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Reflections Upon Iraqi Refugees’ Identity (Book review)
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Madeline Campbell’s nonfiction book, Interpreters of Occupation: Gender and the Politics of Belonging in an Iraqi Refugee Network, focuses on Iraqi family roles of men and women (Campbell 6) and the gendered and familial identifications which had emerged from translation encounters between discourses of United States’ power and of Iraq culture (Campbell 15). With the United States’ troops in Iraq in 2015, security and familial obligations are major themes of the Iraqi diaspora. Controversial topics of identification, inclusive of political, devout, regional, and ethnic measures, are part of the Iraqi diaspora conversation. There are various Iraqi opinions, from that of leaving homes to maintain families, especially after being formerly employed by the United States obstruction, to nationalistic Iraqis, whom are immensely proud of their country and its heritage (Campbell ix).

Through ethnography, Campbell focuses on Iraqi interlocuter’s experiences (Campbell x). Refugee network members decided to be translators to the United States for reasons such as but not limited to responsibility to bring home money for family, anticipation of professional advancement, which potentially correlated with long-term family advancement, or even a longing to be eligible for refugee resettlement to arrive to the United States, which implied assisting the family unit through immigration petitions for “family reunification” (Campbell 10). A few men Campbell met were military interpreters in the Iraq War, had come to the United States, and effectively relocated to Iraq as United States soldiers. These men are endangered for redeployment through a movement against the rising power of the Da’ish, more commonly known as the Islamic State or ISIS (Campbell x). Members of the same Iraqi refugee network distrusted each other as such was the context. Apprehension of the neighbor was understood as a mechanism for self-protection: to trust others could risk the life and well-being of an individual or the individual’s family (Campbell 3).

Because the interlocuters chosen by Campbell are allied with the United States troops, their problems of identification are part of comprehensive predicaments of belonging and treachery within diaspora in both post-war and displacement (Campbell x). This sensitivity is further highlighted through the author’s choice to maintain secret the true names of the characters represented in the book (Campbell xvii-xvix; 25), as well as change the city names of where the characters live (Campbell 25). Campbell further elaborates:

“Viewed by some Iraqi opponents of the American-led war as collaborators, interpreters were targeted with death threats, kidnapping, or violent and sometimes deadly attacks by groups such as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Al Qaeda in Iraq) or Jaish al-Mahdi (the Mahdi Army). As a result, thousands of interpreters had fled Iraq for surrounding countries and applied for refugee resettlement in the United States when Iraqi refugee processing began in 2007 […] Some network members had been directly threatened and were in immediate peril, while others feared future life-threatening danger was just around the corner (Campbell 11).”

Through her book, Campbell describes in a third person omniscient matter of fact tone the way in which Iraqi refugees view their identity and are perceived because of their identity.

Nationalism, alienation, and security affairs are relevant to how Iraqi refugees view their identity and are perceived because of their identity. External identity refers to what outsiders, not necessarily aware of the conditions refugees face, stigmatize refugees as. Iraqi refugee vetting, as exemplified in Campbell’s book, was xenophobic. The vetting of Iraqi immigrants at the United States Embassy to Iraq was not uncommon, inclusive of those serving in the United States armed forces with dual-citizenship (Campbell 133). Regarding physical features in appearance such as dark hair and dark eyes as suspicious is xenophobic behavior, as accounted by Hussein, an authority figure within the United States resettlement system who had experience discrimination over his Iraqi nationality, was common incidents of his clients (Campbell 174). Similar occurrences happen in other areas of the world. To exemplify, Liberian refugees in Ghana realize ostracization, where Liberians are viewed as negatively:

“I would like to add that I was traveling to Kumasi, around 7 or 8, with everyone else on the bus, they were Ghanaians. I asked a woman on the bus to control her baby and she replied, “this is not your country and you cannot come here and do whatever you want!” “Ghanaians think you have to be very quiet, always follow their rules, and keep your feelings inside. The Ghanian people do not know how to cope with us. In Ghana they have restrictionson parties and visitors when renting. The people are more conservative. And we do not understand their language” (Byrne 773).”

Another viewpoint would be of a refugee of Palestinian origin detained by El Airline security personnel. Security had asked the individual innocuous questions for entering Israel such as if she were affiliated with West Bank relations in Gaza, with Saddam Hussein, or had political connections. The security personnel believed it in their authority to lift her shirt to be certain that the woman was pregnant (Alshaibi). The incident only underscores how the personal space of the woman, as well as the innate nationalism and xenophobia (Sajjad), often causes of external identity, disregard the human dignity of the person. Because of external identity perceptions, refugees often are left feeling uncomfortable, upset, and even distrusting of others during relocation.

Unequal access to services are relevant to how Iraqi refugees view their identity and are perceived because of their identity. Interpreters of occupation were often housed in large tents uncomfortably during the war, even as members assisting the United States (Campbell 72). Similarly, in European governments such as those of Serbia and Slovenia, there is lack of resources as well as access to services for humanitarian needs. The refugee identity is not seen as a priority by governments. The United Nations and non-governmental organizations have difficulty assisting refugee populations in operating countries with limited presences for the refugee cause. Single women, female-headed households, expecting and breastfeeding mothers, adolescent females, unaccompanied minors, and persons with disabilities are the most vulnerable of refugees (No Safety for Refugee Women on the European Route 3). It is imperative for refugees to not be viewed as only a population in transition, for refugees want long-term solutions for refugee resettlement. Serbian and Slovenian governments, alongside the European Union and other European nations, should respond through implementing various community measures. These include language courses, long-term housing, employment and assistance programs, enrolling children in school, providing access to health care and other services integral for such a devastated population (No Safety for Women on the European Route 13). In Sama’s personal account, exposure to a life during the term of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War is given:

“The conditions grew worse with each passing day; we stood in bread lines for hours, ate corn beef hash and drank powdered milk every day; without hot water available, lice spread rampant in the schools and my mother had to shave all of our hair off and pour kerosene on our heads to kill them out (and it burned!). Blackouts, night raids and sleeping in the basement bathroom were our nightly ritual; we made regular visits to the hospitals to deliver dolls and other gifts to the children of family friends who were hit by bullets or had shards of missiles wedged in their bodies. And the worst of it was that we were suspicious of everyone and everyone was suspicious of us. No one could trust anyone else, because no one knew who was working with or against the Ba'ath regime (Alshaibi).”

The dire conditions in refugee camps as well as lack of accessibility to services are undeniable, deplorable, and condemnable. What unfortunately often happens is refugees are viewed as another population by governments, and as a consequence left without sufficient accessibility to services. In Campbell’s novel, it the reader can infer the Iraqi interpreters are sometimes left unsatisfied with the resources given by the United States (Campbell).

The role of women, treatment of women, and concept of familial obligation in the Iraqi refugee context is a human-made phenomenon, relevant to how Iraqi refugees view their identity and are perceived because of their identity. The role of women is undermined in Iraqi refugee society, as stated by Campbell, due to the concept of honor of family and conservatism of the late twentieth century (Campbell 93). Any ‘misdemeanor’ of a daughter is a burden for the mother, referred to as al-bin tala ala-umha (Campbell 94). Much research exemplifies as women committed to family relations. Patricia Pessar further argues research skews female migrants, contributing to the mal-informed assumption of women and children migrating to reunite with the breadwinner husband (Campbell 201). Within the personal accounts, Campbell informs the reader that women were encouraged to not become involved with the war, and instead concentrate on being domestic, family women (Campbell 47). Because evidence of this complex social hierarchy within the family structure, women often do not question expected roles in society, which contributes to lack of awareness of maltreatment. Not all women are taught how it is females become pregnant with a baby. There is sexual silence, shame, secrecy, and lack of sexual education for women. Even within a committed relationship, sex can be perceived as not a topic to be discussed with a husband and woman (Ussher). Meena and Tamara, for example, had experienced harassment, cat calling, and more by soldiers, yet ironically suffered the gossip on and off base (Campbell 87-89), as well as a false reputation of being “too good” and potentially often involved in sexual activity, as was in Meena’s case (Campbell 109). These anecdotes only leave the reader with further questions as to why there is preferential treatment for the males in power struggles inherently found in both the Iraqi family and the United States military system.

Varied interpretations of the understanding of identity itself as a refugee further denotes how Iraqi refugees view their identity and are perceived because of their identity. For example, Max, a translation analyst, saw translation as a “bridge in and through his experience of discursive disjunctions (Campbell 75-76)”. The theme of a ‘bridge’ is paradoxical, being subject to enabling recognition in and through alienation (Campbell 75). Thus, Max views language identity as part of cross-cultural understanding yet also as contributing to the utilization of language for alienation under the premise of United States national security efforts, for instance. On the other hand, Max as well as other interpreters in the book could be viewed as benefiting from the United States’ protection, for the better conditions for their families. Hence, Max would be an example of an Iraqi refugee with privilege. Cultural memory aids with identity. For Sama, her grandmother’s and mother’s loss to their nation of origin, which was an allegory to the house they had left and unsuccessful attempt to retrieve its entirety in the present, repeats a cycle of dispossession. It speaks to the current and unsettled conflict of the Palestinian Diaspora. Photography was the means through which Sama visually shared her cultural memory (Alshaibi), which can be paralleled to Max’s understanding of identity through linguistics, both being humanities-based interpretations (Campbell 75). Unlike Max, Sama did not feel protected by the United States:

Samas’ personal anecdote could of course be critiqued by those whom are in favor of Israeli occupation as well as United States’ efforts to further the Palestinian cause. Besides how refugees view their identity and how refugees are perceived because of their identity, there is a case to be made for perception of events as well as who is in power. Power efforts yield to continuous controversial discussions on privilege, beneficiaries, and those excluded in the international system.

Overall, Madeline Campbell’s Interpreters of Occupation: Gender and the Politics of Belonging in an Iraqi Refugee Network describes in a third person omniscient matter of fact tone the way in which Iraqi refugees view their identity and are perceived because of their identity. The concept of identity is further analyzed through nationalism, alienation, and security affairs, unequal access to services, the role of women, treatment of women, and concept of familial obligation and various interpretations of the understanding of identity itself as a refugee. It becomes apparent through this novel that language, education, and reform of power relations are pivotal in confronting biases against refugee populations, including Iraqi refugee interpreters serving the United States military (Campbell).

Ingrid Noriega pursued a bachelor's degree in International Affairs from the School of International Service while at American University. Ingrid is mainly interested in environmental justice, fine arts, life, health, & behavioral sciences topics.


Alshaibi, Sama. "Memory Work in the Palestinian Diaspora." Frontiers, vol. 27, no. 2, 2006, pp.

30-53,162, GenderWatch, http://proxyau.wrlc.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/232325898?accountid=8285.

Byrne, Jennifer. “Contextual Identity among Liberian Refugees in Ghana: Identity Salience in a

Protracted Refugee Situation.” Politics and Policy. pp. 773, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/polp.12169/abstract

Campbell, Madeline O. Interpreters of Occupation: Gender and the Politics of Belonging

in an Iraqi Refugee Network. Syracuse University Press, 2016.

 “No Safety for Refugee Women on the European Route,” The Balkan Report, Women’s

Refugee Commission, 2016, pp. 3,13, https://www.womensrefugeecommission.org/gbv/resources/1265-balkans- 2016

Sajjad, Tazreena. “Gender & Conflict In-Class lecture September 19, 2017”.

Gender & Conflict Undergraduate Course. School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC. 19 September 2017.

Ussher, J.M., Perz, J., Metusela, C. et al. “Negotiating Discourses of Shame, Secrecy, and

Silence: Migrant and Refugee Women’s Experiences of Sexual Embodiment.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 46, October 2017, pp. 1901-1921, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-016-0898-9


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