FIRST PERSON: Newport's ex-mayor, Cllr Miqdad al-Nuaimi
Born in Iraq, Miqdad Al-Nuaimi is the only Newport councillor – re-elected in May after he had lost his seat in 2008 – who is also a professor.
He talks to DAVID DEANS about his experiences in his troubled homeland, and his life in Newport as a politician.
THE last time I was in Iraq was 1974.
I am retired from my fulltime work as a professor at the University of Glamorgan, and I could probably find time and go and see my family.
But it wouldn’t be safe for me to go.
If I was from Italy maybe I could, but Iraq as it is at the moment – I don’t have the confidence I would be able to do it.
I was born in Iraq in 1945 to my mother Zainab and my father Omar in the ancient capital of the Assyrian empire, the city of Mosul.
Every single one of my brothers and sisters went to university, and university was how I came to be here. I won a scholarship with the Iraqi ministry of oil, who wanted a lot of people to be educated in engineering, marketing and business, to run the oil industry.
In the 1960s there was a very forward-looking attitude in Iraq, to get as many people as possible educated to run modern businesses and industry.
So it was that, at the age of 17, I came to Newport to study A-Levels at the Newport and Monmouthshire College of Technology at Allt-yr-yn.
When I arrived in Newport I thought I found the place very friendly, and it was here where I met my wife, Lindsay, who was born in Cwmbran.
I went on to study electrical and electronic engineering at the University of Birmingham for three years, and I opted to do a PhD at Loughborough University.
It was once I finished that I went back to Iraq in 1972 to fulfil my part of the contract of the scholarship, which required me to work for five years.
Lindsay and I had the idea of settling there with our new family.
My first son Adam was born in Wales and he was a one-year-old when we decided to go.
When we went back in 1972, when I took a job as a lecturer in the University of Mosul, Saddam was well and truly the power man in Iraq.
People had learned to be very careful what they said to people they didn’t know very well, or publicly. I couldn’t have this kind of interview.
But apart from the issues of democracy, the government was investing in infrastructure, improving health care and improving facilities generally. I taught engineering and I had a class where women were more than men in numbers.
But because things were getting difficult, we didn’t stay for five years and came back after two and a half.
Things were getting difficult in the relationship between Saddam and the Kurds who lived in the north of the country, quite close to Mosul.
Our house was on the main highway between Mosul and the Kurdish areas, and we were witnessing him mobilise his armour to crush any movement there. Meanwhile, Saddam’s rule was becoming more and more oppressive and was even affecting my work as a university lecturer, where I was under pressure to pass students who were part of the ruling Ba’ath party.
There were hints of worse things to come if you didn’t, and there was a general sense that you weren’t going to be allowed to do your job professionally.
I didn’t do it. I resisted it. What I was subjected to, however, was nothing compared to what some other people were, who were involved in political activity.
We had two children at that time, and Lindsay loved the country, but she was missing the ability to do what you could normally do. She wasn’t getting sufficient human contact in the position she was and she did feel a bit isolated.
It was hard but I would say we had a happy two years. But in 1974 these things were becoming difficult.
You don’t like to leave your family but you do have another family to consider. We felt we wanted them to grow up in a healthier situation than what was in Iraq at the time.
Initially we came and lived in Cwmbran for a few months while I was looking for a job. We then lived in Newcastle for five years while I worked for British Gas as a senior research engineer.
I was looking at their telecommunication system, which was my specialisation.
Then, in 1980, we came back to Newport. Lindsay had wanted to come back – she had elderly parents and she wanted to be near them – and Newcastle was a little bit far from people I knew.
When I came back I took a post with what was then called the Polytechnic of Wales and is now the University of Glamorgan, as a senior lecturer in telecommunications.
I became a professor in 1995, ten years after I started.
The Iran-Iraq war, which started in 1980, affected every family in the country. I lost a nephew, Harith, almost as the war was ending in 1988. He was a soldier.
Harith was very dear to my sister, his mother, Thamina, and was her first child. I think it was just as they were announcing the ceasefire, there was an explosion. I’m not aware of the precise circumstances.
In 1990 Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait. We saw the bombing of the first Gulf war on the news. Lindsay was devastated by the ferocity of it and so was I. We both watched it in horror.
In response we formed a Newport Iraqi Support Group, which attracted a lot of people and raised between £20,000 and £30,000.
The money went to Kurdish people who had been attacked by Saddam and had become refugees.
They were destitute and needed help.
More than a decade later, the US invaded Iraq. I was watching the news at the time and trying to think what it meant.
I formulated my opposition to it just after September 11, which was a monstrous thing, but I could see from George Bush’s speeches that attacking Afghanistan was not sufficient retaliation for what happened there.
He was bringing Iraq in very, very early on, even though Iraq had nothing to do with any of it.
When something like an invasion happens, communications finish. None of us could get through to anyone and we couldn’t contact family members.
Even now, with communication being a bit better, it can take several attempts to get through.
When you do, people are still too afraid to say what’s happening.
Most of my family are OK, although they complain of shortages, especially electricity and water.
At that time I had considered leaving the Labour party. I can’t see people wanting Tony Blair to participate in Labour politics again and I personally will not forgive him for what he did.
Out on the doorsteps of Stow Hill, I was absolutely surprised at the amount of comment and disgust with what was happening.
In 2008 I lost my seat on the council, and there was an Iraq factor without any doubt.
The first time I got on the council was 1988. I was always interested in politics and in the mid- 80s I wanted to do something locally. I joined Labour in 1986, and in 1987 I helped Paul Flynn when he was elected as an MP.
I have always represented Stow Hill and I’m very proud that I led the work for the area to become a Communities First area, which I took on as a personal project.
It meant that we now had a focus for those who had lived in the ward for years to express themselves as a community.
I became Newport Mayor in 2006, and my wife helped me make that a memorable year as Mayoress.
We worked hard, the pair of us, but we thoroughly enjoyed it.
We did around 700 activities that year and raised nearly £40,000 for two charities, Growing Space and the Newport Cathedral, then St Woolos Cathedral, restoration project.
We were also very proud to be in the mayoralty for the centenary celebrations for the Transporter Bridge, while we attended the re-opening of Belle Vue Park with the restoration of the Victorian pavilion.
However, in January 2008 Lindsay was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of cancer. We knew it was terminal.
The source of it puzzled us as she hadn’t worked in any asbestos-related industry.
She had a very positive attitude. She had had some chemotherapy which was very hard and she didn’t complete because of how ill it was making her.
When she finished that, generally her health was very good, and she had a good two years, until a month before she died in April 2010. Around 400 people came to Newport Cathedral for her funeral.
Lindsay, who was a councillor between 1991 and 2004 for Gaer and Maesglas, was a great public servant to the people of Newport. She pioneered Gaer Communities First, was involved in the South East Wales Racial Equality Council.
Lindsay had been chairwoman of the Newport Housing Trust and had led a project to replace pre-fabricated buildings with modern bungalows.
My wife was very friendly, caring and intelligent.
She understood how to do things and how to get the best out of people.
Lindsay and I had two children together, Adam and Omar, and we had five grand-children, now aged between two and 24. I have a great-grandson and he’s two.
I was chuffed to win Stow Hill back in 2012. I’m still really passionate about Newport, and I think people in the city don’t have sufficient pride in the place.
They ought to, as Newport has a lot to offer.
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