How Iraqi Immigrants Have Adopted America

As Robert Frost saw it, home is the place where, when you have to go there they have to take you in. That may be true, but for many of America's newest arrivals, it's not as clear cut. That's perhaps felt most acutely among the Iraqi population that has been resettled in the United States in the past few years, after some 5 million were displaced by the war.

After coming under fire for failing those who worked with the struggling American administration in the first years of the conflict, the United States has increased the number of Iraqis refugees it accepts each year, up from 202 in 2006 to about 17,000 this year. But according to a recent report by the International Rescue Committee, which resettles refugees in their new communities, many of those Iraqis face a harsh welcome once they arrive. At the same time, the main program to help U.S.-affiliated Iraqis has become clogged in the bureaucratic pipes: according to Kirk Johnson, who runs the List Project, out of 5,000 slots open in the past year, only about 600 were filled. With American troops now withdrawing to their bases, he adds, the dangers for "collaborators" only become greater. "What's the postscript on this? The historical precedent on what happens to collaborators after withdrawal is not encouraging," says Johnson.

NEWSWEEK caught up with five Iraqis whose decision to work with U.S.-affiliated organizations in Baghdad ultimately drove them from their homes and landed them in America. Their experiences are as diverse as their backgrounds. Some can't believe their good luck in resettling to the States, while others have a more complicated relationship with their new American home. Their stories are funny, heart-wrenching, frustrating, and inspiring; in other words, they are human. No matter how the history books cast the circumstances under which they arrived, what is undeniable is that they are now a permanent part of the American cultural mosaic.

Names with an asterisk have been changed to protect the security of immigrants' family members still living in Iraq.

Farid al-Zahawi, 62, Salt Lake City
A pilot for Iraqi Airways for 15 years, Farid al-Zahawi has seen most of the world's must-see spots. But his favorite has always been California. It might have something to do with the memories; he first came to the U.S. to attend flight school in Hayworth, Calif., in 1975. After the war, when Americans began setting up their offices, Zahawi saw notices posted on the new business center's Web site soliciting Iraqi bids. He got along famously with his American counterparts, he says. Generals negotiated deals with him to supply the police force with equipment, and soldiers, who knew he had been educated in the States, routinely came over to his home for dinner.

That is probably what put him on insurgents' radar. In 2006, he received his first threats. Shortly after that, he found the body of his security guard, filled with nearly 40 bullets. "I couldn't see a place in his body without a hole," he recalls. He waited for two months for his son to finish the school year, then gathered his family and fled to Jordan. He didn't even have time to sell the house. Neighbors told him it was looted not long after he left.

Now, from Salt Lake City, he worries that the U.S. withdrawal is premature. Friends tell him each group is sitting tight and preparing to take their revenge after the Americans leave. But Iraq's endless clashes no longer preoccupy Zahawi's every thought. Some Iraqi-Americans obsess over Arabic satellite-TV channels and keep constant tabs on the news from their old worlds, but Zahawi did not even bother getting a satellite. His kids make frequent calls to their friends in Baghdad. "They have their memories—you know, teenagers' memories," he says, chuckling. One day, after visiting his sister-in-law in a nursing home, his wife wondered aloud if they could ever go home. He pointed back at the building. Even if they had no money left to get him a room inside, he told her, she could just leave him on the roof. He would rather live his days out there than ever go back. "All my life, I've felt like an American, ever since I came to California," he says. With citizenship finally in sight, he's never looking back.

Mohamed Anees, 31, San Diego
When Mohamed Anees first headed to Baghdad to translate for U.S. forces, he never thought it would eventually land him in America. He was a fresh-faced 26-year-old, armed only with a bachelor's degree in English literature and a stint in the Iraqi Army. He ended up going out on patrols with the U.S. Army and the Marines. He loved it. "Originally, I just wanted to practice my English, meet different people," he says. "They taught me the little things, like how to use the F word. And they sacrificed for me." One time, on patrol at a car factory, a Marine made Anees stand behind him because he wanted to take any bullets coming their way. He'll never forget it.

The death threat came in 2007 amid a round of AK-47 fire. Someone threw a sloppily written letter at his parents' house, announcing that insurgents knew where he was working. His father told him to leave. Anees had a wife and an infant daughter by then. "Let me think about it," he said. "There's nothing to think about," his father responded. He prepared his application for a special immigrant visa, a program designed for Iraqis whose lives are threatened because of their work for Americans. A year later, he took his family to Jordan and then, finally, to California.

Anees knows he has it better than most. He's had little trouble finding work in San Diego, where there are military bases and consulting companies looking to hire Iraqis with experience on the front lines. These days, Anees is taking new recruits out into the Mojave desert for training before they ship out to Iraq.

Still, he has mixed feelings on his identity. He fits the American model on the surface, he says: he goes to work, he pays his bills, he raises his family. But if someone were to ask if he's American, he would say no. "I'm proud of where I came from. I am from Babylon, one of the wonders of the world," he says. "Sometimes I feel even more American than Americans. I helped fight a war for them. I would spill my own blood to defend the United States of America. But I am not an American."

Marwan Abu-Omar*, 30, Baghdad
If the war in Iraq has produced the lost generation of a new era, Marwan Abu-Omari s one of its casualties. Abu-Omar came to New York last August. In a sense, it was like coming home. The son of a diplomat, he spent his teenage years there, until his father was reassigned back to Iraq. After the American invasion, he translated for the U.S. administration in Baghdad for four years. After his brother was killed for interpreting for the U.S. military, he applied for a special immigrant visa (SIV), which allows Iraqis working with the U.S. administration a chance to resettle in the United States.

Once in New York, he went from doing counterterrorism in the desert to helping sell women's dresses at fashion shows. He was crashing on a friend's couch, working for $12 an hour at the start-up fashion business of a friend of a friend. But in the spring, even her business folded. "I'm disappointed that I haven't succeeded here. I thought it would be easier," he says. "I came here to find a life and a job. The life is beautiful, but I was jobless and running out of savings."

Stuck, Abu-Omar decided to explore his options back in Iraq. Military contractors are still willing to pay six-figure salaries for translators working in Iraq. Abu-Omar is now on a base outside Baghdad, where he both lives and works. The work itself is fine, he says. But it doesn't feel like home, and it can be frustrating to support the Iraqi government when he feels it is serving Iran's interests more than Iraq's.

On the plane back to Baghdad, an American soldier asked him if he was an American. He told him he wasn't. The soldier responded, "So you are coming back home, then?" Abu-Omar hesitated. "I don't know what home means anymore," he replied. "I have lived in so many different places I've considered home—Baghdad, New York, Lebanon, and so on. At this point, if I like a place, I call it home."

It's not ideal, and it's not safe, but for now, it's a solution. "Life goes on," he says. "If you let it get into you, it will destroy you. Whatever it is—whether it's Iraq, or losing a job. Life is too short to waste it on being scared." The time he spends will be counted as time spent in the United States when his citizenship application is considered. At least, he says, he'll be in a better position to get an apartment of his own once he gets back to New York. In the end, that is still the closest thing he has to home.

Haider al-Huriya*, 27, Annapolis, Md.
For an aspiring software engineer, getting to tinker with the U.S. military's hardware in Baghdad is about as good as it gets. Haider al-Huriya started working with the U.S. Army's IT department when he was still in college, then took on even more responsibilities once he graduated in 2006. In the beginning, he says, it was great. He got to go inside the Green Zone, which had always been off-limits. He got better training than an Iraqi system could ever provide. And he felt like he was making a difference. "Some people would say, 'You're helping the enemy.' But I always felt like I was helping my country," he says.

But working for the Americans had its costs. As the insurgency grew, Huriya had to keep what he did for a living hidden. He severed ties with childhood friends. His family moved closer to the Green Zone, where neighbors wouldn't be suspicious. His days consisted of working and sleeping. "I was like a secret agent. Even my parents didn't know the details," he says. "Nobody could know. Not my childhood friends, not my cousins, nobody. These people don't ask for money. They execute you. So you have to be careful."

Eventually, he started to see people he couldn't trust within the Green Zone itself. Cars began following him home. He felt exposed. Finally, last summer, the first day the SIV program became available, he signed up. He and a friend did their interviews in Beirut, then, in December, flew to Texas, where an American colleague from the Green Zone took them in. Together, they moved to Maryland, expecting job prospects would be good near D.C., but neither has found work, even after trying for jobs at Wal-mart and cleaning companies. Now, Huriya is worried. The meager benefits provided for new arrivals—a few hundred dollars, food stamps—last only eight months, which means he's a month away from being cut off. He wants to try to bring his family over, but he's struggling just to be able to support himself.

"We worked hard in a war zone for years, but that money I made is running out just within a few months," he says. "I wonder why they can't put us to use. They know us. They trusted us. We have big files with letters from high-level military officers. We had access to the most sensitive information. We sacrificed for the United States. I'm not just another refugee."

Said Rifai, 31, New York City
The city of New York tends to suit worldly types. Said Rifai is no exception. Born in Belgium to an Iraqi diplomat—in "involuntary exile" after he fell out of favor, as Rifai puts it—he relishes the diversity, the freedom, and the movement. "No one looks at you here," he says. "I never assimilated with society over there. It's not the way my parents brought me up. Everybody asks, do you miss home? And I say, where is home?"

Since 1993, home had been Baghdad. He was attending university and training to be an architect when the invasion in 2003 opened unexpected doors. Through a friend, he fell into doing odd jobs for the Los Angeles Times, then began reporting once security disintegrated and foreign journalists could no longer venture out. It wasn't exactly architecture, but the money was good, and he was good at the job. "I loved it. I'm an adrenaline junkie," he says. He'd need to be. Each assignment brought new hazards. One time, while in a Sunni area meeting with an imam who was very clearly pro-resistance, he came under threat, accused of helping the invaders. He wiggled out of it by pointing out that American media, not Arabic media, had broken the Abu Ghraib story.

But the danger was constant. After his mother and younger brother were tortured in 2006, his family fled the country. One by one, his friends began to leave. Others were killed. Isolated and hopeless, he began drinking every night. Finally, last June, he sent in his paperwork to relocate to the United States. He never wanted to consider himself a refugee. But this was a fast-track to the States, and it was time to go.

Today, Rifai is newly arrived in New York, crashing in the apartment of a former L.A. Times colleague while she's off on assignment. He hasn't found work yet, but, with decent prospects and low expectations, he's not too worried. "I wasn't fooling myself. I came over here expecting to flip burgers. I wouldn't have minded that," he says. "Most Iraqis have this misconception about being a refugee. They hear stories about others who have gone to Europe, Sweden in particular, where they provide everything for you. They don't read the small print." But for now, he's still just celebrating, like he will at a "posh" 4th of July party, he says with a laugh. By all accounts, he deserves it.

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