Coming to America (as an Iraqi Refugee)

After working for the U.S. military, I had to hide from Baghdad death squads. Finding a new home -- and learning Texan slang -- hasn't been easy.

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - JANUARY 22:  Marwa Naeem, 13, and her father, Mohammed Naeem wait for a car to take them to Baghdad airport on January 22, 2006 in Baghdad, Iraq.  Marwa, her siblings and parents were fleeing their Baghdad neighbourhood during the 2003 American invasion when an American missile struck near their car, killing Marwa's mother and disfiguring Marwa.  Humanitarian organizations such as International Relief and Development and CIVIC took up her cause, and she is now being flown to Los Angeles for a series of donated plastic surgeries to repair the damage to her nose and face.  She will stay with an Iraqi family during her stay in America.  (Photo by )
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - JANUARY 22: Marwa Naeem, 13, and her father, Mohammed Naeem wait for a car to take them to Baghdad airport on January 22, 2006 in Baghdad, Iraq. Marwa, her siblings and parents were fleeing their Baghdad neighbourhood during the 2003 American invasion when an American missile struck near their car, killing Marwa's mother and disfiguring Marwa. Humanitarian organizations such as International Relief and Development and CIVIC took up her cause, and she is now being flown to Los Angeles for a series of donated plastic surgeries to repair the damage to her nose and face. She will stay with an Iraqi family during her stay in America. (Photo by )

I will never forget May 4, 2003, the day when American forces passed close to my hometown. From near my house in Aziziyah, about 50 miles south of Baghdad, I could see the tanks and Apache helicopters covering the southern horizon.

Many people were horrified at the sight, fearing that it would bring death and destruction. But not me. Instead, I felt the possibility of freedom: At 22 years old, I had only heard about the ability to make my own choices, to follow my dreams, to travel as I pleased, and to enjoy life.

I wanted to be free from the regime and the man who enslaved our lives, and stole our money and our future. So I made a big sign and placed it at the entrance of my hometown: “Welcome our friends,” it said. It was then that I decided to give up my studies — I was in my third year of pursuing a degree in engineering — and to work with the Americans.

My job hunt was successful, and I began working with American forces as an interpreter in the western Anbar Province in 2005. Every day there was intense fighting against al Qaeda — and so many times, I came close to death. Three times a roadside bomb hit our tanks, but I luckily made it out alive. Fighting with Americans, I was ready to sacrifice my life for freedom and democracy.

Long before I filled out my application for refugee status, the Mahdi Army and the death squads in my hometown found out that I worked with Americans. Their local agents in my neighborhood began to target me as a spy: I began receiving threats on my cell phone and at my family’s home, where they promised to hunt me down.

When they could not find me, they started pressuring my family. A group came to my father’s house. “Is your son still working with the Americans,” they asked. “Is he a spy?”

They demanded that my father give them information about me, but he refused. “There is nothing to tell you. He’s a journalist and we support his work. He’s not doing anything wrong,” my father said.

The men left papers on the front door of my family’s house that read: “TRAITOR.”

I started to ride the bus wherever I went, for fear of someone bombing my car. But even that soon became too dangerous: It was not long before my father called and told me to stop now and get off the bus. They came to our home looking for you, he said. It is not safe.

I spent that night in the desert and took a taxi back to Baghdad the next morning, where I had friends and family and could find a place to stay. I agonized over whether I should contact them, as I did not want to put their lives in danger.

I disappeared in Baghdad for a few months, changing where I lived every week. My father later let me know that I was accused by the death squads of being a spy for the Americans and working with the CIA under the guise of being a journalist. It was difficult for me, but I kept a low profile, and the militia was so busy with fighting that I was not their priority target.

I did everything I could to protect myself and conceal my identity. I had another ID made under a different name and that showed I came from a different area of Iraq. I used it only if the militia checked me. I also bought a gun and carried it with me wherever I went — I even slept with it underneath my pillow, just to feel safe. I lived like this for one year.

In June 2010, I applied for a refugee visa from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which works with the U.N. resettlement system. The application first seemed simple: It requested basic information about me, my family, and the names of my brother and sisters. But then the application delved into the most minute details: the date my parents married, if I had received military training, if I had ever shot anyone, and if I or my family had joined the Baath Party.

There were questions about the threats against me. How had I received them? Had I and my family been displaced because of them? Did I believe the militia was still looking for me, and how did I keep safe?

I then needed to provide some extra paperwork, such as a recommendation from my boss and a copy of my employment contract, and the process of approving that meant it took four months before I could even apply for an interview. While waiting, many of my friends who also applied were killed by militias or al Qaeda before getting approval. I was torn in two directions: I had to maintain a low profile and keep away from my family, while also being available for my interview when the embassy called me.

The darkest time of waiting was in 2011, when several Iraqi journalists were hunted down — assassinated with silenced guns or bombs attached to their cars. Once, my father called to tell me that someone left a grenade in his car. All I wanted was to hear that I had been approved, as I felt that I was a burden to my family and I should just run away — but I had nowhere to go.

I continued to wait and wait, remembering the sacrifices I had made to work with American forces. My mind was overwhelmed with worry for my life and the safety of my family. At the end of 2011, one year after applying, I received a call and scheduled my first interview.

I was risking my life by simply showing up for the interview. I had to enter the Green Zone to reach the IOM office, but extremists lurked around the checkpoints leading to the area. Anyone could see you walking to the gate that refugee applicants had to go through. It was a huge risk to stand in line and wait to be called for the security screening at this location. Everyone there was an easy target for the militias.

The room where I was interviewed looked like an office: white walls, very simple desk, and a small shelf of files. The person interviewing me was younger than me by a few years and Jordanian-American. He asked all the questions that I had answered on the application with a focus on how I dealt with the threats and how I was surviving. He asked if I was a strict Muslim, if I prayed every day and attended Friday prayer. If I was Sunni, Shiite, or had connections with Islamic groups.

I remember he ended the interview by asking why I wanted to live in the United States, and how I imagined my future. More importantly, was I a threat to America, or to Americans?

Then the waiting process, and its dangers, began all over again. Almost one year later, at the end of 2012, I had my second interview, in the same location and through the same gate as before. At this interview they took my fingerprints, gave me several medical examinations, and asked me more questions. Unlike the first interview, it was a lot easier and shorter too, around 15 minutes.

I met with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) team, and a young American woman asked me to swear that I was being threatened and that I needed to leave Iraq. She checked my ID and asked if the threats had stopped, or continued to this day. I told her they were ongoing and that I really needed to leave Iraq. After this she asked me to leave her office and told me that I would hear their decision soon.

I learned that the security background check could take another year and perhaps more, depending on each individual case. I was told that the U.S Embassy had a large database of each Iraqi citizen provided by the Iraqi local police and Iraqi intelligence. I agree that there has to be precautions to keep the United States safe from potential threats, but taking so long to complete this process risks not only the life of the refugee applicant, but also the lives of our families.

Waiting was never easy and the security situation was getting worse for the entire country. The process left me feeling unsure of my safety and desperate for an answer.

I would sometimes email the IOM for my application status. Each time their response was that we have not received a decision and that the decision would come from USCIS and not from IOM. All I hoped and prayed for was word that I was cleared to go. Once I thought about leaving for Europe, but that would have required trusting smugglers. It would have put me at risk of getting killed during the journey, or having the large fee simply stolen.

After years of fear, worry, and anxiety, I was told in May 2013 that I was accepted as a refugee and would relocate to the United States. It is hard to describe how I felt at that moment. On one hand, I was happy — I was ready to take off from Iraq toward my dreams, to live safely and to finish school. But when I remembered that I would leave my mother, father, and sisters, especially the very young one that was attached to me like I was her father, my heart broke. I tried to stay positive and thought to myself that I could see them in a couple of years, after receiving a green card, but I have not seen them in over two years now.

I came to Dallas, Texas, with my brother, Rawsam. I chose Dallas because I have some friends there from my hometown — I actually wanted to go to New York City, but I didn’t know anyone there.

Rawsam and I have faced many challenges in the United States. Language was a problem for both of us. Although I spoke English, I had difficulty adjusting and learning English slang. For example, one phrase that people here use that was confusing is “I’m fixin’ to come over.”

Although the relief organization IRC provided help for eight months — including a check of $400 per month for four months, then reduced to $180 for the remaining four months — it didn’t help as much as I thought it would. We had to pay for food until we could apply for food stamps.

To receive food stamps and medical support, we had to fill out applications and do interviews. Filling out the food stamp application, given our lack of fluent English and understanding of American laws, was difficult. However, the time we could receive this support started ticking down from the date we landed in the country — even though we could only use it at a later date, after we were approved.

Looking for a job was difficult because of the ongoing conflict in Iraq. Some companies seemed afraid to interview and hire us when they heard we had come from Iraq. Employers in America are looking for experience more than education. Interviews and resumes are different, and it takes time to know just what to do and how to do it.

I began looking for a job that paid enough to provide for living expenses and school. The minimum wage was $7.25 per hour, and that wasn’t enough to pay for rent, gas, food, and school.

Learning the culture was not always easy. Things are so different. In Iraq you did not discuss private matters from your family, but in America it seems that before you can get help, you have to explain everything. Woman are a lot friendlier and hug a lot, even when you first meet. The music is so different. Men having a close relationship in Iraq is accepted, however in the United States there appears to be a social problem with men getting too close. I don’t see families sitting in the front of the house, with neighbors, drinking tea and sharing the end of the day.

Finding halal food, which is meat prepared a certain way according to our religious practice, was also a challenge. At first, we could find only fast food, which was not halal. It took time, but we used Google and found that Texas has many Muslims and there were markets and restaurants where we could find halal meat and Iraqi spices for cooking.

It has taken time, but with each new experience, we learn more about this country. We have learned to smile and say “hi” a lot and to answer personal questions when it is required for assistance. We have learned to shake hands when we can and to be okay with a hug. There are places to hang out with friends and family. Many have alcohol, but it’s okay to eat there — you don’t have to drink.

Sometimes we felt like giving up, but we continued to try, to prove to ourselves and to everyone that we can stand up and push through the difficult times and stay in America. We remember it’s a better opportunity and a much safer place than our country, torn by war and terror.

I’ve long dreamed of finishing my degree, and now I am in school studying engineering. Applying for assistance is not as easy as I thought it would be. Filling out an application and describing why you need help with tuition is difficult. The waiting once again weighs hard on your mind — but you wait. I now pay for my tuition until I can get approved for financial aid, or not. To pay for tuition, I work, buying and selling used cars. The job allows me to have time to study and attend classes.

For now, I will go to school, study, and wait, but push forward for my dream — to finish my degree in America. My love and passion for journalism continues. I hope to develop my skills and one day write again, helping the world understand the suffering in Iraq. I feel it is my responsibility to reflect my nation’s pain to the world.

Refugees coming to America want peace. I believe they just need opportunities to provide for themselves and their families, without the threat of war and political oppression.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Nizar Latif is a former translator for the U.S. military in Iraq who now resides in Dallas, Texas.

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