Lessons of survival, resistance and resilience from Baghdad 

“ It took 12 years to be able to go back and grieve, to grieve what I had left behind. I didn’t grieve before, didn’t grieve the years, the loss of culture, the loss of homeland, the loss of friends. Yeah, there was a lot of grief that I had to go through, and I’m still grieving. It doesn’t stop, but it helps me make sense of my experience.”

Israa Al-Hasani

Israa’s journey is a remarkable story of survival and resilience, spanning from Baghdad, Iraq to Portland, OR. Our paths crossed through her work as a clinical social worker at Portland State University, where she supports students and immigrant communities, particularly BIPOC, in dealing with complex trauma, anxiety, depression, identity questioning, exile, and feelings of non-belonging.

In this interview, conducted in a blend of Arabic, Spanish, and English, we delve into a conversation of resistance, learning, and resilience. Join us as we explore Israa’s inspiring journey, her unwavering commitment to her community, and her unique approach to mental health care.

Manfred Parrales: Please introduce yourself.

Israa Al-Hasani: My name is Israa Hassani. I am an Iraqi American immigrant. I came to the United States in 1996. I have one biological son and two stepsons. I am also a licensed clinical social worker. I studied at PSU for my undergraduate degree in psychology, and I earned my master’s degree in social work from PSU as well. Before coming to the United States, I studied accounting for four years in Iraq. I identify as an Arab Muslim queer woman.

Israa Al-Hasani.Photo courtesy by Israa.

Manfred: You have a story of immigration that is both similar to and different from that of many people who come to the United States to pursue their degrees. How was the decision to leave Iraq and move to America at that moment?

Israa: When I came to the United States, it wasn’t for education; I came on a marriage visa. My education came later in my life. I moved to Oregon, and I’ve been here since 1996. Well, you know, my circumstances were quite unique. I left Iraq for humanitarian and political reasons. After the Kuwait invasion, Iraq was under sanctions and an economic embargo for 13 years, which was really difficult for the population. There was no hope, and everyone wanted to leave Iraq. For me, leaving was an escape from Iraq. I also lived under a dictatorship, which brought a lot of trauma. So, my departure was more about survival than seeking a better life. When I came here, it wasn’t a happy occasion; it was more about having survived.

Manfred Parrales: Your story in the United States is one of survival and resilience, which is how our paths have crossed, when I looked for counseling and I was referred to you. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when you first arrived in the U.S., and how did you cope with the cultural and emotional adjustments during that time?

Israa Hassani: When you are an immigrant you have certain ideas or preconceived ideas about your new life. Because we come to this country with high standards from our countries, I felt I needed to learn the language and understand the culture. That was a lot of hard work. In the process, I felt like I lost my original culture. When I had my child, I felt I needed to know this culture more to support and raise him in the right way, which is part of why I went to school.

When I look back, it was so lonely. I remember there were days when I was alone in the apartment, sitting on the floor and crying because I didn’t have the language. But then, survival mode kicked in, and I blocked out a lot of these feelings. I remember this particular instance because something happened at the time that was so intense, and I was alone.

Even though my ex was with me—we came on a marriage visa—he was very engaged in life here and wasn’t available for me. We didn’t know each other well, and we realized we were not compatible. I don’t want to go into too many details, but it was very lonely. I think I blocked those feelings away because I thought I couldn’t afford to feel.

I needed to keep going to build a life for myself. Then I got pregnant and had to take care of my son. It was a very surreal experience. When I look back on it, I think it was just survival.

Manfred Parrales: When you left Iraq due to the political and economic situation following the Kuwait invasion, it must have been traumatic and abrupt. You had major factors to contend with: being a woman, immigrant, Arabic, with all these challenges against you in a country like the United States. Can you pinpoint the moment when you realized you needed help or to take action, perhaps by returning to school to study psychology to understand what was happening and to help others?

Israa: The turning point came when my son turned 12. He started getting into a lot of trouble, and his teenage years were extremely difficult. There were issues and many other challenges. It was then that I realized I needed to understand what was happening, especially for my son’s sake. It must have been incredibly tough for him, being a kid new to a country like the United States, compounded by the situation in Iraq.

Israa with her children and stepchildren. Photo courtesy by Israa.

Manfred Parrales: Absolutely, that sounds incredibly challenging. Was there also a sense of shame or pressure that many immigrants experience?

Israa Hassani:there was definitely a layer of shame. In our immigrant community, there’s often a comparison between children, and my stepsons were seen as very successful, attending top schools. There’s a lot of pressure for children to excel academically. Additionally, as someone from a different culture, I felt the weight of expectations from the community and the education system here. I had to navigate all of these challenges, deciding which battles to pick and which to ignore. I separated myself from my old culture because I felt I needed to fully assimilate into American culture to understand and support my son better. Looking back, I realize I put too much pressure on myself and feel guilt for not doing enough. It was a difficult time filled with guilt, shame, and fear for my son’s future.

Manfred: And grief, loneliness and sadness come to the surface before we decide to look for help

Israa: I started to realize, “Oh, I have to go to therapy. I have to,” you know, and that’s when things… It took, what, 12 years? It took 12 years to be able to go back and grieve, to grieve what I had left behind. I didn’t grieve before, didn’t grieve the years, the loss of culture, the loss of homeland, the loss of friends. Yeah, there was a lot of grief that I had to go through, and I’m still grieving. It doesn’t stop, but it helps me make sense of my experience.

Manfred: Yeah, absolutely. And then you said something that was very important to me: I need to be “American enough” to help and understand my kid. And you came to Portland, Oregon, a very specific place in the United States. It’s diverse, but Portland has its own culture. How was the process of finding yourself in this new community in relation to your Arabic culture in Iraq?

Israa: It’s like, for example, if you were talking to someone from Latin America, you’d understand the sense of community. My cultural shock here in Portland… I started to notice the differences between Iraq and Oregon. My admiration goes out to people like you or international students that I work with because I know first hand about this situation. I came when I was 24, very young. My experience was like that of a 16-year-old. I was very protected back home, not even taking public transportation to school, always being driven. It’s not protection; it’s a control issue. So, I came here at 24 on paper, but really, my head was 16. I didn’t have much experience. Then there was the shame of my background. Even though I studied about Iraq’s rich history, it was very different from reality. There was a lot of internalized shame about my culture.

So when I escaped to come to the U.S., there was this shame of the culture I came from, and the expectation to fit in, to be “American enough.” I didn’t understand the difference until I finished my master’s. In my program, I was intentional in making relationships with people of color, not with white people. That’s when I started to understand what was happening to me. I knew America was an imperialist and colonialist country since I was in Iraq, but part of me didn’t want to accept it as home. But then, in my social work program, I realized, “Oh my God, I’m experiencing this in my body, the coloniasm, the trauma.” That’s when I understood my positionality in this state, about 12 years ago. I’ve been living here for 28 years.

Manfred: So, now you’ve completed degrees in  psychology and social work and you started working with particular communities you feel identified with, which is amazing. I think what you’re doing now with international students, immigrants, and queer communities is incredible. It’s basically what you’ve been doing, and it’s how I met you.

Israa: When I studied social work, I was fortunate enough to meet people who were very progressive in understanding the harm social work has done to minority communities, such as Black and Indigenous communities. Connecting what I learned in Iraq about the United States and its policies with what I learned here opened my eyes to these facts.

Understanding this, I realized that my knowledge was needed for these communities, as I had focused on learning non-Western approaches. At the time, “decolonizing” was not a widely known term, but I was fortunate to have professors who supported me in this focus.

Recognizing the trauma these communities have endured and the lack of fit with Western psychological practices, I decided to pursue alternative healing practices alongside my studies. Many people in our communities don’t seek Western mental health services due to cultural mismatch, leading to issues within families and involvement with child protection services.

So, I decided to provide healing services tailored to our communities’ needs. Speaking Arabic fluently, along with English, and understanding both cultures, I saw myself as a bridge between two worlds. This understanding led me to my first mental health job.

Manfred: The opportunity to bring this to life came in your first job? 

Israa: And then there’s the breaking point where everything started to come to life. After my master’s, I worked at OHSU and a smaller program called the Intercultural Psychiatric Program. This program was founded in the 70s after the Vietnam War, and it serves refugees, war survivors, and torture survivors. We served a diverse range of populations including Vietnamese, Laotians, Russians, Bosnians, Arabic speakers, Somalis, and Spanish speakers. It was funded by a grant from the UN to support clients who are torture survivors.

I worked there as a peer support specialist, which is more of a cultural role. It’s not exactly counseling, but it involves sharing common experiences with clients and clinicians. I have a shared experience with Arabic-speaking clients regarding culture, immigration, torture, and resettlement. Research shows that when you pair two people with common experiences, and one has a background in mental health, it’s appealing to both.

In that program, there were the doctors, who were mainly white, and then there were the clients. We, the counselors, were in between, acting as a bridge. Our role was to help the doctors understand the client’s background and experiences regarding mental health, and also explain to the clients how Western psychiatry works. We helped both parties come to a plan they could both work on.

For example, if a client didn’t want to take medication, my role was to explain to the psychiatrist why this was the case. If the client wouldn’t take medication, it was better to acknowledge and respect their decision, and find a plan that worked for them. This was the perfect place for me because I learned so much about different cultures and mental health, and I was able to fill some of the gaps in the market.

Manfred: That made me think about two ideas. You and I have been discussing expectation versus reality, and I think people in this program, well, they were escaping from awful circumstances from all over the world and came to the States. Now their expectations crash with the cultural shock of people. We experienced that. So, what is this thing about cultural shock? How do you see that daily in your practice with your clients and international students? How do you deal with that?

Israa: It’s totally different, you know, because the people I saw in that program at OHSU were rooted out of where they were. It wasn’t a choice like an international student. An international student chooses to leave their country and study abroad. So cultural shock applies more to international students and immigrants rather than refugees because the trauma for refugees is on so many levels. We call it complex trauma because there are many traumas layered on top of each other. The trauma of war or torture, the trauma of being unsafe in their homeland, and the trauma of resettlement. For international students, there’s more open room to understand that they’re going through cultural shock. They understand it’s not the end of their life. They may not want to be here, but if they go back home, nobody will kill them. There’s still hope. So there’s more understanding and presence in their experience. They realize, “This is a culture shock, but people like it.” For refugees and even immigrants like me, who was an immigrant, but was it really my choice? It was sort of a choice on the surface, but I had to escape, you know? So, I was in survival mode. I didn’t have a choice.

Manfred: Right, I see.

Israa: There’s no going back. I’ve had people who couldn’t make it in this country and decided to go back even though they knew they might be killed. They thought, “If we’re here, we’ll kill ourselves alone. If we go back home, at least we’ll be with our family.” So, the cultural shock becomes insignificant in the refugee experience because there are so many levels of oppression and survival.

Manfred Parrales: So, I see that under these circumstances, you’ve realized that Portland, Oregon, and the United States don’t bring enough tools to understand and help these international communities, both students and refugees.

Israa: Yes, everywhere in the United States, there’s an expectation for everyone to come and be productive, whether in school, factory, or business. The whole system and society are built on productivity, which comes from capitalism. So, there’s more of a focus on productivity rather than understanding and supporting the human behind the productivity. I’ve seen the difference between the social services system in Sweden and the United States, and that’s when I understood that the United States doesn’t see the human in us; it sees the human that can produce.

Manfred: So, in all these years of experience and observation as a social worker and psychologist, is there something that has been on your mind that has changed your perspective? Something that made you realize that you were making a change in people’s lives? 

Israa: I think there’s always growth, and with growth, things start to become clearer and more in-depth. One thing that’s been a common thread in my discussions with clients, interns, and counselors is how to resist a healing model that hasn’t been healing. What’s the alternative, and how do we build a community that supports each other to practice that alternative with joy? Joy and rest are active resistance to imperialism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and all the “isms.” So, how do we heal using the wisdom of our ancestors in a place that erases our history?

Israa with a نارگیله (nargile). Photo courtesy of Israa.

Manfred: Absolutely. Your emphasis on connecting individuals with their roots and cultural heritage is particularly impactful. It’s a reminder that our identities and experiences shape who we are and that there is strength in embracing our backgrounds.

Israa: Yes, exactly. By tracing back to one’s roots, individuals can often find a sense of belonging and pride in their heritage. This connection can serve as a source of empowerment, helping individuals navigate through difficult times with resilience and determination.

Manfred: Your work with students of color and immigrants highlights the importance of creating spaces where individuals feel valued and supported. It’s crucial to challenge systemic barriers and advocate for inclusivity in all aspects of society.

Israa: I would like to share with you some works that have inspired me a lot throughout my life. An image for the Freedom Monument and the surrounding community gathering space around it. The artist who designed the monument is Jawad Saleem. Also the song I love called Anthem by Leanord Cohen, I believe you will appreciate it. Leanord Cohen was a poet who wrote about the human experience and the conflicting wants and needs we have as human beings and this song continues to resonate with me. Finally, highlight the work of Saleem Haddad, a queer Palestinian/Lebanese/German/Iraqi author who writes about the difference in the experience of queer people in the Arab world. He is, by the way, a nephew to Jawad Saleem the artist above.

Hope this helps and you can enjoy the rest.

Freedom Monument (or Nasb al-Hurriyah) (Arabic: نصب الحرية), located in al-Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) in the center of Baghdad.

Israa Al-Hasani (she, hers) is a licensed clinical social worker who identifies as a Person of the Global Majority. She is originally from Iraq and speaks Arabic and English. She earned her undergrad in Psychology and Masters in Social Work from PSU. Before earning her master’s degree, Israa worked as a culturally specific Peer support specialist in OHSU serving refugees and immigrants who are war and torture survivors. She continued to do so in OHSU after earning her masters. Later, she moved to work as clinical supervisor in a residential setting in Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare. Her passion for serving People of the Global majority including but not limited to Refuges, Immigrants, Black, and Indigenous folks brought her back to serve these communities in Lutheran Community Services NW before moving and coming to work in SHAC.

Israa is passionate about working with people who identifies having complex trauma, anxiety, depression, identity questioning, exile and none belonging. She has training in anti-oppressive intercultural feminist psychotherapy which originated from her work within Black, Indigenous, transnational, anti-colonial, feminist paradigms. In her free time Israa likes to travel, attends theater and live music.

Manfred Parrales (His/Him)is a dynamic young Latino artist whose work spans from designer and art historian, to social practice and community building. With a multifaceted educational background, extensive professional experience, and a profound passion for art history, video languages and community engagement, Parrales views art as a collaborative endeavor, transcending individual expression. 

His journey in the arts began with bachelor’s degrees in Art History and studies in Design and visual communication in Costa Rica, and currently pursuing a master’s degree in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. His career has taken him across Latin America and the United States, where he’s gained invaluable experience in museums, education, technology, and various artistic disciplines.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

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