A different perspective: Iraqi woman shares her story with Kenai students

Posted: Thursday, September 23, 2010

Asmaa Almaliki, an Iraqi ex-pat now living in the U.S., used to work as an interpreter for U.S. troops on the streets of Baghdad.

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M. Scott Moon
M. Scott Moon
Joannie Kuczmarski hugs Asmaa Almaliki after Almaliki spoke to students at Kenai Middle School about her experiences growing up in Iraq. Almaliki served as an interpreter during the Iraq War.

On Wednesday, she was working as an interpreter in a very different environment, the library at Kenai Middle School.

The two groups of middle schoolers who attend her presentations about her life and her work probably didn't know what they were in for, but they all left with a few good reasons to keep their noses buried in their books afterward.

"If you have no education, you are like a soldier in a battlefield with no weapon," she said, telling the students about the value her own father placed on education.

Almaliki spent much of her time speaking to the students about the stark differences between the hardships faced by students in Iraq compared to the opportunities provided to U.S. students.

"It's important to set a goal at your age and go for it and do it and don't complain," she said. "Because seriously, you guys are lucky; lucky, beautiful, blessed."

She pointed out all the luxuries afforded to the students seated before her that she never knew when she went to school.

She talked about how in Iraq, students sit on the floor because there are no desks or chairs in class, computers, the internet and TVs are nowhere in sight, and the buildings are windowless and lack air conditioning.

That's not to mention a culture that discouraged most women like herself from attaining a higher education.

"Be blessed that you are Americans," she said. "Because America is a great place, you could do so many things, you could have so many jobs, any opportunity you want. We didn't have this luxury."

Almaliki gave examples of some of the specific hardships she faced as a child, even those that many would take for granted here.

She noted that she didn't even have candy or chocolate. New or nice clothes were out of the question.

"I didn't get to wear beautiful clothes. So if my aunt had a nice skirt that would fit me, I would take it. If my uncle had nice pants, he would give them to my brother. Of course, those were raggy and ugly, but we had no other choice," she said.

Almaliki was fortunate, after high school her father enrolled her in a private college to study English literature.

She admitted that it wasn't her favorite subject, nor was she good at it at first, but her father explained that it could one day serve as a passport, a notion that seemed distant and irrelevant at the time.

"Look what happened because I graduated from college that I didn't even (originally) want to," she said. "I became an interpreter, I made money, I met them (gesturing to a group of Alaska National Guard members and their families who she worked with) and now I'm in America because of my education."

After graduating college Almaliki decided to keep pursuing an education and became computer savvy as well.

With an education, Almaliki also wanted a job.

"I wanted to prove that a woman can not just stay home. Just because my mom stayed home does not necessarily mean that I have to stay home," she said. "I have to do things my way without men."

Almaliki first started working with an Iraqi company that paid her $100 a month to work as a linguist. She said that was good pay.

Almaliki was eventually paired with the 297th infantry of the Alaska National Guard, who were stationed in Baghdad from January of 2005 to January of 2006.

It was there that she met among others in the unit, Ken Felchle, a social studies teacher at KMS.

When the unit departed Iraq, Felchle said he and his fellow guardsmen promised Almaliki that they would again meet.

Felchle started to tear up on Wednesday when he said to his students, "I never thought I would see her again," before he introduced Almaliki.

Through a twist of events and the power of social media however, Michael Eastham, of Anchorage, flew Almaliki north from her home in Florida where she lives now, to visit.

Felchle said he only learned two days prior that she would be in Alaska.

For student's, Almaliki's short presentations were powerful.

"It was inspiring," said MacKenzie Evenson, a KMS eighth grader.

Evenson said she'd never really considered the differences between her own life as a female American student and that of a female Iraqi student.

"I've tried to, but I never really got the whole impact of it," she said.

"I couldn't imagine it," said Leah Nacca, also an eighth grader. "I wouldn't have thought that you couldn't go to college."

Both Nacca and Evenson said the presentation made them think a little differently about their classes, and both agreed they were a little more appreciative that no one would tell them at the door tomorrow that they couldn't go to school because of their ethnicity, political views or gender.

"Even though I don't like school, it's important," Evenson said.

Dante Petri can be reached at dante.petri@peninsulaclarion.com.

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