Before the war, I was an artist, a sculptor, and an art teacher in Baghdad. Life wasn’t so easy back then and I had to find another job in order to make a better living for myself and my wife and two kids, but even so, life was sweeter than it is now–I didn’t have any problems with anyone and the people themselves didn’t have a problem with each other. They were trying to live in peace, taking care of their lives and hoping that tomorrow would bring them a better future. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was their main concern; by having this, people thought that life was going to be better for them, and so did I.
But after the war, and after Saddam was gone, all our hopes were gone, too. There was total chaos all over the country, every government building was looted, including my school. Lots of people got killed and displaced, and the Iraqis somehow discovered that they are not one: They are Sunnis and Shiites. The violence started to rise and the life we were hoping for became a fantasy, a dream.
I had to find another job since my school was burned, so I used my English skills to work with the media. Because Iraq was occupied by the United States, I chose to work with a French news agency. Back then, people used to tell me, “It is good that you are working with the French. We like them because they didn’t take part in the occupation.” This came, of course, from the Sunnis more than the Shiites, but after a while, every news agency employee became a target. It became unimportant whether one was working with an American agency or with others.
One of my colleagues was kidnapped from the office because he was a Sunni and since I was a Sunni, too, I thought that I would be next on the list. I decided to go work somewhere else, so I found another job with a U.S. newspaper, The New York Times. Since everyone had became a target, it didn’t matter anymore if I was working with a U.S. agency or not; what was important for me was to do my job–not only in making a living, but also in telling the truth about what is happening in Iraq. It didn’t take long before I was spotted by one of the insurgent groups. I received a phone call, a death threat, telling me that I should quit working with the Times because I’m a Sunni who is working with the infidels, otherwise I can get killed or my kids can be kidnapped, and above all that, I have to pay them US$10,000.
This was the worst moment of my life. I was trying to do something good for my country, to tell the truth to the world about what was really happening, to expose all the suffering and disasters happening in this new age of freedom. Instead of being honored for my work, I got a death threat.
Being threatened personally wasn’t a big deal for me. I experienced five years of war and learned how to survive, and I also believe that Allah has protected me all this time and will not take me back to him in a random way; if it is meant for me to die, then it will be in a certain time and place. My main concern was my wife and kids. I could not allow their lives to be threatened, so I had to do something.
After receiving the threat, I moved my family to Syria. This was the closest and safest place for them. Then I changed my address and phone number. But they found me again–I had to negotiate with the insurgents and I paid them money they wanted just to buy myself some more time. Meanwhile, a Canadian friend who worked in the States tried to get me out of the country because he was concerned about my safety. He managed to get me an invitation to go to the States as a visiting scholar, something that I didn’t think about or even believe could happen. For us, the Iraqis, no country in the world wants us–not even the United States, even if it had a moral responsibility to help those who worked with it in Iraq. We were all seen as terrorists or at least troublemakers. So going to the States was something beyond my thoughts.
But it happened. I arrived in the States in mid-May 2008, and I was very welcomed by the people in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, because they knew me from “Ahmed’s Diary,” a series of radio entries I compiled from Baghdad for the WUNC program, “The Story.”
I had the idea to stay in the States since I’d already arrived. But this meant that I had to apply for refugee status. This wasn’t as easy as I expected. After I left Iraq, a special program was designed to help Iraqis who worked with Americans to get an immigration visa to the States. You can only apply for this program in Baghdad, Amman, or Cairo, but I was already in the States. I was told that I can apply for myself only, and not my family, because I would need to be physically back in Baghdad to do so.
So be it. I decided to apply for myself and then, and after my application is approved, I could ask to be reunited with my family. But the big surprise was that none of the immigration lawyers I met knew anything about this special visa program, and if I want to apply for refugee status, then I had to do it just like any other alien who has entered the States and wants to stay. If I wanted to make use of the special resettlement program, then I had to do it from outside the States. And this didn’t make any sense.
The lawyer also told me that it will take me at least three to five months after filing my application to get a temporary working permit, and maybe another six to eight months before my application is approved. Then I can ask for a reunion with my family and that could take another year.
This meant that I could not work or make a living. I had already spent a year away from my family and, according to the lawyer, it would take me another year or two before I can get to see them again. My financial resources are limited and I will not last for long here considering that I’m supporting myself and my family, too.
So the best way for me to make a living and be with my family is to get back home, go back to the war zone, and live under continued threat.
But how long will it take before I am spotted again? How long will I have before I get killed? Either way, I risk being apart from my wife and kids–by living in the States away from them or by going back to Iraq and getting killed. At least this way, I will get to see them before I die.
I have worked with a U.S. media outlet, hoping to tell the truth to the American people about the war and what really happened, and I was helped by the American people to get to the States, but I didn’t get any help from the American government or the American system. I’m back in Baghdad now hoping to apply for this special visa program. I don’t know if it will work or if I will have the time to make it happen.