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Amira Matsuda: The Ambassador

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In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Mark Graham. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

Amira Matsuda lives with her husband and children in a Plano manse decorated with ornate vases and rugs, plants and gilded glassware. In her free time, she teaches classes in ikebana, a Japanese art of floral arrangement. She has a comfortable life. But she didn't always. So she spends most of her time trying to extend some of that comfort to people going through what she did.

Matsuda is Iraqi. She moved to Texas for her husband's real-estate job in 1986. She knew no one, let alone other Iraqis. She barely spoke English. But she found solace in a downtown Dallas Arabic mosque.

"We come here to face an entirely different culture, different lifestyle," she says. "I just needed somebody to talk to."

In the early 1990s, Matsuda started volunteer work helping refugees. In 1995, after strict sanctions were imposed on Iraq, refugees from her home country began flooding the States. Matsuda worked with the International Rescue Committee, which places refugees, to welcome them and translate as needed.

By the time the United States' war with Iraq escalated, word had spread that Matsuda was the go-to for just about anything. One person led to another, she says, and Matsuda found herself helping refugees find schools for their children, bridging language and cultural gaps, resolving legal issues. She pitches in with rent, gives rides, translates and, often, simply provides the company of someone who understands both their old home and their new.

"They would simply contact me, and I can't say no," she says. "No one will ask for help unless you really need it. Iraqi people, in general, keep their business to themselves and won't call for help unless the situation is dire."

Now, more than a decade since the war in Iraq began, she has a title to hang on all that work: president of the Iraqi American Association of North Texas, which started in 2010. Like its boss, the organization helps connect the loose but growing community of Iraqis, people lost in an unfamiliar place that's made a little more familiar by Matsuda.

See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

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