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When we see a Muslim woman wearing the hijab, many of us assume she is a victim. Oppressed. Defeated.

But when Wesaam Al-Badry looks at these women, he sees strength, resilience and promise.

It is that image and inspiration he wants others to see in his photographic exhibition  “The Iraqi Project," which opens Friday in a temporary gallery at 301 N. 8th St., Suite 200.

Al-Badry, 28, knows first-hand the vitality and humanity these unassuming women give their children, their communities and the world.

The Iraqi refugee came to Lincoln with his mother, Aeda al-Khafaji, and four younger siblings in 1994. Here, she single-handedly raised them to become new Americans.

Her story is powerful. It's also common among women of a war.

In many Middle Eastern countries women are viewed as second-class citizens. When they flee to refugee camps, they become third-class citizens, Al-Badry said.

“They cannot get proper education for their children. They have no food, no clothing. They cannot offer protection,” he said. “War is survival of the fittest.”

Through it all these women persevere, not so much for themselves as for their families.

"The Iraqi Project" is Al-Badry's effort to bring awareness to social injustice -- and shed light on the universal strength of the human spirit.

“Women give us hope for the future,” Al-Badry said. “Men ... they give us war.”

* * *

Wesaam Al-Badry was born in 1984 in Nasiriyah, a city in southern Iraq. When war broke out in 1991, the city was hit hard by Saddam Hussein’s militia. He witnessed executions, heard the cries of women being raped and the screams of children taken from their parents' arms.

Al-Badry said his own father abandoned the family.

When the bombing started, his mother gathered her kids and took off for the border in search of safety. Al-Badry was 7. His youngest sister was just 3 days old.

Across the border, al-Khafaji found her husband. He forced her and the children to return to Nasiriyah, Al-Badry said.

Ten days later came another wave of attacks.

Al-Badry said his mother fled again. They walked for three days.

They crossed the border into Saudi Arabia in 1991 and settled in a refugee camp. The family of six lived in a tent 7 feet long, 5 feet wide and 7 feet tall.

“Life in a refugee camp is not a good place to be,” he said.

People existed on a barter/trade system. That’s how he got his first camera.

“I traded a bag of marbles, three VHS tapes and a new button-down shirt,” he said. “And I got a 35 millimeter camera with no film and a pair of Reebok basketball shoes.”

Although Al-Badry had no film with which to capture the images of his life, he had an unyielding fascination with the camera.

But fights -- not photographs -- ruled his life in the refugee camp. You fought for survival, he said. You fought for honor and loyalty. You fought to prove your love and protect your loved ones.

When the family won the immigration lottery to resettle in Lincoln, Al-Badry arrived with that fighting mentality.

Peace. Education. Safety. It was all so foreign to him. Culture shock, he called it.

And he didn’t adapt.

“I was a handful,” he conceded with a sheepish grin.

Others had harsher words.

His fights got him expelled from high school. They got him in trouble with the law.

And, in 2008, they got him red-flagged by the U.S. Department of Immigration. His request for citizenship was denied because of “poor moral character.” At present, he has "resident alien" status.

Al-Badry was an angry man without a country.

The camera saved him.

“Photography bridges humanity,” he explained. “Photography was my entry into becoming a better citizen. It sees the truth. It tells the truth. I want to be a better citizen of humanity."

Three years ago, he took Barbara Hagen’s beginning photography class at Southeast Community College. In the years since, he has taken every one of her classes. She is his mentor.

From the start, he stood out, Hagen recalled.

“He was not just there for himself,” she said. “He was most excited about being allowed to tell his own story, to make it personal and to make it meaningful, and, above all else, make it useful.”

He considers himself a documentary photographer.

His photos bring into focus what has always been there -- but what one just didn’t see.

“He wants his work to be important and useful,” Hagen said. “He has such a genuine spirit, he’s so generous and has a genuine authenticity. ... Even before he knew how to use his camera, I could see that burning in him. The camera is a tool. Photography is a means to the end of something even bigger than the image.

“The idea was already there, and the photography kind of set him free.”

***

For Al-Badry, the idea was to tell his story and the stories of the millions of children of war.

That story begins with their mothers, specifically in Lincoln, where thousands of Iraqi refugees resettled.

“I made two phone calls and word spread around,” Al-Badry said, recalling how he recruited his subjects.

He didn’t want photographs of tragedy and despair. He wanted to capture the image he saw when he looked at them -- “strength, resiliency and ability to overcome” their struggles.

For the photo shoot, he asked them to bring one item they carried from their homes in Iraq.

“I figured the women would bring photos or family heirlooms,” he said. “(But) none of the women took any prized possessions with them.

These items tended be more significant.

His mother told him she brought her five children.

Another woman brought her cane, which allowed her to walk and lead her family to safety.

Another brought a white sheet she had filled with clothes and balanced atop her head as she walked her children through the desert.

One young woman held a box. Its contents commemorated her existence. Her father was about to be executed in one of Hussein’s camps, when the commander suddenly put away his weapon and announced he had killed enough for the day. The woman’s father was released. She was conceived after that.

Al-Badry had the women gather in his backyard. One by one, they stood in front of a white backdrop.

“How do you want the world to see you,” he prompted.

The women stood tall. Resolute.

And Al-Badry clicked the shutter.

“Nothing is more beautiful than portraying people how they are,” he said.

***

The photo exhibit opening Friday is the first part of his project.

For part two, he will return to Iraq -- this fall or early next year -- to photograph the women and children who stayed.

His goal?

“To empower in images what they are in the inside, not what is on the outside,” he said.

After Iraq, he hopes to visit Somalia. It will be the third part in a project that may never end as long as war and the quest for power rule the earth.

“I want to focus on issues of women’s rights all over the globe,” he said. “Their stories need to be told. A spotlight needs to be shone on it.”

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Reach Erin Andersen at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

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