When my parents attempt to describe what I do, they struggle between ‘she’s an artist’ or ‘she studied psychotherapy and sang with refugees!’ to ‘wallah I don’t know –‘ilmi ‘ilmak.’ Unfortunately for them, I did not pick one of the solid career choices of doctor, engineer, businesswoman, or architect. My journey into my line of work has not been the most straightforward.
My career path reflects an eclectic life journey, and I cannot talk about them in isolation. When I was 11 years old, my family and I took a summer holiday to UK. As a result of war and sanctions in Iraq, I still find myself on UK soil many years later. On arrival, I defined my identity simply as Iraqi. I would parrot my mother’s oft-repeated statement: we are only here temporarily, until things settle down back home. As things in Iraq went from bad to worse, I felt increasingly disconnected from my friends in Baghdad and I began to accept London as my ‘home’. Baghdad receded into the past, and there was no talk of the future. My English was basic and I was nowhere near owning a British passport but, at 16 years old, my sense of belonging had already shifted, though silently and inwardly. At 21 years old, I received my British passport, and began to publicly identify myself as ‘British-Iraqi.’ My father questioned the validity of my British-ness; ‘we are not English, how are you British?’ he would ask. I don’t remember making an emotive argument (for a change); just presenting him with proof of my current legal status – a little red document that anchored the shaky ground on which we all stood.
As my personal story unfolded so did my professional one. I began with a BSc in Archaeology. Initially, when I wanted to study fine art, I got a ‘but what will you do with that, ya mama?!’ I went on to do an MA in Middle Eastern Studies, whilst working in a museum on Islamic coinage. Unwilling to accept that I was put on this earth to study coins and documents, I took a completely new direction with an MA in European classical theatre, a performance-based course that came as a welcome respite from the cognitive worlds I had inhabited so far. Through this I discovered projects that used theatre and art to work with communities and to help people talk about issues that ordinarily would be difficult. At the time, I did not know that such initiatives existed, nor what this work was called (applied theatre to those interested). On occasion, I worked with therapists who took a steadier approach that was more about the process of dialogue and healing than simply putting on a show. This led me to complete some psychotherapy training. I’ve applied a mix of these disciplines to working with refugees, asylum seekers and various Middle Eastern migrants in the UK, as well as communities in Iraq and Lebanon.
Stories My Mother Told Me Workshop: exploring Iraqi identity & belonging
Commission by Iraqi Cultural Centre, London 2013
Now my work is a combination of the above: Applying a creative and therapeutic approach to working with Middle Eastern communities. Simple, eh?
‘You complicate things’, my husband said yesterday, ‘people don’t want to hear all this. Just say: art therapy. Bam! The end.’
Well, I’m not a therapist, and, although therapeutic, my work is not about treating people with mental illness, but using therapy to structure and hold group discussion and discovery. It is more about connecting people than simply reflecting on an individual basis. I use a multi-disciplinary approach, combining therapy and the arts with social work. As Middle Easterners, we are still underrepresented in such fields, which is particularly sad given that there is a lot of need for this kind of work in our part of the world. Women of Middle Eastern background tend to choose more conventional career paths such as clinical psychology and psychiatry. Although there is no shortage of artists producing exciting works, they rarely actively engage with the public to help dialogue the issues they address artistically. Similarly, we have our fair share of charity and NGO workers and, although a lot of good intentions are put into valuable action here, it is often done in an old school, top-down fashion, which to me, can come across condescending to the beneficiaries. The community work which I have been involved in accepts that the benefits of working with others is mutual; I am learning and self-developing as much as I am contributing to others’ development. It’s always a two-way process.
My specific area of interest relates to how migration and integration impacts our sense of identity and belonging. I am particularly concerned with personal integration, not simply the social kind which is to do with fitting in with the whole. How does someone, who has multiple identities, find the right balance to feel well and whole? What helps this process, and what hinders it? Can people work together to better understand themselves, and ultimately feel more connected to one another? What can help support a migrant community, especially when intergenerational experiences are likely to differ significantly.
The danger is in the extremes. In an attempt to socially ‘integrate’ into a host community, I may deny my cultural roots, abandon my language and countrywomen, and risk feeling disorientated and isolated from my support network. Alternatively, I might religiously hold onto my community’s value system, differentiating myself from my new surroundings and end up living in an isolated bubble. There’s no obvious right or wrong here, yet both options can leave individuals, or even minority groups within a community, vulnerable to external religious or political pressures. Meanwhile, the whole range of possibilities between these extremes can be incredibly uniting when explored in a group.
For a long time, I felt alone in my identity struggles. Having met and worked with many who share similar life experiences, I now view my path as relatively ‘normal’. It may have been easier if I had gone into dentistry however, at the heart, it is only human to want to connect with others, and to feel connected. Rather than solely focusing on the negative impact of displacement, in the way a mental health worker would, I have had a chance to witness the resilience of those who have experienced trauma. Although many of those I work with have endured painful experiences, I often find myself amazed by how we are all, as human beings, able to adjust and grow to take in and integrate our experiences, often coming out with wider and richer perspectives.
This is the heart of what I do in communities, which I believe creates ripples of hope that are taken up by others and turned into waves of change.
 ‘Wallah’ literally means ‘by God’ and is used in Arabic informally for emphasis but also in some cases to give an oath or make a promise. ‘ ‘ilmi ‘ilmak’ is an Arabic expression literally meaning ‘your knowledge is my knowledge’ roughly equivalent to the English expression ‘your guess is as good as mine.’
 ‘ya mama’ is a term of endearment which is often used in Arabic by mothers towards their daughters and translates roughly as ‘my darling.’