Back to Iraq

A Whittier activist gives up his business and adopted neighborhood to help rebuild his native land.

At this year's Republican National Convention, Georgia U.S. Sen. Zell Miller expressed his resentment at those who would call American troops in Iraq occupiers. They are liberators, Miller said, to the cheers of the Madison Square Garden crowd.

Stevens Square resident Sami Rasouli disagrees.

Rasouli, a native of Iraq and founder of Sinbad's Cafe and Market, 2528 Nicollet Ave. in Whittier, resents that American forces have battered and bombed his homeland on the false presumption of weapons of mass destruction.

"America went to Iraq to give the Iraqi people freedom, but the question is who got the freedom? It is not the people of Iraq. They are not free," Rasouli said.

The 53-year-old U.S. citizen has always believed that business and politics do not mix -- but he feels more at ease to speak his mind since he recently sold his 11-year-old restaurant so he can return to Iraq in November to help with its reconstruction. (The new owner does not share Rasouli's political view.)

"The war was based on false information," he said. "How can this make the U.S. a liberator? Occupation is occupation, and you cannot deceive the people and distort the facts. All this destruction was for a war that was not justified."

Rasouli is a native of Najaf, which he calls "the Shiite capital," and where American forces recently battled the Mahdi Army insurgency led by Muqtada al-Sadr.

Rasouli said that current conditions in Iraq include 70 percent unemployment, an infrastructure in shambles, over 12,000 Iraqis dead and the loss of his people's dignity. He thinks that supporting U.S. troops means bringing them home to prevent further killing.

Was Iraq better under Saddam Hussein?

Despite the promise of democracy and the capture of a dictator, Rasouli said yes. He says medical care was free and the best in the Arab world; schooling, including college was free; there were no gas lines and the standard of living was affordable.

Rasouli opposes American efforts in Iraq, but is not anti-American. For years, he worked as a businessperson and a neighborhood activist to improve Whittier -- experience he will soon transfer to Iraq.

Rasouli is a board member of the Whittier Alliance and has been an active member of the Whittier Alliance Business Association for 11 years.

"Sami has friends across nationality and religious lines and has worked hard to put on forums and educational seminars to break down barriers and promote diversity in the Whittier community," said Whittier Alliance Neighborhood Development Manager Marion Biehn. "He is really a genuine person and a hard worker."

A math teacher by profession -- he will teach the subject in a Najaf high school -- Rasouli left Iraq at the age of 24 to teach in the United Arab Emirates. He was fascinated by the Western civilization, and felt that he belonged in the West. He lived in Muenster, West Germany for six years before coming to America in 1986.

He got his start driving a cab before opening his first restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis, which he later moved to its current location. During the first Gulf War, his restaurant's windows were broken in response to the political situation.

Kingfield resident Carla Vogel, a Jewish actor and storyteller, befriended Rasouli as a regular customer at Sinbad's four years ago.

"Sami was very influenced by John Lennon's song, Imagine," Vogel said. "It inspired him to come to America because he wanted to be a part of a bigger world.

He has created a sense of community in his restaurant."

"He is someone who walked with the human condition in his heart," she said. "I think that is why we connected intuitively and it is the basis of our friendship."

During his tenure in Whittier, Rasouli said he has seen dramatic changes that have all been for the better. He participated in the creation of Eat Street -- a vibrant, multi-cultural restaurant hub in a neighborhood that was once ignored.

Whittier has also become home for many of the new immigrant communities, which pleases Rasouli.

"The Somali residents who swamped us in the past seven years have added a new flavor to the neighborhood," Rasouli said. "Because they come from an Islamic background, they don't drink, do drugs or fight on the corner. They are religious, and I think they played an important role in reducing the amount of crime in the area."

Despite headlines about suicide bombers and gunfights, Rasouli is confident that he will be safe in his homeland. Though both his parents have died, the divorced father of three has four sisters in the Najaf area and lots of nieces and nephews he is eager to befriend.

His family is from the Al Shammar clan, whose 3 million members dwell in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates and includes Interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer.

Rasouli does not think the terrorism of Islamic fundamentalists will stop until the Palestinian conflict with Israel is resolved. Many Arabs are related by clan to Palestinians and resent what they see as the Israeli government's injustices.

"No one in the West has looked seriously at Israel's their policies against Palestinians," Rasouli said. "This issue is a time bomb and the core problem in that part of the world."

Despite the problems in the Middle East, he thinks the situation will improve in the next five years.

"I have a heartfelt belief that I can make a difference in Iraq," Rasouli said. "I would like to see the normalization of relations between Iraq and the West to prove that though things went wrong they can be corrected by civilized communication and spreading of community and friendship."

Said Vogel, "I am sad that he is leaving, but also excited for him. He is very special."