From Baghdad to Doraville 

An Iraqi refugee finds safety in America

Page 2 of 4

I was stunned [by the invasion]. But I didn't like the Americans' way of dealing with it – bombing and killing innocent people because of Saddam. Always I am against war and violence.

In the mid-1990s, Iraq's economy was devastated by a U.N. economic embargo that remained in effect until the U.S. invasion in 2003. During this time, Ali began work as an interpreter for tourists and, eventually, foreign journalists. He had learned English as a child by reading newspapers.

There was a newspaper in Iraq published in Arabic and English. I would read the Arabic version and compare it to the English. London is my dream city. I don't know why. My father was going to London from time to time. He told me how clean it is, how well-organized it is, how English people are punctual.

[After the war] I worked at a hotel. I was helping foreigners hire taxis and translate for taxi drivers. I was working very hard. The embargo made lives very difficult for everybody. My father was able to work, but it wasn't enough money. We were getting poor after we'd been rich. Life was paralyzed. The embargo was killing Iraqis, not the government.

In 2003, I started working directly with Western journalists. A driver [for a Western broadcaster] came to me and said, "I need your help to translate." I was working illegally. During Saddam's time, you needed to have permission to help journalists. But it was really chaos in Iraq because the war was coming. The government was busy preparing themselves.

It was only after he became a working adult with access to outside media that Ali began to understand the extent of Saddam Hussein's brutality and the motives for wars he started or helped provoke between 1980 and his overthrow.

At that time, it was complicated. We didn't understand everything [about Saddam]. Everybody agrees that Saddam was part of the CIA and he was getting support from the American government undercover. Everybody remembers when Rumsfeld shake hands with Saddam at his palace [in 1983, as an envoy of the Reagan administration]. He was motivated by the Americans to stop the Iranian Islamic Revolution. Because he was crazy, he did it.

I didn't know about Halabja [the 1988 gassing of Kurds by Saddam's forces] until the 1990s. The newspapers we had at the time were from the government. They praised the government. Iraqis almost made Saddam God on Earth.

Saddam was a disaster. He was mad. My opinion was that he should be overthrown. By Americans or by Iraqi people, I didn't care who. I was dreaming of traveling freely, or criticizing the government.

In February 2003, Ali's friends in the Western press had convinced him a U.S. invasion was inevitable. He warned his family, but they didn't believe it would be an invasion. They expected it would be like 1991 or 1998, when the United States bombed but did not invade.

I was telling my relatives, my family that [the United States is] going to overthrow Saddam but they couldn't believe it. They said, "Oh, you're always making very little things very serious."

I took with me [a Western news correspondent he worked with] to my house. He was begging my parents to move because we were living close to a military base, which everybody knew would be bombed. He was begging, but they wouldn't listen.

U.S. forces invaded Iraq March 20, 2003, and rolled into Baghdad without strong opposition. Ali's family survived the invasion. He thought things would quickly get better; his father believed otherwise.

My father was saying that when Saddam is overthrown we [Sunnis] will suffer a lot. I was arguing with my father. "Why? Why do you believe so? We've been living here among Shiites and they are friends to us. They are brothers. We support each other."

He said, "I'm not talking about innocent people. I'm talking about the leaders. The stupid clerics. Where are they gonna come from? Iran." He was right, I'm afraid to say.

I was telling my friends that we're gonna live a nice life. After nine or 10 months, I realized the Americans had no idea what they were going to do. They made the enemies of the Iraqi people by stupid things.

The biggest mistake was disbanding the Iraqi army. Four hundred thousand men [suddenly had no job]. Four hundred thousand families were starving. When you have kids starving, you will do anything to feed them – join the militias, and excuse my language, join fucking al-Qaeda.

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