Preservation of Culture Despite the Odds

The Story of Walaa Kadhum

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq arguing vulnerability post 9/11 and alleging that Iraq maintained weapons of mass destruction. The war secured US oil interests in the Middle East while causing devastating effects on the region. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and military personnel died. During this conflict, Walaa Kadhum lost two brothers, a tragic event that remains with her to this day. 

Walaa and her family, a few of the 68.5 million men, women, and children around the world who have escaped violence and persecution, fled to Syria. Following some time in Syria, Walaa and her family applied for refugee resettlement. They traveled to and began a new life in Buffalo, NY after experiencing years of hardship and loss resulting from violence and war.

Walaa arrived in the United States with no ability to speak or understand English. For her, the idea of privacy was one of the most challenging aspects of life in America. In Iraq, privacy is almost non-existent; everyone speaks freely and shares everything. In America, people lead closed off, private lives. The adjustment from living a life with a community that surrounded and supported her to living in a more isolated environment was difficult.


Baghdad Collage made by Walaa

Yet, Buffalo is home to a large resettled population from Iraq and many other countries; from 2000-2010, the foreign-born population has risen by 33% in Buffalo and from 2003-2013, Erie County has resettled a total of 9,723 refugees. This community has helped Walaa’s maintain her traditions and culture.

Baghdad Collage made by Walaa.

Walaa and family at a picnic

Food is an important part of any culture. Through food, newcomers who face a host of challenges and differences in a new community can preserve a piece of their culture. Despite coming to an entirely new country, Walaa maintains some food customs thanks to the easy access of foods typical in Iraqi cuisine: dishes consist of beef or lamb served with rice.

Through food, newcomers who face a host of challenges and differences in a new community can preserve a piece of their culture.

Walaa has also attempted to maintain typical traditions around food. In Iraq, all meals were prepared and eaten in the home with the entire family. In Buffalo, her family still gathers for dinner, which she prepares every day, allowing her family and her children to share their traditions.

Traditional Iraqi cuisine.

Traditional meal shared by Walaa and her family

Since settling in Buffalo, Walaa has managed to juggle being a student, employee, and a mother at the same time. She has learned English, attends school at Buffalo State University, and has begun working at BestSelf: Behavioral Health, an organization devoted to helping others improve themselves. BestSelf helps the individuals overcome challenges and obstacles that are difficult to overcome on their own, including mental health issues and substance abuse.

Walaa and colleague at BestSelf.

Walaa and colleage at BestSelf 

Buffalo has afforded Walaa a unique opportunity to continue to interact with people of similar and diverse beliefs and backgrounds. With support from resettlement organizations and a large Iraqi population, and by living and working in this community, Walaa has adapted to a new environment, but more importantly, continued to share her beliefs and her culture with her children. Walaa’s persistent personality and Buffalo’s diverse community ensure she can preserve her culture and traditions while embracing the cultures and traditions around her.


Walaa helped organize Buffalo's Annual World Refugee Day as a representative of the Iraq Community

Authors: Maddy Kaiser and Samuel Sommers-Thaler

Design: Nicole C. Little

Editor: Jessica Scates