remember the day very clearly because we were all working against the clock to put up exhibit material and finalize website edits, with time in between for frantic run arounds and chatter. It was an anxious day but one that came with a beautiful turnout – many of our interviewees, members of the cultural organizations we had worked alongside, and many UM-Dearborn staff and students joined us in celebration of the exhibit. However, my fondest memory of the evening was seeing the numerous Iraqi Americans, happy to see themselves and their history represented and uplifted on the walls of a university. Their feedback was generous and it made me proud of our hard work. That night, and the Unsettled Lives project, was merely the beginning to many other projects and relationships that carried on through my remaining years at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. For one, it re-introduced me to my people – my community. During the research we compiled to curate an archive and exhibit, we worked with members of the Iraqi American Student Union, an organization which started at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, which has since grown to include a charitable foundation, three more chapters across Michigan, and numerous other successes. I was lucky to have a close part of that action for some years and it’s a tight knit group that I am still close friends with, even four years later.

    The professors that worked on Unsettled Lives, Dr. Howell and Dr. Wellman, have become close mentors and friends to me. Working with professor Rose Wellman, the primary anthropologist on the project, had me really in tune with the anthropology department, which is what I majored in. I was able to work very closely with Dr. Wellman, and was able to explore more research opportunities with her. Her advice in post-graduate plans, my capstone essay, and everything in between, have always been so necessary for me. I hope that I have also been a help to her in advising on the Iraqi American community, and while joining her in her research.

    My internship with the Center for Arab American Studies evolved into becoming a mentee of Dr. Howell, a student (one that graduated with a minor in the subject), and a research and program associate. I was fortunate enough to work on many projects with Dr. Howell, from exploring the stories of Yemeni seafarers on the Great Lakes, to creating another exhibit – Halal Metropolis. Halal Metropolis, which explored the stories of Muslims in Metro Detroit, was another collaborative project of students, staff, professors, and researchers that happened across two campuses, several cities, and all across Detroit.

    All of this eventually led to a job at the Arab American National Museum, where I am the Public Programming Representative. The Museum is just a few miles away from UM-Dearborn and I am happy to report that the relationships and skills I was able to foster in my time at school are maintained and grown here. The team I work with speaks often with Dr. Howell and other CAAS professors, as we all exchange ideas and help. I continue to work for my Iraqi community, as well as uplift their voices. Though I found Unsettled Lives at a time where my own life was feeling quite unsettled, the collaborations and relationships it fostered gave me stability that allowed me to learn to tell stories, hone my skills, and create a new home out of the old.

    To learn more about Unsettled Lives, find their story online here

    Fence Mural Created by the Halal Metropolis Team and Local Detroit Community Members