Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tolerance the payoff for Iraqi settling in Winnipeg

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In the last 30 years, the number of Iraqis moving to Manitoba has soared for many reasons: the Iran-Iraq war; the despotism of Saddam Hussein; then the chaos that followed his ouster and the U.S. invasion.

In 1991, the Canadian census recorded 4,790 Iraqis; just 152 in Manitoba. Today, there are about 2,500 in Manitoba alone, said Hani Al-Ubeady. The man born in Iraq has worked with refugees at Winnipeg's Welcome Place for a decade and has seen them coming from a unique perspective for a long time.

Al-Ubeady was a kid in Iraq in the 1980s. His family in Baghdad was well off but, living under Saddam Hussein's rule, he couldn't speak his mind or voice a contrary opinion. That didn't sit right.

"I've got what I need, then why don't I go with the flow and join the herd?" he asked himself. "Education was free, but motivation was lacking," he said.

An inner voice told him he had to leave Iraq: "You won't be able to reach your goal or be yourself, 100 per cent."

He and a cousin left in their late teens. "My hope was to go to any place in the West."

Now he's a housing counsellor at Welcome Place, Manitoba's largest refugee settlement agency.

"I got used to the cold and became a citizen." He married a woman from Bosnia in Winnipeg and has two young children.

He has no regrets about leaving Iraq, where he could have stayed and, materially, lived a comfortable life.

"I'm not saying I'd hate to be rich, but there's a component of satisfaction and contentment you get from living here. Your potential is being realized, and there's always room for development."

Refugees who fled for their lives and lost everything in the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the chaos that ensued had a very different experience, he said.

"I deal with some people with post-traumatic stress disorder. It was a very destructive event, the war in Iraq," he said.

"They used to have houses, cars and cash. They get here and they're on assistance... It is very challenging and demanding and heart-breaking.

"They come here and need resources and assistance and we don't have it," he said.

All he can do is offer encouragement.

"I tell them 'You are in the right place. It's only a matter of time. If you survived the situation you were in before, you will survive this. You can make it.' " He reminds them about what they've gained but can't see.

"The value of what you're getting is not visible or tangible but very crucial to your life. It's more valuable because it can't be bought... You can believe whatever you want to as long as it doesn't hurt anyone."

His appreciation of freedom of expression and Winnipeg's diversity hasn't worn off after 10 years.

When Al-Ubeady visited the Middle East and Europe recently, he was reminded of how friendly Manitoba is.

"In the Middle East, they emphasize differences in social class, the colour of skin matters, ethnic groups and social affiliation matter to people," said Al-Ubeady.

"I find it very interesting in Canada, where you have people from all corners of the world yet there is a relative harmony. I'm not saying we've got it perfect here, but we are ahead of a lot of countries in the world, including Western countries," said Al-Ubeady who speaks Arabic, Spanish, some Farsi and French.

Friends and family in Turkey, Lebanon, France and Iraq couldn't believe Winnipeg's peaceful mix of people, he said.

"I talked to people about things that were an eye-opener to them... The availability of varieties of food, and things prepared according to certain rituals and traditions like halal and kosher," he said.

"We take them for granted... There's a tolerance for diversity here and it's practised at many levels," said Al-Ubeady.

"Many think it's trivial, but it means a lot somewhere else."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 J7

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