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Neamah and his tae kwon do students

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Iraq-Boise and Thriving

After surviving years of war in Baghdad, Neamah Ahmed created a fledgling business in Boise.

Article by Kurt Orzeck

Photography by Neamah Ahmed

Originally published in Boise Lifestyle

Neamah Ahmed — a barber who fled Iraq with his family and eventually became a Boise resident — is not a macho guy. His mild-mannered, peaceful and gentle personality belies what they experienced in their homeland.

In other words, Neamah is way tougher than most “tough guys.”

For decades, Neamah and his family endured the turmoil and refused to leave their homeland. They chose to do so despite living in a battle zone, a 5-mile radius that encircled his home, his barber shop, his tae kwon do studio — and the Republican Palace where Saddam Hussein resided.

It’s even hard to fathom that Neamah and his family stuck it out in Baghdad for as long as they did. Residing in the capital was a virtually impossible proposition as unspeakably horrific events took place there.

By the grace of God, his family survived — and Neamah even maintained his remarkably warm personality — despite what they witnessed.

It wasn’t until his young daughter suffered a severe injury during the events that unfolded in Iraq, and when his eldest son no longer felt safe in school, that Neamah decided they needed to flee Baghdad pronto.

Shortly thereafter, Neamah fled with his wife and five children — along with his mother-in-law, and four of his nieces and nephews — to Amman, Jordan. They left behind everything that wasn’t on their person or in their vehicle.

“It was time to leave,” Neamah tells me on a November afternoon while seated at a table overlooking Quinn’s Pond in Boise. (He openly described the terrifying details in Iraq’s capital at the time of his family’s escape.)

Neamah said that, since age 10 — when he was working on landscape and construction at Saddam Hussein’s palace — he started to become acclimated to the dangerous surroundings where he spent most of his life.

With that in mind, his initial coping method was to seek refuge in his barber shop. After opening the business at a young age, he discovered the therapeutic effects of bonding with his customers over their shared experiences.

At the same time, it was during that precarious period that Neamah discovered his purpose in life: helping others, not just by listening to their stories but by providing them with the essential service of cutting hair.

Neamah enjoyed hearing his customers tell his stories and update him on what had happened in their lives over the previous two or three months. When not practicing martial arts, he could lose himself in those stories after working for 16 hours, day after day.

“I always kept my business open,” he recalls, continuing to elaborate on why he waited so long to leave Baghdad.

The first few years weren’t easy. It took him years to cultivate a clientele, hone his craft and teach others — mostly students from the neighboring university — the art of cutting hair.

“Most people, when they try to pursue being a barber, they quit in two to three years,” he comments. “It can be stressful. Everyone has different hair. They have their own style and personality too.”

As 2022 comes to a close, Neamah has notched nearly 35 years as a barber. He carries his skill not with arrogance but with a quiet reassurance that exudes comfort throughout his barber shop — now located on 116 E Myrtle St. in Boise.

His is the first Iraqi-owned barber shop in Idaho, as far as Neamah knows. In fact, his business is one of the only ones in the state where Arabic is fluently spoken.

After leaving his fledgling enterprise in Baghdad, Neamah opened a shop in Amman. Anyone who speaks with him would be stunned to discover he didn’t speak any English before relocating with his family to Jordan.

It was there that he linked up with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a United Nations-affiliated organization that eventually resettled him and his family in Boise in 2008. He also embarked on a master’s program in business management and learned English through rigorous studies.

Perhaps because of how Jordan provided him and his family with refuge, Neamah maintains a rule that isn’t universally shared among barbers.

“I never refuse any customer, even if they come late,” he insists.

After a pause, he adds, “They pay me more than I deserve to support my business.”

Neamah’s first salient memory of coming to the U.S. was of astonishment at how welcoming Americans were to him and his family. Only a short time before, Americans treated them completely differently in Iraq, with suspicion and scrutiny balanced on a trigger finger.

Coming to America and opening a new barber shop in Boise took time and patience — two elements that a hairdresser must learn to master if they want to run a successful business. Neamah mastered those skills by becoming one of the most skilled Iraqi practitioners of tae kwon do, which he continues to teach and practice.

When you're stronger, you become more humble,” he considers. “You learn about defense, defending your family and not harming people. I’ve never been in a fight.”

When he arrived in Boise, Neamah continued going to school, studying every day until the wee hours of the morning. He worked at a restaurant for 10 months, training himself to learn just one new word — and repeat it with proper usage to a different customer — during each shift.

“It all sounded like gibberish at first,” he laughs.

Especially challenging was learning the terminology for cutting hair, a craft in which precision and understanding the customer are key. Early on, he would often have to double-check what a customer meant when they said they wanted one or two “finger-lengths” of their hair cut.

“Did they mean finger-length wide or finger-length long?” he demonstrates with his hands.

But eventually, with both patience and a genuine curiosity for knowledge, Neamah established bonds with his customers, most of whom returned.

After spending years near 9th and Myrtle, he relocated his business over the summer to a new spot next door to WinCo on 2nd and Myrtle. He retained most of his customer base by staying close to Boise State University but appreciates seeing new faces too.

“Some guys, their wives drop them off when they go grocery shopping, and they tell me, ‘Make my husband look good!’” he chuckles.

Neamah’s loyal customers showed their true colors during COVID. With lockdowns in place, some of them paid him five months in advance for haircuts. One customer even gave him $1,000, out of concern that he might have to close his shop.

Neamah also relied on his skill at saving money, which he developed at an early age.

Now, he is trying to drum up more business from locals, all the while retaining an atmosphere through which someone in Boise can feel like they’re experiencing the entire world. Customers chat in Arabic, English and Spanish while soccer games invariably play on the TV sets.

Neamah’s fellow barbers, including his son Mohammed, bring in a mix of customers that keeps the shop bustling with colorful personalities, and stories from far and wide.

“I want to give back to the community that has given so much to me,” he says.

"I want to give back to the community that has given so much to me." -Neamah Ahmed

  • Neamah in the early days
  • Neamah in his tae kwon do uniform
  • Neamah and his tae kwon do students
  • Happy Neamah inside his new shop
  • Neamah busy at his new shop
  • The finished signage at Neamah's new shop
  • Neamah with some of his happy customers
  • Neamah working in his new shop
  • Neamah and his crew in their new shop
  • Aerial of Baghdad
  • Haydar Khana Mosque in Baghdad, Iraq