When Ban Al-Malika grew up in Iraq, she knew America from television and war. Cultural stereotypes ran deep, both for foreigners and other Muslim denominations. Her mother had grown up in a more liberal time when girls had prospects. Now bombs rocked cafés where women worked. The Jewish musicians who had once dominated Baghdad’s cafés had long since left, and sectarian violence shook the city.
“My mother said that there were lots of Jewish people in Iraq, and nobody had a problem,” said 22-year-old Ban (pronounced Baahn) during an interview. “But, after Israel and Palestine, Iraqis said they are bad people. Sunnis don’t consider Shias Muslim and vice versa. I used to believe that, too. Now I think having the same values but different ways to connect to
G-d is what’s important.”
Ban’s journey from Bagdad to Oregon and new ways of thinking involved travel, education and the help of good friends. It started with a scholarship to the Japanese Ashinaga High School (ashinaga.org) summer program in Tokyo. The organization provides education and support worldwide for children who have lost one or both parents. Both Ban’s father and stepfather had passed away.
During the summer program, Ban and her brother met young people from around the world. When the organization invited her back to attend Waseda University, her close family
hesitated to send a 17-year-old girl abroad alone. Still, after two years studying English at an Iraqi college, everyone was ready for her to take advantage of this golden opportunity. “It was different from Iraq; I wasn’t memorizing,” Ban said about her studies in Japan. “It was the first time I could share my opinions of the world.” Although classes were in English, Ban learned to read and write Japanese. And her international relations major helped her qualify for a junior year abroad at the University of Oregon.
The Portland Connection
Bonnie Messinger and Steve Mullinax were delighted to welcome the Iraqi student to their home. They’d met through Bob Cooper, Ban’s student advisor in Japan. Bob’s mother, Marsha Cooper, lives at Rose Schnitzer Manor and is an old family friend. Messinger introduced Ban to Ellen Fineman and Patrick Ward and to David Fuks, the CEO of Cedar Sinai Park, and his wife DeAnn. During semester breaks, Ban has stayed with all three families and interned at CSP’s Rose Schnitzer Manor.
“It’s been a delight,” said Messinger. “Ban is open to all kinds of new experiences. She didn’t know what gardening was about, but on my birthday friends came to garden and she helped. In April, we joined a chorus with young people from a Christian denomination. All three families went with her to the Interfaith Iftar, the evening meal at the end of Ramadan. Ban is curious as to how people practice their religion.”
Ban’s hosts have taken her hiking, canoeing, even to a rodeo. Together they discovered the Iraqi restaurant Dar Salam (darsalamportland.com) on Northeast Alberta, which has become a home away from home. Ban prepared a presentation on dealing with Muslims for the Cedar Sinai Park staff. She hopes to return to Oregon for graduate school next year after finishing her degree in Japan.
“This has been my first experience with Jewish people,” Ban said. “I’ve changed the stereotype first in myself and then in my mom, brother and friends. Now I can think in a Christian or a Jewish way. In Iraq, it’s not good to go to a church if you’re Muslim, but DeAnn, Ellen and Bonnie come with me to the mosque. When Ellen has the Sabbath, I enjoy how Jewish people pray; when I meet my Christian friends, I enjoy how they pray; and, when I go to the mosque, I pray as a Muslim.”