Senior Story Editor, Taki Telonidis, is the sagacious, guiding hand of SOTRU . . . and he’d probably be the first to try and tell you that’s not true. Anyhow, he’s a busy man and we rarely get to include his voice on the website, but I came by a post this morning discussing his time in Des Moines. Poignant, simple and moving, it gives you a window into time spent with the al-Obaidi family and the kind act he witnessed that prompted him to want to do more for the people in his community.
I’ve spent this past week in Des Moines, Iowa, with SOTRU’s host Al Letson and producer Zak Rosen…where we’ve witnessed example after example of people coming together to make their community a better place to live. A catalyst for some of this change has come from an unlikely place: Iraq. One of our stories focuses on the al-Obaidi family, recently-arrived refugees who fled Baghdad after their son was killed and the father received death threats. We’d made an appointment with the family to interview them at their suburban home. They were expecting us at 9 p.m., so Al, Zak and I first had dinner at a sushi restaurant downtown, then arrived at the al-Obaidi home expecting to promptly get down to business. From the moment Amer, the patriarch of the family, flung open the door we realized that things would not go according to plan.
Incredible, exotic smells wafted from the kitchen, as the family was in the midst of preparing a sit-down dinner for us. The second surprise was the appearance of another guest, Ted Lytton Hadden, a United Methodist Minister and artist who’d become a close friend of the family.
Amer al-Obaidi had been a well-known artist back in Iraq, and Ted had arranged the first exhibition of Amer’s colorful, abstract paintings in Des Moines. Ted spoke with passion about the power of Amer’s art, and how the first paintings he’d completed in Des Moines were an attempt by Amer to process the trauma he and his family had experienced in their homeland. Ted was particularly humbled by Amer’s depiction of Jesus on the cross, an utterly familiar image to us, but which Amer had abstracted in a beautiful and sensitive way. Then Ted started talking about how Amer’s presence in Des Moines had made a positive impact on the Des Moines community. Wondering what he meant by this, I asked him to give me a specific example. Ted said that opening night of al-Obaidi’s exhibition pulled in an unusually large and diverse cross section of the Des Moines community who’d come out to see the work of this man they’d read about in the local press.
That night while mingling with the crowd, Ted ran into a friend who’s very active in helping refugees resettle in the city. She’d explained that so many families were coming from war-torn places, that Refugee Services didn’t have enough beds for them. A few minutes prior to this conversation, Ted had been visiting with another friend who’d come to see the exhibition, and whose husband managed hotels in Des Moines. She’d mentioned that one of these hotels was being renovated, and that they were having a difficult time figuring out what to do with the old beds. The local homeless shelters couldn’t accept them because their rules require that only new beds be donated. Within minutes, Ted had introduced his two friends to each other, and the beds soon had a home in the apartments of newly arrived refugees…all this because Amer’s art had pulled together such a varied group of residents from Des Moines.
I was humbled by this story, because it made me realize that if this man can come from so far, with so little, yet do such good in his adopted homeland…that surely there was more I could be doing for folks in need in my own backyard.