An Iraqi journalist in America: The other side of the war

It’s been more than three months since I realized one of my most important dreams by coming to the United States. Still, I never thought that I would come here as a refugee, maybe because my Iraqi dignity and pride simply wouldn’t accept such an idea. 

Under Saddam’s rule, before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, we knew nothing about the other side of the world. Internet, satellite television, and many other things were banned. We knew nothing about America beyond that it was the country that kept fighting Iraq and killing its people. But I suspected there was something wrong with this equation, and I didn’t like what was said everywhere by Saddam’s officials. The false news and Saddam’s propaganda only fed my curiosity about America, but I had few sources to find out more. One source was my father, who told me  that America was the best country on earth–a statement that could have cost him his life had any of Saddam’s followers heard it. I still remember how badly he felt when he saw the news on that inauspicious day of September 11.

During the first days of the American invasion, while I was still living the ecstasy of a new era of “freedom,” I thought of America as a liberator. Everything my dad had told me seemed to be true. But I still had a lot to learn about this country, especially when I worked as an Army interpreter and as a journalist with The New York Times.

Mudhafar al-Husseini
Mudhafar al-Husseini

I first realized that life in America was not as easy and smooth as it appeared in Hollywood movies. I was thinking that if life were so great in America, then those young soldiers with whom I worked wouldn’t have had to leave it and risk their lives on the front lines. I was still confused about real life in America. I kept asking the soldiers and officers, who came from different states and cities, what they thought; some liked it and some didn’t.

When I stepped off the airplane in Chicago in my first moments in the U.S., I quickly discovered more about the reality of this country. O’Hare airport was so big, but it was clean and there were no signs of disorder despite the hundreds and maybe thousands of passengers. Flashing back to the Baghdad airport, I recalled about six hours of waiting and searching in order to get to my waiting area for my flight. The airport is one of the biggest bases for American forces in Iraq.

I now live in Tucson, Arizona, a quiet city and a good place to start over and get a wider view of America. I am one of many Iraqis who have come to Tucson. When I talk to fellow Iraqi immigrants, they are also surprised to find such a quiet city in America, but most say that this city is a good fit for them. There are others who are not satisfied with it, and I think that is because they’re jobless, which is the same problem in many parts of the U.S. now.

I was astonished by several things I never imagined about life in America. Life is very serious and practical here, and people don’t have much time to talk on the street, in markets, or even in public places. It seems everyone is busy with his or her own business and daily concerns. Sometimes I feel that it’s good this way, and other times I hate it because in Baghdad you would never feel alone or neglected. People in Baghdad would stay up late and forget about their long workday by hanging out with friends or going out. The day would go until midnight, or even beyond. Many things have changed since the invasion, and the deterioration of the security situation has kept most Iraqis indoors.

I was also surprised that most Americans know nothing about the reality of the war in Iraq. I sometimes find it hard to explain, because Iraq is a complicated place. I think it’s the history, the civilization, and the old sand of that country that makes it harder than others to be understood. These aspects were not considered at all before the war. You have to study Iraqi history well and get to know the culture more before dealing with the people on a long-term basis.

As Iraqis here in Tucson, we talk about Iraqi issues and the war but we don’t come to a consensus most of the time. Everyone sees things from his point of view–some are against the invasion and some support of it, some were against Saddam and some were for him. I prefer not to talk about it, but on many occasions, I find myself the only person who talks and convince the others that Saddam was wrong and the war was also a mistake in some ways for both Iraqis and Americans. The war is now an irretrievable part of history, but we all have the chance to do something for our present and future. I always try to conclude my speeches and discussions with this idea.

Talking to my family or friends in Iraq is another burden now, as I am on the other part of the war–the safest part. It’s strange sometimes when I hear them describe the situation there. I get a mixed feeling: Sometimes I feel hopeless or torn apart. I was there, in the middle of it, but now I’m just one of the bystanders. I’m now in a better place, more secure and safe. I live an ordinary life that I never had lived before coming to the States.

Every time I talk to my mother on the phone I hear her complain about the same simple things. Such things are not considered huge issues in many countries because they are simply the basics of life nowadays. “We haven’t had water for three days, and there’s no electricity on our side of the neighborhood because the transformers are old and they change them with older or worse ones every time,” my mother says. Thinking about infrastructure in Iraq is really exhausting. People always say, “How come America can’t fix such simple things?” The situation has made some people think it’s intentional. They think the Americans are doing it on purpose now!

I thought that by coming to America I could relax and have fewer worries than in Baghdad. It turned out that I have the same amount of concerns, but they are different in nature. I now think about having a stable life by finding a job. I think about my family and friends living in Iraq, while I live in exile as a refugee. I have become part of the American mixture that is beaten by the daily blender of life.

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.  

Read al-Husseini’s previous entry hereTo read all his “Finding Refuge” entries, click here.

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