A Race For Everyone (by Jonathan Lewis)
(View the original publication here)
Now that Summer is almost here, it’s a great time to lace up your shoes and go for a run. And with races happening virtually every weekend (political or otherwise), it makes sense that two of the fittest cities in America are right here in the Washington Metropolitan Area (Arlington is #1 and DC is #3).
There is one race that often flies under the radar, but deserves to be highlighted for its unique cultural presence and devoted following. In Their Shoes is a 5K run/walk that attracts nearly 300 attendees from various communities across the DMV. The participants are veterans, ambassadors, business leaders, the local Iraqi and Middle East community, artists, diplomats, Gold Star families, students, defense contractors, and NGO workers. For the past six years, these participants have come together to raise money for millions of Iraqi children who are still suffering as a result of years of political upheaval and war.
The idea started back in 2007, when Maxwell Quqa – a cultural advisor and linguist at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq – helped to found the Iraqi Children Foundation (ICF). Quqa was alarmed to see thousands of displaced children were in the streets of Baghdad. According to the ICF website, there are 800,000 children who were left orphaned at the end of the Iraq War, and the subsequent invasion by ISIS displaced more than 1.3 million. These children still face harrowing challenges today: many are out of school, forced to work on the streets, exploited by criminals and human traffickers, and sometimes even pressured to sell their organs. “I felt like these children deserved better,” says Quqa. “And we all had a responsibility to help them.”
Upon returning to the United States, Quqa helped to bring together a diverse group of people to lead ICF: former ambassadors, business leaders, child welfare experts, community activists, attorneys, veterans, and even the support of US Army Lieutenant General, Jeffrey S. Buchanan and retired General, David Petraeus. Today, the organization is chaired by Mohammed Khudairi, a young Iraqi-American businessman from Houston. Khudairi feels a personal obligation and passion for improving the lives of Iraqi children based on the experiences of his friends growing up there. “ICF also contributes to the stability of Iraq,” Khudairi says. “Investing in Iraq’s children is an investment in Iraq’s future.”
The goal of ICF is to provide a safety net for Iraqi children by funding lawyers, teachers, social workers and Hope Buses: school buses repurposed to become an actual school-in-a-bus. These brightly decorated buses serve the poorest neighborhoods in Baghdad; whenever the children see them they immediately know they will be safe.
While on the buses, ICF and their local partners provide the children with tutoring, nutritious lunches, health care, and psychosocial services. ICF’s street lawyers also assist the children with obtaining the documentation they need to enroll in the city’s schools. ICF has two working buses that help over 100 displaced children at a time, and the organization is hoping to purchase, operate, and maintain a third Hope Bus.
To provide for these initiatives, ICF annually hosts a 5K race to both fundraise and bring the community together. “We had a lot to learn about hosting a race in the beginning,” recalls Cindy Fogleman, the organization’s Executive Director. “Now it has become a wonderful annual tradition.”
After the race, there is a party that is open to the public: a celebration of Iraqi-themed food, music, art, and dancing. Attendees who are not able to run or walk in the 5K still come out to enjoy the family festivities. In 2018, the live music was provided by Salaam, a Middle Eastern band featured on NPR’s All Things Considered.
In 2018, ICF also organized a sister race in Iraq. On the same day and halfway across the world, supporters were running in both Basra, Iraq and in Alexandria, Virginia. The two races combined raised almost $50,000.
Ali Halabi, an Iraqi-American who serves on ICF’s board of directors, ran in one of the first In Their Shoes races and decided this was an organization he wanted to volunteer for. He points out that 100% of corporate sponsor donations for the race are directed to the organization’s programs, and that “the vast majority of ICF's work is done by volunteers like myself, working pro bono and on our own time.”
Many of the participants travel across the United States for the race. Each year, for example, the Southworth family drive down from Wisconsin with their Iraqi-born son, Ala'a; likewise the Robinett Smiths drive all the way from Washington State with their son Humoody. “Our veterans, and the families of the veterans who lost their lives are also participating,” says Quqa. “We all want to help these kids.”
Teeba Marlowe, with her American mother, Barbara, make the drive each year from Ohio. Born in Iraq, Teeba survived an IED explosion when she was 19-months-old, and came to the United States to receive surgery for second-degree burns. Today, Teeba is an outspoken advocate for the race and the organization, serving as a “Young Ambassador” alongside Ala’a and Humoody. “We would drive 100 hours to go to this race,” says Teeba. “It’s so important to us, and we talk about it all year.”
Barbara Marlowe, who is now President of ICF, finds inspiration from her adopted daughter, and the two have co-authored a book about their shared experience. “By being there to provide a good education as well as love and support, we are affecting future generations,” she says.
Teeba agrees. “It means a great deal to me personally that people are here for these children. Any of them could be a relative or family friend that I am helping.”
The seventh annual “In Their Shoes” run/walk 5k will take place on Saturday June 22, 2019 in Alexandria, VA. For more information, please visithttps://www.iraqichildren.org
Jonathan Lewis is the author of Babel On: a book of poems. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Hill Rag, East of the River,EdSurge, and the ABA’s International Law News.