Resident recalls life in Iraq ahead of book signing

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By Cari DeLamielleure-Scott
West Bloomfield resident Salma Ajo’s father and farmers sit near palm trees in Iraq in 1946. (Photo provided by Salma Ajo)
Ajo sits with her friend Najla. (Photo provided by Salma Ajo)
Family and friends of Ajo stand outside the palm trees on a date farm in Iraq in 1947. (Photo provided by Salma Ajo)

Ajo sits with her friend Najla.
Family and friends of Ajo stand outside the palm trees on a date farm in Iraq in 1947.

WEST BLOOMFIELD — Growing up in Iraq in the 1940s and ’50s, West Bloomfield resident Salma Ajo said, the country was safe and children were innocent.

“Iraq … was the most beautiful country, and they had everything. We had any fruit you wanted … and we had the oil. We had everything, and it’s destroyed,” she said.

Ajo was born in Basra, Iraq, in 1942, when the country had a strong British presence. She and her sister attended a school taught by the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation. In the mornings, Ajo learned French, and in the afternoon, Arabic, she explained. But on July 14, 1958, the Hashemite monarchy was overthrown.

“At that time, my dad and my mom, they said, ‘What are we going to do with the girls? They’re going to close the French school.’ So they found a school in India. It was built by the British people. It was on the mountains,” Ajo said.

Ajo and her sister spent three years at a boarding school in Panchgani, India. Because she spoke English, French and Arabic, Ajo was placed in eighth grade instead of sixth grade. After three years of schooling, she returned home.

“I had one year to graduate, and I refused to go back, but I did go to school, and I got my high school diploma,” she said.

Her father worked as a supervisor/quality assurance inspector for a British date company.

“My dad used to go to the farmers and collect from them samples of their dates. … This is the best memory of my life. In the spring, the palm trees, they start flowering, and they have such a distinctive smell,” she explained.

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers merge and become the Shatt al-Arab. On one side of the river, Ajo recalls the palm trees, and on the other side, restaurants. The date farmers would arrange for her father and the family to travel by boat to the farms. When they arrived, the farmers would slaughter lambs as a hospitality tradition and cook the lambs over a fire, she said.

“Then their kids would take us, the kids, and they showed us all the fruits and vegetables under the trees. It was beautiful,” she said.

Ajo later married her husband, Ramzi, and had two children. Her husband, she said, was from a similar background and attended a Jesuit school in Baghdad.

March 8, 1971, was a memorable day for Ajo, not just because it was her husband’s birthday, but because that was the day she and her two sons immigrated to the United States.

The decision to move was political, she said. Ajo explained that her husband’s company was nationalized by the Iraqi government, like many others that were owned or managed by foreigners. Her husband was asked to compose a list of employees and their political backgrounds, she said.

“He said, ‘Either my neck or these people’s necks,’ so we decided to come (to the U.S.),” she explained.

Because there wasn’t an American embassy in Iraq in 1970, Ajo had to travel to Kuwait to apply for immigration, and after three months of waiting, their papers were approved.

“That was when we told our families,” she said. “They thought we were crazy. (Iraq) was OK at that time, but we saw it coming — from good to worse. So, what happened after that is we sold the house as it is. We didn’t take anything, just our suitcases.”

After settling in Madison Heights, her husband found a job and told her to take care of the children, she explained. But she longed to continue her schooling.

Culturally, she said, the men are the ones who continue their education, and the “wife is put on a pedestal … and she takes care of the kids.”

Because Ajo couldn’t find her high school diploma, she had to attend an adult education program and receive a second diploma. When she told her husband that she wanted to attend college, he told her “no,” she said.

Eventually, she attended Oakland Community College and then graduated from Oakland University. She then got “the green light” from her husband to continue, and she received a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a doctorate in clinical psychology and education, she said.

They moved to West Bloomfield, and Ajo spent 12 years working at the Henry Ford Maplegrove Center as a substance abuse therapist. She was elected as a commissioner for the West Bloomfield Parks and Recreation Commission in 2004 and served a four-year term.

Daniel Navarre, former director of the West Bloomfield Parks and Recreation Commission, said that at the time Ajo served on the commission, they were beginning to work on Marshbank Park.

“I really enjoyed her being a commissioner and working with her for those four years she was on the commission. She was a good leader and was very committed and did a lot of great things for the community,” Navarre said.

In 2008, she was appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm to the Advisory Council on Arab and Chaldean American Affairs.

Ajo became a citizen in 1976 and has not returned home since they left. In the midst of war and chaos, she decided to document her life in Iraq for her children and the children of Iraqi immigrants who will never see the country she knew and loved.

Ajo will hold a book signing event for her book, “Melodies Under the Palms: Memories from the Iraq I Used to Know,” at Shenandoah Country Club, 5600 Walnut Lake Road in West Bloomfield, at 6 p.m. May 31.