Iraqi Immigrants Make a Home in Phoenix?

v i s u a l i z i n g   i m m i g r a n t   P h o e n i x

José Grijalva

April 2017

Home. Many of us think of it as a mere four-walled structure with a roof. But too many of us forget that what I describe is in fact a house, not a home. It might sound cheesy, but what truly makes a home are the people and just as every person is as unique as a snowflake, so too is the home.


This realization stood with me upon my interview with a young Iraqi woman, Noor Ganem. I first met Noor in a humanities course at ASU; as I got to know her better, we would have lengthy talks about where we came from. Intrigued by her backstory, I figured Noor’s perspective on her homeland and Phoenix would captivate others as it did me. When I approached her with an opportunity to interview her, she was very eager and insisted that we schedule our interview the same day as her weekly family get-together to fully understand the culture she would share with me. We met at the Starbucks in the ASU West Library to satisfy both of our caffeine cravings. I chose Noor to interview due to my unfamiliarity with the Middle Eastern culture and especially the country of Iraq, despite its wide news coverage over the past decade. I wanted to choose a topic that would truly enrich my understanding of a perspective I have never had and hope this article will have the same effect on others.

Noor's self portrait
Noor's self portrait

Noor grew up in Mosul, Iraq and her discussion of this time in her life focused mainly on her time in school, elaborating that school was the only place she could be herself and spend with friends. When she was 13, her family moved to Phoenix in the fall of 2007. When I asked the reason for their move, she explained that Phoenix was a better fit for her family for job opportunities. I note here too that the US invasion of Iraq under Present George W. Bush occurred in 2003, and the US troop surge of an additional 20,000 soldiers and Marines occurred in 2007. As a child, Noor may not have had a clear sense of how conditions of war in her homeland may have shaped the job opportunities for her family. Currently, she is attending ASU and is majoring in Business Management. Noor explained that her choice of major was very difficult because traditionally, women in the Iraqi culture tend to study nursing, and business is typically regarded as a man’s occupation.


As we talked, Noor insisted I accompany her to her family get-together at the conclusion of our interview so I could get a visual and better understand and experience her culture. She stated, “Honestly, there’s nothing here that reminds me of Iraq since the American lifestyle is the complete opposite of ours.” Upon arrival at her house, it looked like a typical Phoenix home, aside from the number of cars parked around it that could likely rival a Walmart. However, as we got closer to the door, I heard muffled music I couldn’t quite understand.


When we went inside I realized I couldn’t understand it because the song was spoken in Arabic. The lively music perfectly mirrored the lively people in attendance, who included Noor’s immediate family such as her younger sisters, Reina and Dianna, who spoke very similarly to Noor regarding women’s roles in Iraq; there were many welcoming uncles who accepted me fully, but seeing as how their English was very limited and the only Arabic I knew was “marhabaan,” which means hello, our conversation didn’t get very far. Noor explained to me that they have this family gathering every week just so the family can catch-up and come together. “Arab Americans still try to keep in touch with their families of my town and other Middle Eastern countries. Family gatherings, and festivals all together allow Arab Americans to celebrate the Arab culture of their home countries,” Noor stated.

Despite not having extensive exposure to Middle Eastern culture, I felt very at home and the gathering felt vaguely familiar to the cookouts at my Hispanic family get-togethers. This was evident by the mountains of food and lively chit-chat. Noor explained how much she looks forward to these events where she can re-experience her Arabic culture because there are not many places in Phoenix where she can truly feel in touch with her family and culture.


Being exposed to such a distinct and different immigrant culture has helped me see just how concentrated Phoenix is with diversity and opportunities to learn and experience from this diversity. Noor made it seem as if Phoenix was merely just another American city, but what I saw on that visit to her family gathering was nothing short of the word special. Many may imagine there are not many places that currently visualize Arabic culture in Phoenix, but to my eyes that notion quickly became a thing of the past. Ultimately, just as it is the people that make a home, our little piece of Arizona is shaped by those who now live here, including Iraqi immigrant families like Noor’s.