It was May of 2003. Iraq was in chaos. The CPT Iraq Team was surveying people on the streets, the public squares and the university in an effort to understand the national mood in the weeks following the U.S.-led invasion.
Lisa Martens and Rick Polhamus were attempting to explain the survey to a large group of Iraqis when someone asked a question they couldn’t answer with their limited Arabic.
That’s when Sattar appeared. Tall and lanky, bearing himself like a diplomat and distinguished by an unusual presence of humility, Sattar offered his help as an impromptu translator.
“He was very interested in what we were doing and why we were there,” recalled Polhamus. “There was something about Sattar that made us feel like he could be trusted.”
Sattar Hatem Hassan, CPT Iraq’s beloved translator, died in Amman, Jordan on October 2, 20011 of heart failure. He had just turned 51.
“Sattar was so much more than a translator,” team member Stewart Vriesinga remembered. “He shared our vision and helped us become what we wanted to be. He was reflective and quiet, a very deep listener. When he did speak it was always heart-felt and well-considered. He opened our eyes to our cultural blind spots, and would gently and lovingly explain to us when our proposed actions might be misconstrued in the local context and counter what we were actually trying to accomplish. He was a Muslim who understood and supported what it was we were trying to accomplish."
Throughout Iraq and in Jordan, Sattar helped the team understand and negotiate the religious and political complexities of Iraq, arranged sensitive meetings and assisted with travel logistics. More importantly, he was a cherished friend who was universally regarded for his kindness. Another translator who worked for the team said, “He was peaceful, polite, respectful, dedicated and full of love to everyone.”
Sattar had earned degrees in French, English and Design from the University of Baghdad. He loved French literature, poetry, music and history. Before the fall of the Saddam regime, Sattar worked for the Ministry of Tourism. He delighted in bringing CPT delegations to the book market and the various archeological sites around Baghdad.
The risks for Sattar were significant. “Whenever we asked him about the risks in working for us, he would say that our work was important and that this was his way of helping his country,” team member Peggy Gish said.
Perhaps inevitably, the risk became too much. Sattar was detained by the Iraqi police as a routine part of its investigation into the November 2005 kidnapping of a CPT delegation. The team advocated for him vigorously and he was released after two weeks. He stopped working as a CPT translator after that and began to search out asylum in another country.
When he died, Sattar was awaiting the final security clearance that would allow him to begin a new life in the United States. He had been living in Jordan for over two years under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—one of the 4.7 million Iraqis who have been displaced by the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq.
During his time in Jordan, Sattar offered crucial assistance to Cathy Breen and Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence in their efforts to document the plight of Iraqi refugees. He also taught French and English to other Iraqi refugees in an informal education project run by the Jesuit Refugee Service. “He was much loved by all his students and colleagues,” Project Coordinator Colin Gilbert said.
Jesuit Refugee Service assisted with the return of Sattar’s body to his family in Baghdad for burial.
CPT is immensely grateful for Sattar’s friendship, humanity and courageous witness to peace.