It’s quiet inside Ali Al-Khazraji’s tidy living room in Kent. From the muted television in the corner, an Iraqi TV station shows silent videos of masked men and armored vehicles. In another room, 23-year-old Al-Khazaraji adjusts a laptop screen so it faces his grandmother. They’re getting ready to call his aunt in Baghdad on Skype.
The last few weeks have been tense for the family.
Since Sunni extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seized Iraq’s northern city of Mosul last month, the deteriorating situation in the country has gained international attention. But things aren’t getting any better.
Now calling itself simply the Islamic State (IS), the group has blazed past the Iraqi army, established an Islamic caliphate and brutally targeted Shia communities in the northern and eastern parts of the country. With each day that goes by, a unified and stable Iraq seems less likely. Sectarian tensions are resurfacing.
Here in Washington, Iraqis like Al-Khazaraji collectively hold their breath for what will come next. As talks shift toward the possibility of split-state solution, it seems the Iraq they left behind may vanish completely. And for many, the news is coming just as they’ve gotten settled in the Northwest.
Washington has long been a receiver of refugees and asylum seekers. And Iraqis are the largest group so far this year — the Office of Refugee and Immigration Assistance counts 482 Iraqis out of a total 1750 refugee arrivals between October 2013 and May 2014.
Al-Khazraji came to Washington as a refugee along with his grandmother, father, stepmother and three siblings back in 2009. They left Baghdad in 2001 for Jordan after Al-Khazraji’s mother died.
Now he works at a bakery and as a rental car driver in Kent, and just finished a degree from Renton Technical College. Five years in, Washington is finally starting to feel normal. When he mentions his graduation, a giant grin spreads across his face. But it disappears when the subject shifts back to Iraq.
It’s been more than ten years since he’s lived there, but he says there’s nowhere he’d rather be. Especially now.
“It’s weird and difficult for me to see Iraq in this situation and be in a different country,” he says.
Al-Khazraji joined about 100 Iraqis in a protest in downtown Seattle last month, where the group carried homemade signs and shouted slogans like “Peace For Iraq,” and “No More ISIS.”
He keeps up on news with a smartphone application that streams information from the local stations in Baghdad. And when influential Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani called on Iraqis to volunteer for the army a few weeks ago, Al-Khazraji says he considered returning to Iraq to join the fight.
“When I see what’s going on I have to do something,” he says. “I can’t just watch my country go down.”
There’s a lot he’s left behind in Baghdad. The rest of his family is still there, along with a fiance he’s been trying to get U.S. citizenship for since 2012.
Al-Khazraji is a Shia, but he says sects shouldn’t matter at a time like this because Iraqis are fighting a common enemy.
He remembers growing up in a mixed neighborhood in Baghdad.
“I could never tell the difference between Sunni and Shia,” he says. “[Sunnis] were some of the nicest people of my childhood.”
Despite the violence, he believes the sects can live together. His own family is proof of it.
Al-Khazraji’s stepmother is a Jordanian Sunni his father met when the family relocated after his mother’s death in Baghdad. He says marriage between sects is more common than a lot of people think, and it’s never been an issue for his family.
Before last month’s chaos started in their native country, Iraqis here in Washington were already making an effort to bring communities closer. Majid Al-Bahadli is a community leader and one of the founders of the Iraqi Community of Washington State. Formed only eight months ago, the group aims to strengthen ties between Iraqi Christians, Sunnis, Shia and Kurds living in Washington. They organized the protest that Al-Khazraji attended last month.
Al-Bahadli’s lived in Washington since
1992 1995 — he’s part of a wave of Iraqi refugees who arrived in the Northwest following the Gulf War. Between that group and the refugees still arriving from the second Iraq war, he estimates around 21,000 now live in Washington. But before they began the organization, there was no platform for communities to meet one another.
Occasionally, Al-Bahadli says he’ll go to a Sunni mosque in the Northgate neighborhood to worship, and that Sunnis have sometimes come to iftar dinners at the Shia mosque since Ramadan began earlier this month. But it’s case-by-case.
“It depends on the people. Sometimes people are open minded,” he said. “They accept you and don’t care if you are Sunni or Shia. We have one thing in common, and it is Iraq.”
Still, it’s getting harder to argue that sectarian divisions are not undermining Iraq’s stability. IS militants have killed crowds of Shias, the Iraqi army has so far failed to stop the group, and the Kurds have their sights set on a long-dreamed-of independence in the north. Solutions that keep Iraq unified are getting slimmer.
In a 2006 New York Times op-ed, Sen. Joe Biden and Leslie H. Gelb suggested creating Iraqi states according to sect as a possible solution to the sectarian violence gripping the country eight years ago. While the idea was met with harsh criticism back then, it’s resurfaced since IS has advanced.
But Al-Bahadli believes it’s still not a solution most of Washington’s Iraqis can get behind.
“If we divide them and decide, ‘Sunnis are not Iraqis, Shias are not Iraqis,’ we will become a very weak country,” he said. “In general, at least for the Shias [in Washington], [we] do not want a split.”
And with such an outcome, it’s hard not to wonder what would become of families like Al-Khazraji’s that are living in Iraq; will marriages across sects continue to exist, or disappear altogether?
When he starts talking about his experience growing up in Baghdad again, Al-Khazraji sweeps his hands through the air to describe its grandness. He’d like to return to Iraq himself one day, and what’s important, he says, is that it stays the way he remembers.
“It’s my country and part of my heart,” he says. “…Iraq must stay Iraq, no matter what.”
This article is part of On the Borders of War, a series about youth caught in conflict in the Middle East.
This article has been updated since initial publication to reflect that Majid Al-Bahadi arrived in Washington in 1995, not 1992, as originally reported.