Taking Refuge

(Disclaimer: This photo is not of Rana's recipe.)

From Crisis to Creativity: A Story of Artistic Healing

May 23, 2015

I am a good cook. I love to cook because it's a kind of creation. You cook from your heart, you know? Like writing a poem or painting, it comes from the bottom of your soul. For me, I want to focus on this - to create positive things from negativity.

Rana is an award-winning, published poet and was a well-known television presenter and reporter in the Arab world for several years before coming to the United States. She is an artist and a jewelry designer.

Born and raised in Iraq, Rana faced three wars, the death of her mother, kidnapping, and several types of violence. In addition to taking care of herself, she was tasked with the responsibility for her elderly aunt, ensuring both of their safety throughout the journey. But, out of the turmoil, Rana found creativity and spirituality. She began to embrace art and creative expression and embarked upon a period of transformation and self-healing. Fast-forward to today and Rana is striving to develop a leadership program for refugees, to help them transform their own traumas into paths of constructive personal growth.

Rana's story began in 1980, the same year the Iran-Iraq war broke out. Characterized by ballistic-missile attacks, use of chemical weapons, and at least 500,000 casualties, the eight-year war did little more than strain Iraq's economy.

Barely a decade later, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait, triggering the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

"I saw a lot of bombs, a lot of chaos," said Rana, "but let’s say my childhood was normal." Rana was a smart student. She received straight A's in high school and college where she began studying architecture in 1999. Two years later, however, tragedy forced her to withdraw.

Ironically, in war-ridden Iraq, Rana's family survived the litany of bombs, state-sponsored terrorism, and human rights violations. But luck wasn't in their favor when a sickness affecting the kidneys consumed Rana's mother at the turn of the century. In 2001, the illness took her life.

My mother died and my whole life changed…I faced domestic violence, [and] abandon[ment] from my family members. It wasn’t ordinary [anymore].

This was the first turning point in Rana's life.

"I was very innocent and I was spoiled. I didn't know how to take responsibility. That was a big issue and it hurt me a lot," explained Rana.

But when she began to face domestic abuse, Rana's survival instincts kicked in:

I didn't want to be broken. I wanted to survive and to create something - [to] transform all the negativity into creative things. I wanted my mother's soul to rest and be proud.

This vision of survival helped her when she and her aunt were kidnapped a few years later in 2006. Taken by members of Fedayeen Saddam for money, the two women spent two days in captivity. Rana remembers praying for a better life and believes she actually grew spiritually from this experience, realizing she had the power to survive.

Fedayeen Saddam = "Saddam's Men of Sacrifice" - was an Iraqi militia composed of 30,000 - 40,000 Saddam supporters. The group, separate from the Iraqi army, staged attacks on coalition forces, often wearing civilian clothes to disguise themselves. The group was even willing to sacrifice Iraqi civilians, evidenced by Rana’s kidnapping.

Following their abduction, Rana and her aunt fled to Egypt. Rana secured a job working as a television presenter, published books, and committed to a process of self-healing through art and poems. Although Rana describes this as the most prosperous time of her life, she encountered another obstacle: blackmail.

My aunt was my weak point. Some people in power used her to threaten me. It was not easy because she did not have any place to go.

As a liberal Iraqi woman with an Iraqi passport, Rana faced several problems in the Middle East. She had trouble with her visa and feared moving within Egypt or even traveling to other Arab nations. Furthermore, her work in the media field created conflicts with several Arab governments. Blackmail was the last straw.

Nearly eight years after arriving in Egypt, it was time to leave. Speaking hardly a word of English between the two of them, Rana and her elderly aunt boarded a flight for the United States in 2013.

At the beginning, yeah, there were a lot of problems. I came here with a dream to work as a TV presenter in one of the Arabic channels. But, I couldn't have this opportunity.

Instead, Rana followed a different passion: self-healing through creativity.

I learned English through a lot of lectures about spiritual development and self-healing. And, when I started to work in this way, I felt like I'm in the right place…I decided to start from scratch and learn everything like a kid. [But now] I feel like I'm in the right place.

For Rana, the language barrier was the greatest challenge coming to America. "As a writer, language is my life," Rana explained, "And, I'm an expert in Arabic. So, it was not easy for me to start from scratch and to feel 'tongueless'."

Last year, Rana married her soul mate, Hasan. Today, she lives with her husband and aunt on America's East Coast. She's been writing poems since 2001 - the year her mother passed away - and creating artwork since 2003. Creative expression has transformed Rana's way of life, helping her regain her sense of self and to heal.

At the beginning, it was kind of self-defense. Later, I understand. I recognize that it's [a] kind of healing. It's [the] expression of all these bad things inside [me].

Rana at her kitchen table.

Rana shares her poems with an audience.

Rana's jewelry.

Iraqi Dolma

For the Stuffing:

  1. Separate the stems of the Swiss chard from the leaves, then chop the stems.
  2. Put the vegetable oil in a large saucepan and add half the chopped swiss chard stems.
  3. To prepare the stuffing, place the rice in a bowl and add the ground meat, onions, garlic, parsley, and tomatoes. Mix and then place aside so the rice can absorb the sauce from the other ingredients.
  4. Place the swiss chard leaves in boiling water and leave until slightly tender.
  5. Carefully pierce the zucchinis, eggplants, tomatoes, and green peppers, and remove the insides so they are nearly hollow.
  6. Put the onions in a pot filled with water and bring to a boil. Boil for about 8 minutes and then place the onions in a bowl filled with cold water.
  7. With a sharp knife, cut vertically until you reach the center of each onion. Separte the layers carefully.
  8. Put some stuffing on a Swiss chard leaf and roll it. Repeat for the remaining leaves. Then, fill up the pierced zucchines, eggplants, tomatoes, green peppers, and onions with the stuffing, making sure to only fill 3/4 of each vegetable.
  9. In the saucepan with the swiss chard stems, place the stuffed onions in a layer, followed by layers of the the other stuffed vegetables. Finally, place the stuffed swiss chard leaves on top and add the remaining half of the swiss chard stems.
  10. Add lime juice, salt, pepper, dolma spices, and enough water mixed with the tomato paste to reach up to half the height of the layers. Cook for about an hour, until the water evaporates.
  11. Place a flat serving tray, face down, over the pot. Carefully turn the pot upside down (onto the plate). Serve.