I’ve Always Seen Myself as a Bridge, Connecting People, Knowledge, and Ideas

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar co-founded Ideas Beyond Borders to foster greater understanding across cultures through translation.

After surviving the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ensuing civil war, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar arrived in the U.S. in 2013. Having grown up in a country recently torn by a foreign occupation and sectarian conflict, he decided to do all he can to stop these cycles of violence.

He’s embarked on an audacious undertaking: to foster greater understanding and tolerance between cultures through the spread of knowledge and ideas. The organization he founded, Ideas Beyond Borders, translates books and resources — in philosophy, science, and political thought — that have previously been unavailable in Arabic. He recently recounted the journey that took him from a student in Baghdad to a social entrepreneur in New York City.

Growing up in the shadow of violence

I was born right after the Gulf War, in 1991, and grew up in Baghdad. My neighborhood was mostly safe. People knew each other, we were friends with our neighbors, and used to play soccer on the streets. At the same time, there was extremely heavy censorship. My dad had to tell me that whatever is said in the house couldn’t go outside, because otherwise my parents would’ve been taken to jail.

And then the Iraq War happened in 2003. Things changed very dramatically. My family’s house was on the highway the U.S. tanks used to invade Baghdad. My elementary school became an Iraqi military base, so the U.S. tanks were in front of our house, firing rockets into the school. Every time they fired a rocket, the house would shake. I remember that very clearly. All I heard was my mom crying and everybody else freaking out.

Then, after a few months of stability, extremist organizations like Al-Qaeda started coming in. The first week of high school, they blew up the police station right in front of my school. The neighborhood became like the Harvard of terrorism: teachers getting kidnapped, students getting kidnapped. When we started high school we had five classes, each with 30 students; within two years, we became two classes with 25 students each. Some had to move away or leave the country.

When we had the first Iraqi elections I started talking to my friends about the need for a non-sectarian government with equality for all — no discrimination based on race, religion, or sex. So it started there. I got more involved in the activism scene. And I wrote blogs. At the beginning I used my name, but then the death threats started coming in. Everyone who was blogging at the time about anything got a long list of death threats. So I had to change my name, and then I had to go fully anonymous. But I kept on writing.

I’m constantly amazed and inspired by people who live in much worse conditions than me.
Faisal Saeed Al Mutar

Leaving one home in search of another

In 2007 things went really downhill. Iraq went through a major civil war in which most of the country was absolute chaos. I lost my brother that year, in November. He was kidnapped by Al Qaeda and disappeared.

I was still blogging and I was still writing, but as things got really, really intense, I had to leave the country. I went to Lebanon hoping that I will get to the U.K. because my sister lives there. I got rejected three times. I had to leave Lebanon to Malaysia. I hoped that in a completely different language, a completely different culture, no one would know who I am — I could just melt in and get away from the threats. From there, I applied for refugee status in the U.S. in 2010 and made it to the States in 2013.

The seed for Ideas Beyond Borders dates back to when I was eight years old. My parents taught me English. And I’ve always seen myself as a bridge, connecting people, knowledge, and ideas. It’s never really solidified until the organization came into existence, but even when Iraq was going through the war, I used to be part of many online forums about science and philosophy, taking some quotes and translating them, and posting them for other people.

I had this belief about the importance of removing barriers. We started looking into stats, and discovered there are more books translated into Spanish in one year than into Arabic in the past 1,000 years. The motto of our translation project is “making the inaccessible accessible.” So all of that content that is either banned or is challenging the ideas that extremists want to push, we are making it accessible for free.

Our translation project is named The House of Wisdom 2.0, after the first House of Wisdom in Baghdad in the 13th century. It was where you had access to most of the world’s knowledge that was translated from Greek and other languages into Arabic.

It’s a big project ahead of us. We’re not just talking about books, we’re also translating Wikipedia. Lots of articles on Wikipedia are not available in Arabic. Beyond the numbers, which we’re trying to change, our goal for these ideas that we translate is to have an impact — this content will encourage people to embrace tolerance and pluralistic ideas.

I’m constantly amazed and inspired by people who live in much worse conditions than me. I’m one of the people who “made it.” I live in New York right now, I’m safe. I always remind myself of my privilege, and feel an obligation to empower people who are vulnerable with Ideas Beyond Borders.

Read more about Ideas Beyond Borders’ mission and programs on the organization’s WordPress-powered site.

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