Holcomb: From Baghdad to Cleveland and back

It is vital to understand the struggles of others. I would like to share the story of Shwan Taha, a man I listened to and admire. Students at Case Western Reserve University need to know this man’s story and learn what their time at CWRU really means to them and others.

At a young age Mr. Taha had to leave his family and country behind. For the foreseeable future, he would not be able to return to his home in Baghdad. War with Iran had jeopardized the security and welfare of Iraqi citizens. Mr. Taha was one of the fortunate ones. His family was able to make arrangements for him to go abroad to the United States to study at Case Western Reserve University. But this meant going to a place where he knew almost no one. A place where he would have to deal with what was going on in his life an ocean away from those he cared for.

On August 2, 1990, over 100,000 Iraqi soldiers invaded Kuwait under the leadership of Saddam Hussein. Conflict with Iran had drained the country’s resources and seizing the oil rich country would help pay off Iraq’s debts. Iraq immediately turned from a friend of the West to a dangerous destabilizing force in the eyes of the United States. After some deliberation, the United States and Coalition Forces launched a full-scale air and missile attack followed by a ground assault. Iraq’s currency took a nosedive, and people began to flee the country. Mr. Taha was still at Case at the time.

Mr. Taha was able to speak to his family only for a few minutes each week. When the war came, his family told him to stay and find a job abroad. Not only had things in Iraq not gotten better, they had deteriorated to such an extent that return was not an option. Mr. Taha had to apply for refugee status in the United States. It is hard to put into words what this was like. To be in a place where very few people understood what was happening, to not know if your family is safe or if you will see them again, and to see the country you love descend into chaos.

While the hellish events in Iraq continued to unfold, Mr. Taha managed to get his MBA. His work in extensively compiling information about emerging markets in the Middle East caught the attention of Dr. Mark Mobius, an emerging market fund manager. Suddenly, Mr. Taha had the opportunity to fly all over the world training with the best of the best, but at every turn, he experienced difficulty obtaining passports to allow him to enter these countries so he could continue his business.

His nationality being Iraqi combined with the fact that he was Kurdish led to a number of instances where he was met with resistance when trying to enter countries. Despite his clear business qualifications, a number of states refused him visas. He would have to sit in embassies with his papers and books and work while waiting to gain access to these countries, unsure if he would ever get in and be able to continue to do his job.

But his tenacity led to his eventual success. He was recognized and recruited by Soros Fund Management. The business was cutthroat and entailed handling vast amounts of currency trading all over the world. By all intents and purposes, Mr. Taha had achieved great success. But again he was struck by the hand of fate and his life lead him down a different path.

One day while traveling to Greece on a private liner, he was caught in a horrible storm. As the waves crashed around him and the ship churned the Coastguard arrived. He was not the only one saved that night. A small group of young men had fled Afganistan in a small inflatable raft and were nearly drowned in the storm. That they had dared to set off on such a perilous journey in a flimsy raft shows the level of their desperation. Those young Afganis were so desperate they risked losing their lives for a chance to escape from the horrors of their war-ravaged country.

Mr. Taha realized that he could have been one of them. If fate had taken a slightly different turn, he would have been left behind to suffer and endure harsh deprivations like they had. That realization led Mr. Taha to reevaluate his life goals and purpose. He decided to use his knowledge and expertise to help his homeland. He quit his job and returned to Iraq to launch Rabee Securities, a company he established to promote investment in the Iraq, in an effort to give back to those of his fellow Iraqis who did not have the options he did.

Case was fortunate enough to have Mr. Taha return to the university to share his unique perspective and journey. The hardships of his youth taught him to roll with the punches and treat others with empathy and respect, a mindset he hopes he can encourage more students to share.

Life in the U.S. offers many advantages. A lot of opportunities are available to you that are absent in other less privileged nations. When you have everything you need materially, it is easy to forget those who have little. But Mr. Taha thinks about the people in the raft. He realizes and has experienced first-hand the fortuities and luck that accompany every day life. This drives him to keep an open mind when approaching others and their problems. Far to often do we close ourselves off because it is convenient.
As students and global citizens, we too must broaden our perspectives at any possible opportunity and attune ourselves to the crisis of our time. Sometimes school can confine you to a space. You bury yourself in textbooks for so long you may forget to look up and take a look around. If you plan out every little detail, if you don’t take risks, if you are too afraid to fail you may shut yourself off to new and exciting experience that can help you make a real difference.

The entrepreneur refuses to accept the status quo. Instead he looks at things and asks how they can be improved. It is a rare occurrence for a system to be the best it can be. Mr. Taha went back to make Iraq better. We can apply this to all aspects of our life, and utilize the tremendous tools we have been given here at Case to not only succeed in what we plan, but to succeed in what was not planned. To make a difference where we are need most. Sometimes all it takes is an open mind and the willingness to dare that things can be better, not just for yourself, but for everyone.