Sally’s Aunt and Uncle, Phil and Sally are active in their church and community. One thing they do is reach out a hand in friendship to others. Every Thanksgiving or Christmas I get the pleasure of meeting new people that Phil and Sally invite to their home. I met a couple of Indian UofA Phd students a few years back at dinner. Last year I met the A. family. And this year I saw them again. This may not be my story to tell so I am not using their full or real names. But I feel it is a story worth telling.
Mr. A is middle age man from Iraq. He has a wife and 5 kids. 1 set of girl and boy twins, a middle son, and two younger twin boys. Mr. A’s wife has a university degree in English. Mr. A has degree in chemical engineering. Both of them went to school in Baghdad Iraq.
I learned these facts last year at Christmas where I met the A. family for the first time. We spoke briefly about general topics that day. Mostly surface level things as we kept the conversation light. It did get a bit awkward (at least for me) when my aunt and uncle produced a Holy Bible written in Arabic, and gave it to Mr A, a muslim, as a gift. It got a bit stranger for me when My aunt and Uncle asked Mr. A to read the Christmas story from the Arabic Bible. You know the three wiseman and the manager. Mr A. happily obliged and read the story aloud. I think he read it in Arabic but I cannot rememebr. There was nothing for me to feel weird about though as Mr A. professed to the thoughtfulness of the gift and that Muslims consider Jesus an important figure as well. Jesus is mentioned in the Koran quite often I guess.
The conversation thereafter was light for the most part, but also touching from time to time though on the Iraq war, and the A family’s life in Iraq. Mrs. A was visibly emotional when discussing the violence and the security situation in Baghdad after the major offensive ended and the city blew up in insurgent violence.
This year at Thanksgiving I had the pleasure of seeing the A family again for Thanksgiving dinner. I asked my uncle ahead of time to tell me everyones name again so as to welcome them. When they arrived the younger children came into the house saying hello to their Aunt Sally and Uncle Phil. Clearly over the last year the two families have become friends and bonded to the point where the young children refer to my family as their family.
Each child passed me in line on their way to the living room. My uncle Phil announcing each of their names as I shook their hand. Everyone was reacquainted again. I began to ask Mr A more detailed questions about his life in Iraq and how he came to be in Tucson Arizona. Over the next few hours we talked, and for a time just myself and Mr. A stepped outside where we talked in a more candid fashion.
Mr. A. got his degree in chemical engineering from a University in Baghdad. When he graduated he only had a few options to in which to apply his degree, The nuclear research field being one of them. He did not tell me why he chose not to take that path, but as it was under Suddam’s government I guessed that to be the reason. Mr A. worked as a Trade show planner for the state for many years. When industrial tradeshows or government functions were happening Mr A was coordinating it between the various government ministries. He told me he also worked for one of the government ministries involved with the Oil for food program for a time in the 90’s. All in all he seemed to live a normal upper middle class life in Baghdad.
Then the 2nd Iraq war started. Mr A worked with the US government as a translator after the war and for sometime during the later occupation. He told me some stories about the people he met in the US government and the friendships he created with them. Sometime in 2004 the militia groups that were responsible for all the insurgent violence caught wind of him helping the US. At first it started with threatening phone calls, that escalated into detailed threats against his family. Mr. A spoke with his US employers about the threats and was told to mix up his routine, what time he left his house and when the family would leave for school.
At some point the Militia groups did a Compton style drive by on his house. Unloading AK-47’s into his house and windows while the family huddled on the floor.
Mr A. told me that the threats against him were scary, but the threats against his family were intolerable. Without telling anyone, even his US employer Mr. A and his family left their home in the family car, carrying only what would fit and drove to Syria under the cover of darkness.
In Syria which at this time was bursting with over 3 million Iraqi refugees Mr A could not work as Syria did not allow it. After what I think he said was 2 years in Syria, realizing he may not be able to return to his life in Iraq due the security situation he went to the US embassy and met with people there. He told them his story. Within 3 weeks his family was given passports and put on a plane to America. They landed in Tucson where one of Mr A’s contacts in the US government lived and suggest Mr A settle. Unfortunately shortly thereafter Mr A’s contact was redeployed to Germany.
The agency that brought the family over put them in touch with the Catholic Social services in Tucson. Thru the Catholic social services and personal donations by Mr A’s government contacts he was able to move his family of 7 into a small 3 bedroom apt in Tucson.
Mr. A and his wife hold college degree’s. The degrees from the Iraqi university are not recognized here. Mr A also has 20 years of management experience. Mr A is not a US citizen as it takes 5 years or so to earn it. This barred him from working as a translator with the same US government offices that employed him in Iraq. Faced with the prospect of $9/hr jobs Mr. A and Mrs. A elected to start their education over. Mr. A is on his way to getting his degree to be a medical lab tech, and Mrs A. is getting her degree in IT. Their kids are all in school now with the youngest twins now in kindergarten.
What really struck me is the sense of confidence and sadness as Mr A told me his story. He is a proud man who from all appearances led an honest and fruitful life in Iraq. Because of his choice to help the US during the war, he was forced from his home. But he was also given the chance to start anew in America.
That’s the thing that rubs me. Start Anew. His work/life experience means nothing. He takes $9/hr jobs as a non-citizen. Mr A told me with some humor about his family in Iraq not believing he makes such a wage. He says his family has a picture of America as a land paved with gold, where everyone drives a SUV and wealthy.
Mr A also tells me the world see’s America as fresh Face GI in fatigues carrying a gun. Our foreign ambassadors are soldiers of an empire. When he arrived in America he was touched by the thoughtfulness and willingness of people to help. People like my Aunt and Uncle, and his friends working in the Government, and the Catholic social services. He told me it is not like that in Iraq, that they only help their own. He was touched that so many, from all walks of life, and religion, with apparent no gain to themselves reached in their own pockets, and opened up their homes to this refugee family from Iraq. He said this is the picture the world needs to see of America.
I asked him if Christian and Muslims get along in Iraq. He said of course they do, that he had friends for years that he would only find out they were Christian when he would stop by in December and see family decorations. We talked about Lebanon and Syria how the multiple religions all exist together there. He made it sound like America is the only place that seems to care what religion you are, that where he was from it was not a general topic of conversation.
We talked about the War, and whether he would like to go back to Iraq when the security situation stabilizes. Mr A says the biggest mistake would be to pull out of the Iraq too soon. He said the Iraqi people expect us to stay. Like we did in Germany and Japan in WII and rebuild. He said Iraqi people want the same opportunity to grow a stable economy like Germany and Japan did. I told him I felt that we had to get out, that it was costing too much money and the reasons we went there were a lie. He replied that if the war was for oil, the Americans are doing a terrible job capitalizing on it, that the Chinese, French and Russian companies are getting the oil contracts but not America. He asked me if leaving too soon and not achieving anything was worth the sacrifice in lives and money. I replied that it’s like putting good money after bad. After he said that though, from his perspective I understand it. The Iraqi people want a better life. They lost millions of lives under Saddam and during the War. They want that sacrifice to be worth something.
He said he would like to go back to Iraq someday as he still has family there. He could make a better (than his current wage) living there as well as the Iraqi economy is stabilizing. He said rather proudly though that he only has 2 years and 2 months to go before he gets his America Citizenship. He made it sound that even though he has to start over in college, and subsist on a low-wage job is will be worth it to build a life in America.
The family played some games, the younger son wrote with blue sharpie on the wall and blamed it on his sister. I showed the middle son how to play a hand slapping game by brothers used to torment me with. We talked about Mormons, Mr A asked if they owned the whole state of Utah… I said yeah, pretty much. We ate some turkey and pumpkin pie. We talked about the history and meaning of his family name, and the names of his children. Apparently their culture refers to men “the father of <son>”. We talked about his kids forgetting Arabic, that they are said they do not have the time to work with them to make sure they keep the language. Mr A. said the Arabic Language and his culture are deeply intwined.
Pretty awesome thanksgiving with my family and new friends from Iraq.