Ahlam Mahmood (left) and Beth Ann Toupin use the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society to smooth the transition into American life for Chicago's Iraqi refugees. Photo by Joe Gallo.

Ahlam Mahmood has long been compelled to help her fellow Iraqis.

Her first stab at humanitarian aid work came shortly after the war began in her homeland in 2003. But her effort came to a screeching halt in 2005, when she and her family had to flee the country to escape the violence.

Her family eventually resettled in Damascus, Syria. There, Mahmood resumed her social work–”this time for the Iraqi refugee community. But it was again thwarted when she was jailed by the Syrian intelligence agency for refusing to spy on the aid workers and journalists operating there. It took five months and the hard work of friends at Amnesty International to secure her release.

Soon afterward, Mahmood and her family were relocated to Chicago as refugees, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. But Mahmood didn’t let the new surroundings deter her. A day after her arrival, she began helping Iraqi refugees who had similarly been resettled here.

Within weeks, through her Amnesty International contacts, Mahmood approached Beth Ann Toupin about creating the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society to help Iraqi refugees. It all began with operating with one cell phone, no storage space and no help. They ran meetings out of Mahmood’s studio apartment. Two years later, Mahmood and Toupin are working out of their own office space and enlisting the help of volunteers.

Mahmood explains that Chicago is the second largest city in the U.S. for Iraqi refugees, behind Detroit. The city has become home to roughly 3,000 people from the war-torn country, and about 10 new families arrive every month. Nationally, about 34,500 people have been resettled between 2006 and 2009.

The state-funded resettlement agencies are able to help for the first eight months, providing training and other services, but with their funding dropping to a third of what it was a decade ago, and the number of refugees climbing, they are under too much strain to help past that point.

This is where the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society comes in. The agency provides clothing and other necessities from a store of donated items, offers advice on finding work and where to buy food, and teaches refugees how to access a network that the Iraqi people have slowly built up.

Not a dime of funding for the agency comes from the local, state or federal government. Grants and donations from organizations across the country have allowed it to grow to this point. But Mahmood and Toupin haven’t been able to pay themselves–”even after continuing to devote 40 to 60 hours a week of their time.

The Chicago Reporter recently sat down with Mahmood to discuss her work.

How have the Iraqi refugees been treated in America?

I’m proud to say that everything here, everything that’s been donated to the people for the last year and a half–”it’s always been from the individual. We have nothing from the government. I’m proud that this is what the American people have done to help out the Iraqi refugees.

And refugees in most of the other states, they don’t have the same things that refugees have here. So we find some people are moving from their states to Chicago.

Why do Iraqi refugees have a problem trusting the resettlement agencies?

It’s because of bad experiences with humanitarian organization. In Iraq, we didn’t have any nongovernmental organizations before 2003. All of a sudden there were hundreds of agencies.

They were not trained. They don’t know anything about humanitarian work there. They didn’t know how to reach the people and understand their problems. They were in their offices. And humanitarian work is to go between the people and recognize their needs and make a solution for it. It is not an office job.

When they came to the United States, they also had problems. They say, –˜You will get a job in no time. You will have a nice home. Everyone will have a bedroom.’ They show us pictures of a woman in front of a car, as if I would come to the United States and find all this in front of me.

Is it difficult for refugees to find work in Chicago?

It’s about a cultural mood in the Iraqi community. Like when they came here and had a cleaning job, they say, –˜I will never go on that cleaning job.’ Because down there, it would be a shameful job that anyone can hold. They don’t have the understanding now that there is nothing called shame. You have to have a job to survive. You have to have the job for your children.

Here, if I start as a cleaner, I can end at the top of the company because there are people who appreciate your hard work. If people can change their mind from that image to this one, of course they will choose it.

This is one of the points that we were dealing with when the new arrivals came in. After three months, they will forget it. They will find any kind of jobs. Sooner or later, we find that the Iraqis will listen to other Iraqis.

How did you begin community organizing?

The start was the war. When a lot of civilians were killed, around the beginning of the war, my house ran out of drinkable water. So, I try to reach one of my cousin’s houses to get water from his house, and I see people who are dead–”families, men, women, children. So I ask my cousins to help me to bury them, to honor them. We had bombs that hadn’t exploded in our fields. And at this point I recognized that if we didn’t do anything, no one would do anything to help us.

I found a job at the Iraqi Assistance Center, and I took it. I was appointed as a city council member in 2004. It gave me strength to carry on and continue my work when I saw the people after they had suffered, so I was trying to help them out, because they are good people and they have suffered a lot.

What has your experience been creating this organization?

Before I came here, I was working for the humanitarian aid in Syria. So when I came here, the people I know and helped in Syria–”they heard about me and asked, –˜Can you help me out to find my way in this strange city?’ So they came in and told me about their difficulties. And I’m the person who they think I have this magical stick and I will fix everything in one second.

Basically, I’m here. Everyone knows me from the first step. You cannot change all the minds, but we are building trust, and this is the difference. The new families–”they came to us and asked for help. Now people are coming to us, because they trust us.

But I cannot ever deny that we would never have anything without Beth Ann. Most of the Iraqis know just me, because of the language barrier. She is the one who handles the paperwork; she’s the one who’s organizing things. I make a thousand excuses just to run away from it.

So this is it. We are two hearts wanting to do some good for these people who have suffered a lot.

Who has the most difficulty adjusting?

Everyone is different about adjusting to the life here, but the most difficult ones are the teenagers. They lived much of their lives where there was dictatorship. If they did something, they would get hurt; even if they did nothing, they would get hurt. But they came here, and they find everything in front of them. Their head is not adjusting to this life. I tell the resettlement agencies, –˜Don’t let the youth get into trouble and then tell them this is wrong. Don’t make them learn the hard way. Create a group for them. Tell them what is right and wrong here.’ It’s a totally different culture from what they had.

Do people plan on moving back?

Whoever wants to return has already returned. The rest of them are looking for a good life.

What more can the United States do to help?

Extend the help for the refugee for more than eight months. In this economy, everyone knows that it’s not easy to find a job in eight months. We have people who are willing to recertify as doctors or engineers or pharmacists or dentists, and this takes a long time.