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Photograph supplied by Mounzer Fatfat

When Mounzer Fatfat first arrived in this country, he didn’t speak English, had no money, and knew no one. Nearly three decades later, he has earned three degrees from Pitt and is stationed in Iraq as part of the team trying to show that nation’s youth what it’s like to live in a democracy.

Olympian Effort

Kate Dunfee

Mounzer Fatfat in front of his Baghdad office—formerly Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace.

Having just awakened from a rare nap, Mounzer Fatfat proudly looks at the new addition to his home away from home—a mini fridge. It is his only major appliance while living in a trailer in the Green Zone, a high-security U.S. government neighborhood in Baghdad, where luxury is nonexistent. Some who are here have not left in more than a year. A refrigerator, no matter how small, is a prize. As Fatfat tries to plug it in, he realizes that he will need an adapter; a much-sought-after commodity among the American soldiers and officials stationed in Iraq.

Fatfat forgets about his inoperable refrigerator and decides to go back to work, even though it’s about 10 p.m. and he has already put in a full day. The walk to his office takes a scant seven minutes and is nothing special. The location, though, is a bit unusual. It’s Saddam Hussein’s former presidential palace. To walk through the palace, room by room, could take an hour or so. While the address is impressive, Fatfat’s office could use some tidying up. The glass in the window is missing; it was blown out in a recent mortar attack. Luckily, he wasn’t in the office at the time of the explosion. The attack didn’t faze him—not surprising, given the proverb that hangs over his desk: “You never fail until you stop trying.” President George W. Bush appreciates Fatfat’s commitment. The president has personally joked with him, saying, “You are the only good news coming out of Iraq right now.”

The White House called on Fatfat—a fellow at Pitt’s Global Information Networks in Education (GINIE) project and an international expert in education policy and remittance economies in post-conflict situations—to do in Iraq what he did in Kosovo. In 1999, the United Nations asked him to create sports and entertainment programs for Kosovo’s youth. Without hesitation, he assumed the minister of youth position, making him one of only 20 ministers running the country. When he arrived there, there was nothing to build upon—no budget, no money, no staff, no policies, no activities. He hired 52 people who went on to hire hundreds more. Building the youth ministry from the ground up, he “raised it like a baby,” creating programs that restored a bit of childhood to the nation’s youth. The resulting contentment among young people helped enable a peaceful transfer of power to the newly elected Kosovo officers after the country’s first-ever democratic elections. In fact, many who voted in those elections had registered at a rock concert organized by Fatfat.

Starting with practically nothing is a Fatfat specialty. When he first arrived in Pittsburgh from Lebanon almost 30 years ago, he had only $150 in his pocket. He knew no one, and he spoke no English, so he enrolled in an English language class at Pitt that met five days a week, five hours a day. He also managed to find an apartment in Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington neighborhood. During the commutes home from Pitt he would sit on a PAT bus holding his pocket dictionary, whose cover had curled from constant use. He translated all of the bus’ advertisement banners—pitches for apartments, restaurants, television stations. Wherever else he went, he would write down new words on index cards and then stack them in his bathroom so they could be reviewed whenever nature called. To occupy his free time, he found work laying carpet on weekends.

When Fatfat completed his language class, he enrolled at Pitt as an undergraduate even though he had only a moderate knowledge of English. Nonetheless, he graduated in four years, in 1980, with a degree in computer science and then earned an MBA in 1982. He worked three jobs during school, focusing only on work and study. The first party he ever attended in his life was three years after arriving in the United States.

“I was wearing a V-neck sweater with green horizontal stripes,” he laughs, “which I know only because I did nothing but stare down at it.” He finished his Pepsi and left after only an hour because he felt so out of place.

Fatfat started adapting socially to his new country in the late 1970s, while working at a restaurant—The Mediterranean. In that small space, Fatfat grew profoundly. He began working in the kitchen, where he kept practicing his English, a stack of books always in tow. Once he became more confident with the language, he decided to become a waiter. Then, a bartender. When it seemed he had grown as much as he could in this environment, he decided to occasionally step onto the restaurant’s small stage and sing in Arabic. Soon, he was an impromptu feature attraction for the restaurant’s patrons.

Fatfat eventually married and had two children, but his work ethic never wavered. After spending 13 years developing a successful Pittsburgh-based clothing business with a friend, he sold it, yearning to feel challenged as he had at Pitt. He returned to the University to work towards two more degrees, an MA in education in 1995, and a PhD in philosophy in 1998.

Of his assorted educational background, Fatfat says, “Academic work in the United States is set to build in certain concentrations. Because of that, people are more specialized in one thing. My background is in a few different areas, and has always supported what I am doing with my career. Education sense, business, working with the young, ways of thinking. Knowing a lot about many different things allows me to form myself the way that I want.”

From the window of his office in Iraq, Fatfat gazes over groves of healthy green trees, flower beds with blossoming roses, and endless security. Just a couple of doors down was former Ambassador Paul Bremer’s office. And if Fatfat were to travel more than a mile in any direction, which he does two or three times a week, he would be in a war zone. “Mounzer establishes trust quickly, which is what keeps him alive,” says one of his Pitt colleagues, Maureen McClure, who is chair in the Department of Administration and Policy Studies in the School of Education.

Fatfat can periodically hear the whistling of a grenade thrown from a mortar attack outside the Green Zone in Baghdad. He listens and waits, knowing the fate of that bomb has already been sealed. When it is not his trailer that has been hit, he thinks, “God does not want me dead. So, okay.”

His job here is very similar to what he did in Kosovo. “The difference between Kosovo and Iraq,” he says, “is that in Kosovo we were wanted. There, they even have a Boulevard of Bill Clinton, with a four-story picture of him.”

Fatfat’s work there didn’t go unnoticed. “He was just the right person to build democracy through rock concerts in Kosovo,” laughs McClure. “He knew that young people needed most to laugh, play, feel normal. He has the best sense of what is needed and how to do it.”

At the concert, which was part of Fatfat’s voter registration drive, 5,000 Kosovo youth wandered around in amazement at the novel event. Many clutched the free T-shirts they received after registering to vote. Three bands played, delighting the crowd. The young people kept the party going until 4 a.m., quite a departure from the desolation that typically permeated the war-torn streets after 9 p.m. On that night, the citizens were unafraid. They were finally living in a democracy. Fatfat was ecstatic. He had worked hard to gain the trust of these people, who had feared being kicked out of their villages by merely registering to vote.

Inspired by Fatfat’s remarkable ability to construct something out of nothing, the White House asked him to go to Iraq. He accepted, knowing full well the challenge he was undertaking. “We’re not starting from zero,” he says of the project, “we’re coming from minus zero.”

Fatfat’s new job was to replace Uday Hussein, the former dictator’s son, as the minister for youth sports. Fatfat’s initial focus in Iraq was to help field an Iraqi Olympic team for the summer Olympics in Athens. Uday had reportedly punished and tortured athletes he considered to be failures, keeping a 30-cell torture chamber in the basement of the Olympic headquarters in Baghdad. Women rarely participated in any sporting events because of Hussein’s reputation as a rapist. Now, a young woman hopeful notes that she has seen women running in public, unheard of under the previous regime. “At least now girls believe we can come out.” In this summer’s Olympics, thanks in part to Fatfat’s efforts, Iraqi athletes competed in boxing, weightlifting, swimming, tae kwon do, track and field, and soccer. They didn’t bring home any medals, but they didn’t get tortured for not winning, either.

Fatfat’s stint in Iraq hasn’t come without some major sacrifices. During a trip outside the Green Zone, a 4-year-old boy reminds him of that. He runs to Fatfat when he sees him and gives him a hug. The boy then sits on Fatfat’s lap and, in Arabic, asks him, “You are Daddy’s boss, right?”

The boy’s daddy was Ahmed Aoudeh, who was one of Fatfat’s Iraqi employees before he was murdered for assisting the American effort. Fatfat is leaden with grief.

“Yes,” replies Fatfat to the boy’s question.

“When is my daddy coming home?” the boy asks.

Fatfat says only that his father is away; the tragedy is still too fresh for the young mother to explain it to her son.

“Please tell him I miss him and to come home,” the boy says to Fatfat, who uses all his strength to keep from crying.

After the visit, Fatfat stands, adjusts his clothing—he must wear full body armor outside the Green Zone—as the mom deeply cries. He will do everything in his power to help this shattered family, but he knows the damage will be lifelong.

Fatfat is escorted back to the palace from his condolence call by three fully armed guards. Although their rifles are loaded and ready, Fatfat knows that each time he leaves the highly secure Green Zone, he risks his life. It’s a risk he will continue to take. Fatfat has agreed to stay in Iraq until the anniversary of the June transfer of power. During that time, he will continue establishing youth-related programs.

He agreed to do this because he says he wants to help give people a chance to live in a world that is not oppressive.

While he is in Iraq, he realizes he will live in a world of uncertainty, but he can accept that because, as he says, “There are some positives in every day.” He is reminded of that while doing some late night work in his office. On his desk, he finds that someone anonymously left him a plug adapter.

Kate Dunfee (CAS ’02) is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.

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