ENHANCE UNDERSTANDING

From Baghdad to EPIC’s Board Presidency

By Zeena Abdul-Rahman, EPIC Board President 

Veteran EPIC Board Member Bilal Wahab snaps a selfie at EPIC's April 2019 Board Retreat. Behind Bilal from left-to-right: EPIC Executive Director Erik Gustafson and Board members Taif Jany, Hussein Al-Baya (Treasurer), Dennis Eóghan Clancey, Zeena Abdul-Rahman (President), Sören Südhof, Kate Phillips-Barrasso (Vice President), Yasmeen Alamiri, and David Slater.

The concussion of the blast shook our car, rattling the car doors on their hinges. It was the morning of August 7, 2003, and I was just a 19-year-old college kid at the time. Our family’s driver, Mansour, was taking me to class. A minute before the explosion, I remember sitting in the back seat zoning out about a class assignment that was due in my dental anatomy lab. An instant later, we were in survival mode.

The sudden explosion was at once disorientating and terrifying, as the car swiftly crossed lanes and bumped roughly across the medium toward oncoming traffic. Mansour didn’t spare a second, executing a U-turn and racing me back home. I can still remember my face pressed against the car door window from the force of the turn and seeing bedlam outside as every driver panicked. What just happened? Was it a bomb? From where and targeted at what? Are we under attack? With a million questions swirling in my head, Mansour sped like a Hollywood stunt driver onto sidewalks and through intersections, completely ignoring the stop signals. At one point, I remember seeing the flash of a large vehicle heading straight at us as we flew through a four-lane intersection. By some miracle, we survived what turned out to be a mass casualty bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad. But it was in that moment that I realized all was far from good in my home city.

As an Iraqi, it was not the first explosion I had experienced. With previous bombings, such as during Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, life always seemed to return to normal. The violence would come and go, then we would return to the daily rhythm of life. This time, it felt different. I was no longer that college kid with my head in the clouds. After the attack, I was painstakingly aware of the current situation; the tension and fear in the air were palpable and growing. Other attacks would soon follow, including the August 19 Canal Hotel bombing that tragically killed United Nations’ Special Representative Sérgio Vieira de Mello and 21 others. I can still remember the feelings of utter powerlessness and loss of control, as though we had all been swept away like paper boats caught in rapids. That powerlessness eventually turned into angry determination to retake control of my fate, to do something about what was happening in my country.

That powerlessness eventually turned into angry determination to retake control of my fate, to do something about what was happening in my country.

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In 2003, I was a dental student at the University of Baghdad. I left Iraq during the U.S.-led invasion that began on March 20, 2003, and returned that May after fighting subsided and things appeared somewhat more stable. For a time, school resumed, but those events of August 2003 made the violence and resulting carnage impossible to ignore. Iraq was spiraling out of control right before my eyes, while I was learning how to carve a tooth out of wax. My choices, my entire life, felt small and insignificant.

Zeena (top row, fourth from left) pictured with fellow students at Baghdad University's College of Dentistry

After a few months of begging and pleading with my parents, they allowed me to drop out of dental school and move to the U.S. to pursue a career in law. For me, becoming a lawyer seemed like the type of profession that I needed in order to make a positive contribution to Iraq’s political transition and reconstruction. Shortly after I left Iraq, an armed militia kidnapped my father. He was detained for four days, transported in the trunk of a car from one underground bunker to another. His captors finally released him, only after the intervention of our family’s tribe in Fallujah. Why was my father targeted? Who were the armed men who took my father? What persuaded the men to release him? Those are questions you don’t ask in Iraq unless you’re looking for trouble, and for us, the only priority was securing my dad’s safe release. In the years immediately following 2003, kidnappings became common in Iraq, by both pro-government militias and insurgent groups, as a means of raising money from ransom payments, or to forcibly disappear their political opponents. My family was among the fortunate ones. The loved ones of far too many other families, who fell victim to kidnappings were never seen again.

A few years later, my soon-to-be husband, Fadi, was the victim of a failed assassination attempt. We had met at Baghdad University when I was still a dental student. Fadi had decided to remain to complete his degree. As the son of Iraq’s Minister of Electricity, he was intentionally targeted by insurgents. It was a well-coordinated attack. His assailants planted a bomb in his locker. When it detonated, the explosion took part of his left foot. The locker door shielded the rest of his body, saving his life. But one of Fadi’s closest friends was next to him when the bomb went off. He was mortally wounded. Another student who had been nearby died from a shrapnel wound. As Fadi was evacuated from the scene, his vehicle came under attack by a second bomb and rooftop snipers. I only learned of the attack afterwards; once again I felt totally helpless.

Despite the extreme violence my family and I experienced, I knew that we were among the lucky ones. Unlike many of my friends, both my father and husband survived. Yet the senseless violence, the rampant criminality, and the terrible loss of innocent lives continued unabated. It made me more determined than ever to find ways to help promote peace and healing in Iraq.

Despite the extreme violence my family and I experienced, I knew that we were among the lucky ones. It made more determined than ever to find ways to help promote peace and healing in Iraq.

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Throughout my undergraduate and law school studies, I wrote a weekly column for my school newspapers to provide updates about the ongoing conflict and the human rights crisis in Iraq. For many Americans at that time, the Iraq War had slipped into the background. My hope was that my columns would remind Americans that, as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, war and sectarian violence ravaged my country. After law school, I joined the Washington D.C. office of an international law firm where I focused the pro bono part of my practice on Iraqi asylum resettlement and special immigrant visa applications. In my free time, I helped start a networking group and organized events for young Iraqi professionals living in the U.S.

Zeena with EPIC's field staff in Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Zeena visited Erbil shortly after being elected to serve as Board President. She is pictured with EPIC's Country Representative and Project Director Mohammad Khalil (right) and EPIC's Finance and Compliance Manager Shakir Almousa (left).

Although I was actively engaged in various Iraq-focused projects, it wasn’t until I met the EPIC team that I realized how much more I could contribute. The scale of EPIC’s projects and vision for Iraq’s future is beyond anything I have seen before. I am in awe of the talent, drive, and ambition of each EPIC staff and board member, and I am grateful to be given the opportunity to serve as the President of EPIC’s Board of Directors. EPIC has evolved so quickly over the last few years, growing to become an important and influential Iraq focused non-profit organization both in the United States and on the ground in Iraq. With a fully operational field office in Erbil, and an experienced and dedicated staff at both the headquarters and field levels, the future of EPIC is filled with unlimited opportunities to make a difference in Iraq, and I am excited to be part of EPIC’s next chapter.

Read the press release here. 

SHOW YOUR SUPPORT FOR ZEENA AND THE EPIC TEAM TODAY! Make a one-time charitable contribution or become one of our sustaining donors as EPIC begins a new chapter in our work to break the cycle of violence and advance peace and human rights for all Iraqis.

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