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An Iraqi journalist in America: Applications, airports, arrival

I'm finally in AmericaI lived all of my 23 years in Baghdad, never even traveling outside Iraq, but now I am in Tucson, Arizona, to begin a new life. I'm still trying to understand my feelings--missing the streets of Baghdad and the comfort of my family, but enjoying the sense that I can go about my day without being stopped and questioned for no particular reason.

My journey began with an application for special State Department refugee status, made possible because of my work as an interpreter for the U.S Army for two years and as a translator and journalist for The New York Times for another two years. After security screenings and interviews and 10 months of waiting, I was approved. 

The day to leave finally arrived, and I boarded a flight from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan. Also on the flight were 25 other Iraqis, including three families, who all were going to the States because of their work with U.S. organizations in Iraq. The other Iraqis were happy to be leaving, but uncertain of their future in America. Only two of them spoke English. As we talked, it became clear that their main concern was over the economic crisis. Some were very pessimistic, saying that America would collapse because of it, but others didn't believe that the country could be having such troubles.

Even though Amman was not Iraq, the thought of being exiled from my country did not fully register because of the Arabic being spoken all around me and the presence of the other Iraqis on the flight. I was not that far from home.

Mudhafar al-Husseini

Frankfurt, the next stop, was very different. I looked at the people around the airport and they seemed very foreign. I heard unfamiliar languages. I tried to get the proper coins to call home at an airport shop, but the clerk refused to talk to me. 

I arrived in Chicago after a long flight overseas from Frankfurt. I was really tired, thinking only of a hot bath and a comfortable bed--maybe a massage and a Jacuzzi; I was in the States, after all! Despite the fatigue, I didn't want to miss my first moments in America. It was a bit cold but I liked it. I had my passport stamped with no questions at all. I wished at that moment I had a live camera to show my family and friends what seemed to be another planet.

I felt free for the first time in my life when I walked around the airport: No one questioned where I was going or what I was doing. People of different nationalities walked about. It seemed like just what I had heard--a real melting pot.

For some reason, I felt sad seeing how people live in all the cities I passed through on the journey. I wished Iraqis could live a similar life. I saw metro buses, escalators, and many new things  for the first time. We suffered under Saddam's regime, but nothing has really changed since 2003. There isn't a new Iraq yet, as there was supposed to be, from this war.

I went to pick up my luggage and found that one of my two bags was missing. Was it bad luck or just a simple sacrifice that should be offered because of my new beginning in the States? I wasn't really upset about the loss of the clothing inside the bag as much as the loss of that Iraqi scent: a special smell of Iraq with its date palms, two famous rivers, and its old civilization. The bag also contained some important papers, but now I have learned to carry such documents with me.

I hate waiting, and on this journey I had to wait for hours and hours at the airports I passed through. The long flights, especially the one overseas, had apparently made me look pale and tired. I was sitting at one of the gates in the Chicago airport, getting ready to fly to Atlanta, when a very nice lady struck up a conversation. "You look very tired," she said. "Where are you from?" I felt happy to have someone talking to me; the people I saw at the airports were either in hurry or pretending to be busy.

The lady, who appeared to be in her 40s, was amazed when I told her I was from Iraq. She gave me my first American gifts: a wooden heart with the American flag on it, and sweet words of welcome. "We were told when we were kids to welcome new people," she said. "Make sure you give this gift to your first American girlfriend." She smiled and left me a cup of cold water before she went on to her flight.

I have no fears anymore. There will be no one to question who I am, where I am from, and where I am going, as in my own country, Iraq. Nobody loves to leave his own country, especially as a refugee. I'll start over again in America, and from now on, I'll look forward.

Mudhafar al-Husseini worked at The New York Times in Baghdad for two years, reporting news stories and writing blog entries as well as acting as a fixer and translator for other reporters. Before that, from 2004 to 2006, he was a translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq. He graduated from Baghdad University in 2007 with a degree in English literature. Now living in the United States, he is updating us on this new chapter in his life.  

To read all of al-Husseini's "Finding Refuge" entries, click here.

Mudhafer.abbas@gmail.com

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Comments

Wonderful! I loved to listen to him (it was as though he were speaking to me). I look forward to his next entry and wish him the best of luck in his new home, our great country!

Very moving. Best of luck to you Mudhafar!

Happy that you make it bro. hope that I'm gonna follow you soon with my family. All the best in your new home. Tell the world what was really goin' on in Iraq and How much Iraqis in General and journalists precisely faced here. I wish that reaching the safe haven will wash away all the sadness and misery that you faced here. but still you have to teel the world about the smell of death and the taste of tears in Iraq. Good Luck brother with your new life. I lived with your blog every single step on your way to the states.

your blog give me hope, i start consider following you

We are proud of you Mudhafer , hope you will find the missing comfort that has been lost from Iraq years ago.

Mohammed Hussein May 8, 2009 3:02:28 AM ET

Hi Mudhafer
Nice blog, I am waiting for your next one, keep this honest's voice and you will win.
Tell the world what we are deal dailly with, let them know how we are creators, and how we were playing with death last years
See you soon

Suadad Al-Salhy

Suadad Al-Salhy May 8, 2009 3:27:11 AM ET

I just came upon this and am so impressed. There will be more, yes? Resettlement is a very important issue and I hope CPJ keeps the spotlight on it.

Mudhafer, we miss you a lot in Baghdad. But we are all proud of you; we will pray for you and we wish you all the best.
Am sure that you will show people there, how Iraqis are gentle, smart, cooperative and nice.
Take care of yourself

asalam alykum,
welcome to america brother. for all it's faults, america is still the land of freedom. the majority of the people here are wonderful people, caring people. this country has principals that the world should adopt. the politicians and the media here are worthless, but they are not a reflection of the real america. inshallah, allah will help you along the way, and maybe one day you can go back and visit iraq and if conditions allow move back there and help iraq become the model for the middle east.

hassan hussain May 9, 2009 7:32:07 PM ET

I'm excited for your journey here! I look forward to hearing more about your experiences and wish you nothing but the best!

As a former small-time journalist and publisher, and one strongly in favor of disclosure and personal freedoms, it does my heart good to see that something positive has come from all of this. I have gotten the impression very deeply that much of what has transpired in Iraq over the past 10 years has been ultimately ineffectual, and therefore without a point.

America is far from perfect; even having been raised white and upper middle class as "an American" has shown me a lot of ugliness, in my own home and life and in the communities around me. Very early on I realized that those who spoke up about the things that were WRONG and made them public were critical to creating and keeping the best of the human spirit and human nature able to progress and bring great things to humanity, the world, and perhaps beyond.

Thanks to Mudhafar for sharing this part of his story with us, and to CPJ for bringing it to us via the internet. The biggest barrier to understanding is linguistic and cultural barriers, I think, and the more of these that can be broken down the better it is for all of us, and the better to promote the best of humanity and to help eradicate the things that we are supposedly fighting against.

If I'm ever in Tucson again (was there briefly a few years ago for a photo shoot), and our paths cross, I am buying the drinks. I would love to spend weeks listening to stories and learning what it was like, and is like, to be in and from Iraq, and to exmapnd my own horizons and understanding. I'll have to content myself with whatever time Mudhafar is able and willing to spare. And he might even teach me some things about Arizona. ;)

I just wanted to say Welcome to America. I hope you will be able to feel the hope and prayers of many of us who may not know you...but truly cares...what you have gone through...and will be pulling for you to find a safe and happy life !!

Blessings !!

Olivette Rogers May 12, 2009 12:14:13 AM ET

Welcome, Mudhafar! America is home to all!

welcome to your new beginning. always take a moment out of the day to remember the family that you left behind. if you close your eyes you will be able to see them. stop. listen to the sounds of the country. and if you really stand still you will be able to smell the scents that now escapes your nostrils.

once again, welcome to america.

robin d. summers May 12, 2009 2:03:56 PM ET

Welcome Mudhafer

Do you have an email address?

Sorry - forgot to mention i'm an american journalist based in san diego. view my work at www.mikekirsch.net.

Would like to talk with you.

Thanks,

Mike

Hello Mike Kirsch,
I miss your style of Photojournalism and f#@k CBS4 for terminating your contract. Anyway of staying in contact with you? My wife, E. is friends with your wife A. We live in Doral. Please look me up in Facebook. Best of luck ! Louie Subirats

I read your article in the May 31, 2009 Arizona Daily Star. I admire your courage and wish you the best. If there is a fund set up to help you, I would like to contribute to it. I want you to continue with your education - that is most important.

Welcome to America. Your courage in coming here brings tears to my eyes. We need your presence, your voice and experience. May you find happiness and be safe.

Mudhafar, I admire your courage and personality. Although I have not met you, and I am not sure if I ever would, the content of your writings give your readers an exact picture of who you are. Please do keep that spirit, you have a brighter future.
As a refugee journalist, myself, I believe I can learn quite a lot from your experience. The government in my country, the Gambia, perhaps the smallest on the continent of Africa, has become the most authoritarian...journalists and human right defenders have been turned into outcasts...
The Gambia needs salvation...maybe people like you can help draw attention to the problems countries like mine face.
I will be following your blog, insha alla. God bless you.

Mudhafar,

In this article you talked about "Iraqi scent." I'm working on a project where I want to capture scents from all different countries so that I can incorporate them into my project. I hear people reference this Iraqi scent, but they cant describe it. How can I replicate this scent?

The system can be used to have people travel around the world while sitting at their CPU and be able to experience the scents they would find while there.

Thanks,