Pictured above: Kevin Stillwell (left) poses with New American Pathways staff member, Shakir Radeef. Kevin played the Tiger in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at 7 Stages.
In 2017, with all of the daily political discourse engulfing us, the Iraq War can seem like a time gone by. For the veterans, civilians and families at the center of that conflict, however, memories of the war are a constant reminder of the consequences of violence and the resilience of the human spirit.
Even now with the numerous avenues for expression through social media, there remain limited instances where we are allowed a front row seat to the experiences of those who fought in the Iraq war, those who grew up in the war and those who ultimately escaped the war.
On October 8, 7 Stages created a space where these stories could be openly shared through its “Art of Activism” lunch before the final performance of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. The play, set in Baghdad during the American Iraqi occupation, leads us on a journey of two American marines and their Iraqi translators as they encounter a tiger who haunts the war-torn streets of Baghdad.
“The play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo really captured the trauma carried by those who have experienced combat, war and conflict,” Chris Purdy of Veterans for American Ideals (VFAI) said of the show.
Chris is a U.S. Army National Guard veteran who served in Iraq. When the war started, he was in opposition to the operation in Iraq. After talking to a friend who had returned from Iraq, he realized that, as an able-bodied person of means, he needed to do his part in national service and joined the National Guard. He says the work of VFAI is to “be open to people who are fleeing violence and terror—especially those fleeing from violence we started.”
Chris was amongst a diverse panel of about twenty who attended the 7 Stages event to engage in an intimate conversation on the Iraq War. Shakir Radeef, a New American Pathways family support staff member, was sixteen years old living in Baghdad at the onset of the war when the American soldiers arrived. He says that living under Saddam was normal. He knew nothing other than living under a dictatorship, government-run television stations and the restrictions against protest and the freedom of press. The only non-Iraqis he had ever seen were the ones that appeared on government-controlled television – and he hated them. He hated the American soldiers because he was supposed to.
Even as a journalist in Baghdad, he could not imagine living any differently. 7 Stages afforded him an opportunity to share his story with those he had once seen as an enemy. “The circle conversation,” he says, “was the best conversation I had about war. The kind of people who were there, the quality of the conversation and the food were awesome. I felt comfortable to share my story with actors and guests and having conversation.”
Chris Purdy shared similar feelings: “Meeting with Shakir and listening to his perspective on the Iraq War profoundly impacted my understanding of what the war did and how it affected the people involved.”
After escaping Iraq with his family, Shakir began working with New American Pathways in various roles – as a translator, as a driver picking up new arrivals from the airport, as a family support liaison and even as an instructor for the afterschool program, giving a voice to kids were just like him.
He is passionate about his work with New American Pathways because he understands the dreams of refugees who come to America. “They are not people getting off those planes, they are not numbers, they are dreams.” he said. Like Shakir, Chris feels an obligation to use his voice for those our society sees as the “other,” or for those who don’t have a voice. For him, a veteran’s service does not stop once he removes his uniform. Veterans should continue to serve at home.
Shakir expressed that although there were mistakes made on both sides of the war, he and the veterans could agree that if not for that war they would never have known each other and had this experience.
Everyone has a story and sometimes these stories can be suppressed because of fear of retribution or backlash. The conversation allowed through 7 Stages gave Shakir and Chris an opportunity share their truths with each other.