By Gabriel Medina Arenas
Like many other Muslim women living in the United States, she wears a hijab, she prays five times a day and celebrates Ramadan.
But Zainab Al-Baaj is different.
Al-Baaj, 35, and her family are living proof that Iraqis can successfully adapt to the U.S. but at the same time keep their traditions and religion alive.
Al-Baaj has also helped Lincoln’s refugee population and has helped to minimize deeply rooted stereotypes through her job at the Good Neighbor Community Center.
“She is a very positive role model for Iraqi families, women and mothers, “said her boss at the center, Sheila Schlisner. “I know her children. Except for Norhan, they were all born in the United States. They are very Americanized, but still she has taught them their culture and their religion.”
Al-Baaj came to Lincoln in 1994 with her husband, Mohammed, 45, who has worked at Kawasaki for eight years, and her daughter Norhan, 17, as war refugees. Then the couple had Taha, 16, Suzanne, 10, and Ali, 3. Al-Baaj also has family in Michigan and Ohio.
“We try to keep our culture, language and religion,” she said. “Those are the most important things for us. But we have adapted some good things from the American culture and mixed it with our own culture. Here we have learned to be more open-minded and listen more to others. Back home most of the people don’t listen very much.”
Al-Baaj’s family speaks Arabic at home with their children. They also watch Arabic television so their children don’t forget the language.
Islam is very important for them, and they have taught their children to be proud of being Muslims. Norhan and Suzanne cover their bodies when they go to school. Al-Baaj says they are the only Muslim students in their schools but nobody has bothered them for that reason.
“Everything we do every day revolves around religion, everything,” she said. “Before we do anything we start saying God’s name. We have taught our children to pray five times a day. If they lose their connection with God they’ll get lost, especially in this culture.”
Al-Baaj said that some Iraqi people come to the U.S. and try to forget about their religion and their culture to live the American life. Eventually, she said, they get confused.
Al-Baaj’s teenage son, Taha, is a Raymond Central High School student. His parents know he is in a difficult age and they have guided him so he doesn’t get into trouble.
“A lot of Iraqi boys in Lincoln are in violent environments and try to get into gangs,“ Taha said. “My parents tell us not to hang around with people with bad morals. I’m always in a safe and controlled environment, and most of the times I’m doing academic work or community service. That has really helped me to succeed in school.”
Community service and help is another essential thing for Al-Baaj’s family.
“In my culture we can count on each other all the time,” she said. “If there’s a funeral it’s our duty to help with food, water or with whatever is needed. It’s the same thing if there is a wedding or someone is sick. Sometimes we see our neighbors more than our extended family.”
Taha, who wants to study petroleum engineering, believes his family can be seen as a model by other Iraqi families.
“Unfortunately a lot of people in the Iraqi community don’t want to work that much or they live on welfare. Both of my parents work hard, so maybe my family can somehow be an example for other Iraqis.”
Zenah Swaiyeh, 32, who has worked as Al-Baaj’s assistant since 2004, agreed that her boss’ family should be looked up to by other Iraqi families.
“Other families can see hers as a model because they keep their religion and culture as if they were living in Iraq. Some families forget about our culture and want to live the American way of life.”
Al-Baaj’s job at the Good Neighbor Community Center as the MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) Hope Project coordinator is complex. Many people that she helps don’t know enough English, so she aids them with immigration issues, retirement, English classes, citizen classes and housing. She also explains the medical system, gives Islam and Muslim culture presentations in schools, makes phone calls for them and even helps them to read their mail.
“I like to help people,” she said. “I like to bring them hope. When I help a family and the problem is gone I feel very happy. When I first came here I didn’t speak any English and some people helped me. So I’m trying to do the same for other people.”
Al-Baaj encourages other Iraqis and refugees in general to learn English and to try to get the best jobs they can. She is happy that she is seeing more and more Iraqis buying homes, opening businesses, becoming American citizens and getting federal jobs.
“The United States is not called the land of opportunities for nothing,” she said. “There are no limits here. You can become a millionaire and you can study whatever you want even if you are a refugee. But some people prefer to stay on welfare and don’t grow. I always tell the people I help and newcomers that they can become like me or better than me if they want to.”
Through her job Al-Baaj has helped break deeply rooted stereotypes in the Iraqi community and has created bridges of friendship between different religions likes Islam, Yazidism and Sabianism.
“She really stresses equality,” said Schlisner, her boss. “In Iraq the Muslim people don’t respect the Yazidis. She had Muslim and Yazidi women in her English class. Zainab helped to break down those barriers. She has also embraced Sabians.”
Schlisner said that Al-Baaj has also helped to break another stereotype regarding religions and the Good Neighbor Community Center.
“Our agency is supported partially by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and sometimes people think that Muslims and Seventh Day Adventists hate each other, but that’s not true,” she said. “We are breaking down the stereotypes because even though we don’t believe the same things, we don’t hate each other.”
Al-Baaj’s family comes from the Prophet Mohammed’s lineage, so her family is seen as an example to follow in the community. This fact curiously helped other Iraqi women to be allowed to drive by their husbands and society in general. Al-Baaj explained that in her country that is a taboo and people think that if a woman drives a car alone, then she can go anywhere freely and therefore she can be with other men that are not her husband easier than if she wouldn’t drive alone.
“When other Iraqi women saw that me and my sisters were driving here, they started to realize it was OK because we come from Prophet Mohammed’s family and they respect us,” she said. “Now more women are allowed to drive to go to the grocery store and wherever they need to. But I try not to drive at night without my husband, unless it’s an emergency, because people can make up gossips.”
Schlisner said that Al-Baaj has helped Iraqi women understand that they don’t have to be prisoners in their own homes. “The husband typically goes out and gets a job, the kids go to school and the mom is left at home. So she has helped them to build a social network encouraging them to use their skills and talents to work at home or work outside.”
Even though Al-Baaj is now a role model it was difficult at first for her and her family to adapt to the American way of life.
“Language, culture and weather have been the hardest things for us,” she said. “When I came here it was a big shock for me to see how women dress, especially in the summer time. They show almost everything. I wanted to tell them to cover and keep their beauty to their husbands, not to show it to everybody.”
Al-Baaj’s family came from Basra, in southern Iraq, a city that was bombed often, especially during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003.
“We always lived in war,” she said. “Thunderstorms remind me of bombing. So I hate them. When it’s thundering I don’t leave my house. My brain is telling me, ‘its war again.’ I know I’m safe, but a lot of things come back to me.”
When Al-Baaj was in the fourth grade her house was hit by a bomb, and she remembers that the blast lifted her and her family so high in the air, they almost touched the ceiling. She also remembers that all the windows in her house were broken and she and her family had cuts all over their bodies. They crawled out and lived in an aunt’s house for a month until their house was fixed.
In another bombing her brother Ali was hit and suffered major injuries. He had a deep cut on his abdomen that exposed his intestines. Doctors at a hospital were able to save his life, but he continues to suffer related health problems today, she said.
“Sometimes my kids complain because they don’t have cell phones or iPods like all the American kids. But we can’t afford it,” she said. “We remind them that they are fortunate because they didn’t live in the middle of a war and constant bombings. They have enough food, clothes, shoes, electricity, water and a warm bed every day.”