Duaa Al-aghar

Finding PeaceDuaa Al-aghar

—by Nasreen Nasreen

“Your body turns numb every time you hear a jet fly over you or a missile strikes. You hug your family close because you don’t know if this is the last time you will see them. I had already lost my father, and I was petrified that I would lose everyone I ever loved. Imagine having to go through that same ordeal every single day. You live in ruins, and much of what you think and do is underpinned by fear.”

Fifteen years ago, Duaa-Al-Aghar left everything she knew behind and moved to Canada: a country not marred with war and conflict, a far cry from her homeland in Iraq. As she stares outside the window of her room in Waterloo, Duaa admires the landscape outside her window. A computer engineer by profession, she is proud of her achievements and the life she has built for herself from scratch in a foreign country. Yet, she misses what she has left behind. “It’s a love-hate relationship with Iraq. I have everything here in Canada. And all I knew was war in Iraq. But my heart longs to go back to my homeland and see my family.”

Born in Baghdad, Iraq, Duaa lost her father when she was six years old. A religious leader, raising his voice against injustice and corruption, her father was killed by the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein. His death was just the beginning of a life full of struggles. The assault on her family did not stop with his death. As a punishment for her father’s actions, Duaa’s mother, a respected school principal, was fired from her job.

With no support from relatives or friends, Duaa’s mother, Anwar Alwali, resorted to sewing clothes. She would sell these clothes to stores and open markets to earn a livelihood and financially support her family. But it wasn’t just the financial burden and the pain of losing her father that added to the family’s hardships. Duaa’s eyes drift away as she recounts the horrors of war. Duaa and her family lived through bombing almost every day. In 2003, when America invaded Iraq, Duaa lost one of her family members — her niece — to the violence.

If there was a way out of this horrific life, it was through education. Duaa’s mother always insisted her children have access to a good education. She believed there was nothing more important than being educated. She would sit with Duaa and her siblings after school every day and help them with their homework to ensure they were always ahead in class. When asked about her mother, Duaa sits silently and takes a while to find the right words. “My mother is my inspiration and strength. She showed me the way to be a strong woman. Whoever I am today is because of her. She gave me the gift of education. Without my mother, I wouldn’t exist.”

Duaa went on to receive her bachelor’s degree in Computer and Control Engineering from the University of Technology in Baghdad. She later completed her master's in Computer Engineering. It was in 1998 that she moved to Libya with her husband in search of better opportunities. She was offered a position at the University of Libya, working as a professor. “I was the first woman professor at the university, and neither the students nor other professors were comfortable with a woman in a position of authority. I changed jobs as soon as I could, but always wondered about my future. Did I want the same thing for my children?”

Pregnant with her first child, Duaa wanted her child to have access to a better life and more opportunities. When she had her second child, Duaa and her husband decided they wanted to relocate to Canada. Why Canada? Because the education system was far better and the universities were recognized worldwide. There were more opportunities, more resources, and diversity. But most of all, it was safe! “No bombs were being dropped, and I would not have to live in fear anymore. I did not want my children’s lives to be dictated by war and conflict like mine.”

In 2006, Duaa, along with her husband and two children, moved to Waterloo Region in Canada. She assumed it wouldn’t be any more challenging than what she has already experienced. However, it was a whole new world where everything from the people to the food to the culture was different. Any time she was outside in public, she could feel people looking at her. “I could see in people’s eyes they saw me as an outsider. I was told on numerous occasions I am taking jobs meant for Canadians. It didn’t matter how qualified I was. Yes, I wore a hijab. And I could see how I was looked down upon for my choice of clothing even at a grocery store. I felt I was fighting a war all over again. A war just not on the outside but also within me.” The loneliness slowly crept in, and so did the realization that she did not belong in Canada. Duaa started missing her family back home.

With her gaze drifting away again, Duaa narrates the difficult conversation she had with her mother about missing her and her family. Her mother instilled courage in her, and encouraged her to not give up now. Duaa’s mother has always taught her to not shy away from a difficult situation. This was not the time to give up on her dreams. She might have to start her life from scratch, but she had the choice to make of it what she desired. Duaa gathered her strength and decided to take English as a second language classes to ensure her spoken English was perfect. She knew she would not be able to get by without learning English.

“It hurt that I had to make a fresh start, but it was no worse than what I had experienced in life before moving to Canada. If anything, I was given a chance of a lifetime — a clean slate!”

Within 10 months, Duaa joined the job preparation program for new Canadians. She was advised to start volunteering so she could make connections and build relationships in the community. Duaa chose to volunteer with KW AccessAbility, where she was later hired as a project manager. She continued to work with the organization for three years. Duaa designed accessible websites for people with different disabilities. She also started working as a web designer and help desk support with the Islamic Humanitarian Service. “This is the first time I realized I was genuinely happy. I was doing everything in my power to work for a good cause.”

Duaa continued to give back to the community as she volunteered with several different organizations in the Waterloo Region. She used her web designing skills to build and improve websites for various charities and non-profit organizations. In the last few years, Duaa has volunteered with the Salvation Army, Muslim Social Services, Interfaith Grand River, Kitchener Waterloo Multicultural Centre, the Mennonite Muslim Community, various food banks in the region, and the Coalition of Muslim Women (CMW). She regularly cooks for the homeless at the St. John’s Kitchen. And she is also currently on the board for the steering committee of Interfaith Grand River, an organization that brings together community members who represent the many faiths of Waterloo Region.

Duaa can barely contain her excitement and happiness as she shows off her Community Impact Award she was presented with by the Arab Women of Waterloo Region in January 2020. The award is just one of the numerous awards she has received for her work and support in the Waterloo Region community.

She was recently honoured with the Outstanding Leadership Award from the Volunteer Action Center in April 2020. Her work with the CMW was also recognized and she received the Women Who Inspire Award in 2017. Duaa has been involved with different events with the CMW since 2016 and has become an active member since 2014. Currently a board member for CMW, Duaa narrates how being part of the CMW assured her of her belief in herself. With her colleagues' support and various leadership workshops she attended, she grew into a confident woman. She has volunteered with several programs for the CMW, including the Taste of Ramadan since 2017, Break the Fast with Muslim Women, Tea and Tales with Muslim Women, among others.

The moment of contentment, however, does not last very long.

While talking about her achievements, Duaa is suddenly pulled back to a distant memory of herself hugging her siblings, surrounded by shattered buildings and dust. Duaa had always shared her achievements with her family, and her heart aches when she thinks of them. Reminiscing about the time spent with her family in Iraq, Duaa’s eyes paint a picture of longing for her loved ones. “I miss eating together with my family while talking about our day. The smell of freshly baked chips is etched in my memory. I remember going out with my siblings and friends and eating chips on the side of the street. I wish I could relive those moments again.”

Over the past 15 years, Duaa’s life has changed dramatically. She could not have imagined there was a life without war. While she misses home, she wishes she can one day bring her mother, who is 75 years old now, to Canada to live with her. “She has had a hard life and I want her to enjoy the simple things in life now. I want her to sleep without fear and wake up to birds chirping. I want her to go on long walks and sit under the shade of a tree with no worry in the world. I want her to have what I have here in Canada — peace.”

Living through three wars — the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 — Duaa has seen extreme hatred, but she has also experienced love and kindness that knows no bounds. Today when she looks at herself in the mirror, she is proud of the woman she sees, her achievements, and who she has blossomed into as a person.

“I know humanity is stronger than anything else in the world. We are here to love and respect one another regardless of our religion and beliefs. And I want to ensure I continue to spread love and compassion with my work.”

Read more stories here