Refugee and Immigrant Rights Advocate
Conversation with Hope McMath • Photograph by laird
It is always a pleasure and deep learning experience to spend time with Basma Alawee. She is a powerful advocate for refugees and immigrants through her work with various organizations including the We Are All America Campaign, Florida Immigrant Coalition, and her newest endeavor, WeaveTales. She is also a mother, wife, storyteller, community-trained engineer, translator, educator, community leader, and survivor of the war in Iraq. Her harrowing and heartbreaking escape from her birth home has absolutely impacted the way that Basma moves through this world. Fortunately, Basma and her family have made Jacksonville their home. From this corner of the world, she has an influential presence in places ranging from the kitchen tables of refugee families to the steps of Congress. Her work has been recognized internationally, regionally, and locally—most recently with a OneJax Humanitarian Award and the coveted EVE Award. To do her biography justice would take many pages of this issue, but it is more important to give the space to Basma’s voice.
You and I did our first big collaboration around an exhibition called “Home: The Stories of Arab Immigrant and Refugee Women.” How did Jacksonville become home for you?
I was born and raised in Baghdad and it is always home for me, because Baghdad is the city of my ancestors, my family and friends, and it holds many memories. Sad memories of war, losing loved ones, and years under siege. It also holds good memories of family, many gatherings, big weddings, years in school, and many more stories of home to be shared with my daughters.
When I was displaced and forced to leave home, I was already thinking about going back home to my family, as soon it was safe to do so. Since the day I arrived in Jacksonville in 2010, I regularly asked my husband to let me go visit my family in Iraq, only to be met with his concerns. I did not realize that Jacksonville was home until I visited Baghdad in 2017. It was such a different feeling, I was confused. My visit was short, just two weeks because of my commitment to my work here. In those two weeks, I found out that I missed Jacksonville, even as I did not want my trip to end. I wanted a piece of Baghdad in Jacksonville or a piece of Jacksonville in Baghdad.
When we were traveling back I was crying the whole way back and suddenly my husband said, “Basma look through the plane window.” I looked and he told me to not look down but to look at the sky. “It’s one sky! It’s one sky over Baghdad and Jacksonville and since you cannot be in two places at the same time, be like the sky and have them both in you.” After that visit and my husband’s pep talk, I am now trying to build a small Baghdad in Jacksonville by sharing the taste, the culture, the art, and the love of my home, family, and community.
Your voice goes way beyond the borders of this community into the halls of state government and Congress and in international media. What is the message you are carrying forward?
As a former refugee who finally found home, I want to give hope to other refugees through my story and advocacy work. I also want to create a welcoming environment and prepare communities to receive newcomers. It takes both—the native communities who receive the refugees and the refugees themselves to build a safe and welcoming community.
When I first arrived in Jacksonville, I was shocked by the misconception and the need for education in the community about who we are as refugees. I was open to share my story, culture, faith, and time. I invested hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to educate the community about who I am, where I am coming from, and why I ended up here.
The community here was so generous, and they made me feel at home. Because of the generosity of this city, I always feel obligated to invest and give back. That’s why I love working for the We Are All America Campaign, because it works to uphold and strengthen our nation’s commitment to welcome and protect those seeking freedom, safety, and refuge in the United States.