I’m finally in America. I 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.
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
To read all of al-Husseini’s “Finding Refuge” entries, click here.