From A Refugee’s Perspective: Life in the U.S. and Iraq
by Lujain Alobaide, June, 2014
Voice of Witness is a project that has launched several books illuminating human rights abuses. Their oral history interviews include immigrants who have encountered human rights abuses at the hands of their oppressive homeland regimes, human traffickers, employers, and law enforcement. In our English class at CCSF, we also conducted oral history interviews with immigrants who may or may not have necessarily suffered human rights abuses. In doing so, we urged them to debunk myths about immigrants and reflect on their experiences in both their homelands and their new host-country. I decided to interview a friend and fellow Iraqi. Adel was born in Baghdad in 1997, when severe economic sanctions were placed on the nation after its attempt to invade Kuwait. After six years of his unfortunate childhood, the United States of America, along with several international forces combined, declared war on Iraq and occupied the country after almost three weeks of battle and the almost complete destruction of the infrastructure of the country. Life was extremely rough on Iraqis, especially for children, who encountered all kinds of widespread corruption at every level of government and society. After seven years of insecurity due to ethnic killings between Sunis and Shittes, Adel and his family immigrated to the U.S., the country that had so negatively impacted Iraqis’ lives; however, having the blessing of being safe was more significant than worrying about who had planted the roots of the problems. Although there are some inherent disadvantages of living in the U.S. for Adel and his family, he mainly spoke about the overall advantages the U.S. offers in comparison to Iraq: the opportunity to live in an advanced and productive society, the modern educational system, and the ability to live in better and safer conditions despite the new loss of financial security.
Adel believes that his family was destined to come to the United States sooner or later. His father, Oday, wanted to move to the U.S. even before the invasion because he believed that his prospects would be brighter in the land of dreams; indeed, I learned later that he was mainly influenced by his American brother. Adel’s grandfather gave Oday the permission to travel, but on the condition that he marry first. After he got married, Adel’s grandfather was disabled and completely paralyzed. After this sad incident, Oday became the head of the family, and it was inappropriate for him to leave his disabled father behind. After a few years, his father died, his sister got married, and the door was open again to the possibility of immigrating to the U.S. in 2004. Oday successfully convinced his kids and wife to move there someday. As Adel told me, “It was planted in our minds that we will immigrate someday.” Furthermore, he participated in a lottery that could grant him a green card right away. Oday was extremely eager to travel in 2004 since he had a job waiting for him, but all his attempts had failed until he learned about the International Organization for Migration. Although it was a long and tedious process, Adel’s cousin urged them to apply, especially after one of Oday’s partners took his money and had threatened to kill him. Therefore, the family moved to Jordan and then to the U.S.
Adel started to express his ideas about some advantages he gained after moving to the U.S., such as the freedoms of speech and expression that were denied to him and his fellow Iraqis before. He discussed the simplest example that he could give and said, “In Iraq, a student could neither express his opinions nor argue or disagree with his teacher’s opinion” in middle school. He certainly thinks that the U.S. offers a certain level of freedom of speech and expression. Indeed, Iraqis’ opinions and freedom of speech were greatly suppressed and banned before and after the war of 2003. Mouwaffaq Al-rifa’I, in his brilliant article “False Hopes,” addresses the fact that with the current political instability, freedom of speech and press suffered greatly before and after Saddam’s regime. The government in Iraq was so oppressive that all oppositionists had to flee from Iraq, and the press had one duty, to praise the president and his family. If any politician or ordinary citizen criticized the government and the president in particular, he or she would be prosecuted. More recently, people may not criticize the government unless they are willing to risk their lives. Unfortunately, the issue of freedom in Iraq was so restricted even to a child-like Adel, who saw a huge distinction between the two countries.
We also discussed the pros and the cons of Iraqi society versus American society, and Adel agreed that Americans have a more individualistic life than the family-oriented lifestyle of Iraqis; nevertheless, he prefers it since it has enabled the Americans to become a more advanced and productive society. He complains the Iraqi community still has its despicable age-old tradition of caring too much about gossip and the fact that they often impose on a person’s privacy by asking personal questions. Adel claims that he and his family have abandoned those habits. Adel explained that in Iraq,“People have plenty of leisure time; they have nothing to do, while here you have to work a lot.” To a certain extent, I disagree with him. Most people in the U.S. have no time for any kind of social life in comparison to Iraqis. Adel agreed with me, yet said once again that people care more about work, probably indicating that this is what places the U.S. among the most developed countries in the world. Adel perceives life in the U.S. as a very practical, work-oriented type of lifestyle, while family and gossip is always the priority for his fellow Iraqis. He mentioned that “A typical day of an Iraqi is working from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm, and then enjoying the rest of the day with their families.” Then he severely criticized his own people and called them mostly “lazy folks,” placing huge importance on secondary matters such as food, saying “People live to eat, not eat to live” while Americans are hard-working folks. For the most part, it is certainly significant for any country to be advanced to maintain its work productivity; however, that doesn’t justify the almost lack of social life among Americans. It’s clear that the fact that Adel has grown up in Iraq during war-time has negatively impacted the way he looks at his society, while he appreciates living in what he calls a “productive society.”
Although many Americans criticize their education system, Adel believes that the United States education system is much better than the education systems in both Iraq and Jordan. Adel experienced a great deal of suffering due to the educational practices that were common in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003. Adel summed up his experience by saying, “I passed my classes by bribing my teachers.” In Iraq, several teachers forced him to pay for useless private sessions in order to pass the classes. For instance, although he admitted he neither spoke, wrote, nor understood any English, he was exempted from taking the final exam, since it was merely about paying money to teachers behind closed doors. Furthermore, in other subjects such as Arabic, Math, or even Islamic Studies, he would either pay for a private session or one of his classmates would give him a copy of the test after obtaining it by bribing that particular teacher. When Adel moved to Jordan, things became even worse for him. Teachers abused their authority by beating their students, using thick pieces of wood, small aluminum pipes, or other instruments, which caused him to hate going to school. Obviously, education was one of several aspects of Iraqis’ lives that were utterly destroyed by corruption and bribery. While in Jordan, that particular school hadn’t yet purged the old barbaric practice of corporal punishment, which indeed caused Adel not only to hate the school, but also to hate his memories of Jordan. On the other hand, schools in the U.S. allow students to pick their classes after consulting with their advisers and there is no inhumane treatment of students. Hence, studying in the U.S. represents a great opportunity for Adel to expand his educational experience, and start loving school.
Like many immigrants, Adel’s first impression of the U.S. has its own unique taste of mixed emotions, and Adel felt that some medical agencies had discriminated against him since he came from Iraq, while he felt he was treated with great sympathy and respect in his two-week middle school experience for the same reason. As any new immigrant, Adel and his family, accompanied by his uncle, applied for social security numbers as their first step in the long process of obtaining green cards and then applying for citizenship. One of the requirements is a medical check-up, during which he felt he was subject to unnecessary shots because the nurses knew he was from Iraq. They felt obligated to prevent any kind of diseases from spreading because of the radiation that was left over after the shelling. He also mentioned that his uncle’s wife, who is an Irish-American nurse, was surprised and annoyed by the amount of medicine and shots they were injected with. Adel remained sick for two weeks and believed it was due to the excessive and unnecessary medicine. In contrast, one week after living in the U.S., he attended the last two-weeks of middle school in Oroville, California. Adel felt utterly welcome despite the language barrier. He said, “I spoke very few words, like five or six, such as hi, how are you? And these kind of stuff.” Students urged him to come by and sit with them at lunch time, while the kindness of his music teacher impressed him. Adel said, “Every morning I would go to see a band practicing. One day, he posted a sign saying not to enter, so I didn’t. Next day I saw him and he told me that I’m an exception to the rule, and that I can actually enter.” His teacher was extremely sympathetic and respectful because he knew what it really meant for a kid to be living in Iraq at that time. Although it was a minor type of discrimination, Adel felt insulted by the way he was treated according to that labeling of being an Iraqi, while on the contrary, Adel’s two-week experience in middle school not only made him love going to school, but also helped him successfully integrate into American life.
Adel’s family was considered a middle-class family in Iraq, given that his father was an electrical engineer, while he is currently among the working class in the U.S., so I touched on this sensitive area regarding the governmental assistance his family is receiving. Adel’s family receives both food stamps and cash aid, so I asked him about how they met their living expenses. He explained that they rented out their home in Iraq, and used that money combined with government assistance to make ends meet. I plunged in into one of the most widespread misconceptions regarding immigrants and I informed him that some Americans view those who take government assistance, such as his family, as parasites. He responded, “We have only finished three years in total and that if we will be taking it for more than five years, the myth become valid.” Adel had forgotten that his father is unable to practice his profession since his degree isn’t recognized in the U.S. Indeed, he must study for a couple years to earn the equivalent degree. In the meantime, he is actively looking for a part-time job that can accommodate his medical conditions, while Adel’s mother is currently working part-time. Indeed, after Adel got his job at McDonald’s and his mother started working at Costco, the county reduced their benefits by more than half. His personal experience is just one among thousands of people who are wrongfully accused of being parasites. Although there are some prejudices against immigrants like Adel, he is very resilient and able to deal with them and with the lower-level of financial income that his family now has.
One of the reasons why Adel has such a negative impression of his homeland is the overall corruption trend in Iraqis’ lives. According to the United States Department of Justice’s report on the overall status of Iraq in 2013, ten years after the war ended, the severe human rights abuses still persist. That said, the three most important ones are:
“politically motivated sectarian and ethnic killings, including by the resurgent terrorist network led by al-Qaida and its affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI); torture and abuses by government actors and illegal armed groups; and a lack of governmental transparency, exacerbated by widespread corruption at all levels of government and society.”
Iraq has been the best place for terrorist groups to seek shelter. This fact, in addition to the government’s unlawful actions against civilians, led to 6564 fatalities in 2013. Arbitrary arrest and long-term imprisonment without trial was widespread in the last decade. Human rights abuses and degrading treatment in prison and detention centers that usually lack clean water and electricity were very common as well. Moreover, many other international agencies that advocate and monitor human rights were banned from access to sensitive locations like prisons and detention centers. Corruption on the governmental level was so bad that it was reported that 60 percent of the country government employees were bribed, and several citizens confessed that they were compelled to pay bribes an average of four times a day. In addition, government officials were found to be guilty of stealing public funds, and the total of the first ten months of the same year was found to be 112 million dollars. Previously mentioned, conditions and others has created such a negative depiction in Adel’s mind regardless of what the roots of the original problem are.
One of the biggest advantages the U.S. has to offer became apparent as Adel spoke about one of his harrowing experiences in Iraq. A few weeks after the official occupation of Iraq, an Iraqi missile fell on his family home while they were eating lunch; in Adel’s own words, “It fell down exactly on the room that was above us. If there was nothing to block it, it would have fallen on us. If we [hadn’t] died from its heavy weight, we would probably [would have] died from its extremely high heat.” Luckily, it was a defective missile, and when it fell down, only half of it fell. Adel’s family were enjoying their lunch, when his aunt stood up and started washing dishes. The shelling didn’t really sound that severe, at least compared to three weeks of continuous shelling. His father thought that the shelling was just starting earlier than the usual, when his mother observed that the neighbors were actually pointing at their house. The neighbors told his father that there was some smoke coming from the backyard. His father went upstairs to find a cloud of smoke, and then ordered the entire family to evacuate the house. Police officers and firefighters arrived. More than ten men equipped with different kinds of rags and gloves crawled down the stairs with the missile and placed it in their truck. It was really heavy and extremely hot, and caused major cracks on their stairs. They were all terrified; however, they had some type of metal air-conditioner holder that had a cubic shape, which stopped the missile from getting into the kitchen and most likely ending their lives. Probably, the paramount advantage is the security he enjoys while living in the U.S., which was perfectly expressed in his own words: “at least [in the U.S] I could put my head on the pillow without having to worry about if some militia will raid on our house and kills us… ” For the most part, almost every war-refugee would agree that having the grace of safety is always the number one advantage the host country can provide for with.
Although living in the U.S. has its disadvantages for Adel and his family, he sees the U.S. as a place that has provided him with safe living conditions, access to a well-developed education system, and the chance to live in a productive society. Being a refugee and child in a time of war has greatly impacted the way Adel views his homeland, especially in comparison to the U.S. Iraq has been under harsh conditions since the first Gulf War of 1980. War after war, combined with economic sanctions and isolation from the international community has spurred many Iraqis like Adel to emigrate to more advanced societies that can provide them with basic human needs. Indeed, the majority of Iraqi immigrants have fled the country due to the utterly unsafe living conditions, which is a natural human merit that makes any human favor living in the safer country. Therefore, home for Iraqis is the place where safety can be found, and basic human rights are granted. Probably the best statement that describes why Adel and other Iraqi children might not admire their original country is found in Shereen T. Ismael Article, “The Cost of War: The Children of Iraq.” Ismael said, “Peace is the nurture of happy children.” Therefore, violence combined with widespread insecurity and corruption makes the United States the best provider for Adel and his family’s needs, which were lacking in his homeland country.
Abdullha, Adel. Personal interview. 7 March 2014.
Ismael, Shereen T. “The Cost of War: The Children of Iraq.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 38.2 (2007): 337-357. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 May 2014.
United States. Dept. of Justice. “Iraq 2013 Human Rights Report.” The United
State Department of Justice. Virtual Law Library, May. 2014. Web. 15 May 2014.
Rifa’i, Mouwaffaq Al. “False Hopes.” Index on Censorship 36.3 (2007): 35-43. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 May 2014.
I told my friend Adel previously about the project and he agreed to be interviewed by me.
Lujain: Adel tell me about your life in Iraq.
Adel: Should I speak in English?
Lujain: You don’t have to.
Since I knew that he would express himself much better in Arabic than English. Arabic was the language spoken between us throughout the interview. In addition, please not that these are not the entire transcripts; this is only some part of the interview.
Adel: on the first day of the war, we were prepared for the war by setting a room that was next to the stairs, next to a bathroom, so that the entire family could sleep there at the outset of the war of 2003. I and my sister brought our stuff, and toys and placed them in that room, and it was determined that this room would be the safest one. In other words, it would be the last room to be destroyed if a missile would hit our house.
Lujain: Are you saying that only you and Sarah (his sister) would sleep in that particular room since it is safer to remain there?
Adel: Well, actually all of the family stayed there whenever the shelling was too severe. Also, this room has few windows, so it was safer to remain there for the first month of the war. May uncle and his family (two daughters, two sons, and his wife) came and stayed with us in our home as well. My uncle use to live in your Neighborhood (Lujain’s Neighborhood). Indeed, my uncle had died (sighs). We were total of 13 person living in our house.
Lujain: Wow, that’s a lot. How many rooms were there in your home?
Adel: Man what are you talking about, we were all 13 individual in my small room whenever the shelling was severe. I think that was merely true for the first week, and then we started to play some games.
Adel: Because we thought if we were going to die then we will. There was no much to do about it. We were constantly hearing airplanes noises.
Lujain: Tell me about when the missile fell down at your house; was your uncle’s family still living with you?
Adel: Haaaaaaaaa هااااااا, no they weren’t with us, they returned back to their neighborhood after a while. (The Arabic word is a special Iraqi expression that refers to that fact that the person now got the idea of what the other person is asking or talking about).
Lujain: Uhmm, then tell me when did that happened? The Official war was no more than three weeks.
Adel: I know
Lujain: Then, when did the missile fell down?
Adel: in the middle of the war.
Lujain; Uhmm, (facial expression suggesting that I still don’t get it).
Adel: It was after the official occupation of Baghdad, but it was an Iraqi-missile.
Adel: But there was still sort of minor resistance against the American Army. There was still some parts that were under the Iraqi-control.
Lujain: uhmm, okay. (Laughs), Oh Lord, why did they merely targeted it your house?!
Adel: exactly man, I guess it was a random mistake.
Lujain: An Iraq missile.
Adel: it was a spoiled missile. Only half of the missile fell down.
Lujain: Okay. Who were the agencies, or people that came to assist you?
Adel: Police and firefighters.
Lujain: but…( interrupted )
Adel: wait, let me say it in a chronological order. (Laughs). We were eating our lunch when the missile felt down. It fell down exactly on the room that was above us. If there was nothing to block it, it would have fell on us. If we weren’t to die from its heavy weight, we would probably die from its extremely high heat. My aunt were washing dishes, the whole family were in the kitchen eating our lunch. It was afternoon.
Lujain: who was there again beside you?
Adel: my family, aunt, and my grandmother.
Adel: the voice wasn’t that huge in comparison to what we heard during the war. It was utterly soft voice.
Lujain: That is so bizarre. I remember that even when missiles were distanced, their voices was still intimidating. May be it is because it was spoiled.
Adel: I don’t know. My father took me and my sister to the secure room, and sat us in his lap, and placed his arms around us.
Lujain: As a child: What were your feelings? Afraid, terrified, etc.
Adel: yep, of course I was terrified.
Lujain: Was your body shaking? Did you got sick because o you fear? (I was requesting more details).
Adel: oh okay, no, we were all afraid, but no to the point that I got sick. A child is hearing a horribly loud voices, what do you expect him to feel? (Adel was fumed). We used to close the doors and the windows to minimize these voices. The room would isolated the voice.
Lujain: Okay. Man, I remember our house was shacking as if an earthquake had occurred.
Adel: We would always sit in the room that has the fewer windows. My dad observed, “Oh the shelling have started so early today”, when it felt down. All of the sudden, my mom mentioned that our neighbors are looking at our houses, and they were pointing.
Lujain: (Laughs).[ Laughs that was intended to show the irony of what life can bring into people’s lives].
Adel: My dad went out, and the neighbors’ said there was a smoke evolving from the back yard of our house. We spilt the house before the war into two houses: once was sold, and the other one is where we lived.
Adel: sighs, he went upstairs, and the merely view was pure smoke. He said, “everyone hurry up out.” We went out to the house that was exactly in front of our house. Indeed, after the war, a bickering had occurred between us and them.
Adel: Anyway: one of them kept repeating, did it explode yet or not? Laughing.
Lujain: what….??? Surprised from the that person reaction.
Adel: I swear we were all afraid, while this lady was wondering in such a rude way.
Lujain: Oh my God.
Adel: my father was the only one who stayed with the police and the firefighters to help getting the thing out. One of them opened the door and ordered everyone else to go down stairs.
Lujain: ohh (in a surprising tone), there was still some sort of services provided during that time.
Adel: Yep it was a missile. It would have destroyed the entire neighborhood, not only our house. The expert went out of the room and said, “It’s spoiled, it won’t explode.” But there was a liquid, if it started to pour down, then there would still a possibility of explosion.
Adel: Look, it was already so hot, so it will operate fire and explode. The missile was exceptionally hot. (He emphasized that three times). The experts brought all kind of rags and gloves, and the missile was crawled down by more than ten man. It almost broke our stairs. You can certainly see the cracks that was left behind by the missile.
Lujain: Do you know how many tons was it?
Lujain: wow, ten men carried it.
Adel: No, it was only by crawling it down. You might want to ask my day about the exact weigh and number of people who helped crawling it down Again, I assure you that it was no less than 10 man. All the edges were cracked. They delivered it to the truck, and carried it up in somehow and placed it in.
L.A: Now, tell me about the reasons why did your family decide to leave Iraq and when was that decision of going to the U.S. made?
A.A: my father decide to go to the U.S before he even married my mother.
A.A: My dad wanted to get out of Iraq uhmm uhmm, honestly, he went to get out of the country to build his future more.
L.A: So, in his point of view, Iraq was inadequate place to live at.
A.A: it’s not about being inadequate, he want to go out because my uncle did so before him. My grandfather, may God place his mercy upon him, told him that he should first get married so his family will be content about his situation, and then he could travel afterward.
A.A: My dad told grandpa okay, he married my mom, and they were cousins anyway. During the time my father got married, my grandfather was incapacitated. He was totally paralyzed. He couldn’t even talk, so my father was the only one who took care of him during that time. My dad was the head of the house, so it was utterly wrong for him to travel.
A.A: my grandfather died, and my grandmother and my aunty lived with us. When my aunt got married he thought about it again. My dad thought that he will go first and then he will send us some kind of invitation later. He didn’t thought about us coming.
L.A: When was that?
A.A: I think it was in 2004, when my uncle who resides in the U.S. found a job for him, and my dad was about to sign the contract.
L.A: why? Wasn’t there any jobs in Iraq?
A.A, yes there was some, but he wanted to become a citizen and then invite us easily.
L.A: why do you think obtaining American citizenship is important?
A.A: Because people would respect you if you have it. Just go to anywhere worldwide and they wouldn’t respect your Iraqi citizenship. If you travel with U.S. passport, people will put you above their heads [They would highly respect you].
L.A: don’t you think the reason folks around the world don’t respect us is the consequences evolved after the war?
A.A: of course, after the falling of the regime. But let me tell you, when I first started to have some sort of realization, it was in planted in our minds that we will go out someday. It was like a dream that my father convinced us of. He would always sent messages to an organization.
L.A: do you mean the IOM? Or the UN?
A.A: No, no no, I forgot it man. You just get it by luck.
L.A: Oh, I Think you’re talking about lottery.
A.A: There were many people who won it, but after a while our case was declined.
A.A: My cousin Ali, he called and told us about it, which he was the first one who applied. He urged us to apply, and there were many steps in the process. After a while, we had an interview. Don’t ask me about the date though.
L.A: Was it in Iraq?
A.A.: No the interview was conducted in Jordan. So they sent us visas to go there, because it was hard for an Iraqi to get a visa to Jordan. We traveled there by car. It was extremely nice. We noticed that people had many papers. Our driver in surprise wondered where our papers are.
L.A: Do you visas?
A.A: Yeah I guess. We told the driver to calm down, we will pay you man, no worries. We entered easily unlike other folks. We did the interview and we were told to wait for the second interview, which takes about more than five months to be contacted again.
L.A: so you didn’t face any hardships. Everything was well prepared for you.
A.A: It was really nice, as if you were entering heaven.
L.A: do you mean the first time you saw Jordan was to you as though you entered paradise?
A.A: OF Course, nodding his head. From destroyed building to Malls and stuff.
L.A: can you explain more?
A.A: even when we entered anapartment it was really wow. Indeed, it was normal apartment. The apartment below us was where my cousin Ali lived.
A.A: In surprising turn, we had to wait for a long time after the first interview, and we were supposed to move to Jordan; however, we didn’t know and we wasn’t prepared. They didn’t tell us that we will be living in Jordan from now and on. Frankly, it was really tough on us.
L.A: you were shocked.
A.A. extremely shocked, because we can’t return again, the visas are provide only once. We started to think about how we are going to go back again but we went to Iraq again anyway. Anyway, the first day we weren’t tired when we first arrived, the whole route was pretty nice, mountains and totally new nature.
A.A: okay, we returned back, and prepared ourselves to travel back to Jordan. I passed my classes by bribing my teachers (paying for useless private sessions). Indeed, the teacher came to me and told me you have to take a private lecture in order for me to pass the class, so did I and I passed. Again, it was really hard to prepare for our departure.
L.A: Are you saying because after the war, there was a lot of corruption in all aspects of life including education?
A.A: Yes, so corrupted, so corrupted, so corrupted (he repeated).
L.A: Did you learning anything in school, or was it just because you sort of have to go?
A.A: Well, although I didn’t understand anything in English, I was exempted from English ( a special Iraqi system, in which if you are really good at certain subject and you have a grade of an A, then you are exempted from taking the final exam). The exact reason behind getting the exemption is that I went with a group of students and paid a private teaching session. We would put the money inside the Notebook and gave it to her. Also, the lady who was my personal driver is my Islamic studies teacher, so I secured a good grade as well.
A.A: For Arabic, my friend would pay the teacher, get the exams and gave me some copies; however, my geography teacher demanded an extremely high rate for a private session. I just couldn’t afford it.
L.A: how much did she wanted?
A.A: yeah, indeed I paid about 200 dollars for my English teacher, but for geography she demanded it at least one session per month. So as a consequence, I didn’t pass the geography, but luckily I passed the class as whole just because I had a good average.
L.A: So tell me about when you first arrived to the U.S.
A.A: My uncle was waiting for us, it was warm-moments to reunite with my uncle, whom I never saw before. We went to their home and slept since we were extraordinary tired after a long trip. On the very next day, we woke up, and found ourselves in a forest.
L.A: wasn’t clear for you where are you at from the first day you arrived?
A.A: no it wasn’t clear. Even the second day we we’re still exhausted, but the third day we were so shocked. Living in a forest, no neighbors, and you can’t even walk, the nearest city is thirty minute a way. I mean we used to live in the center of the city of Baghdad. (it was a big transition).
A.A: then we moved to Jordan, but it was always crowded with people. Now, we were living in exile.
L.A: weren’t there any stores or any kind of malls close to your uncle home?
A.A: No, you have to drive thirty minutes. There may be two neighbor, one of them has a shortage of electricity and used his generator to conduct electricity.
L.A: dude, that sounds like you were still in Iraq.
A.A: We went and applied for social security number. Also, I was ill during that time. When we went to the hospital for a medical check-up, I personally took at least five shots on each arm. It was really strong, that’s probably why I got sick. My uncle’s wife is actually a nurse; and was surprised and annoyed for the amount of shots we had to take. She herself wondered why would the give us all of that. It seemed like when they knew we were from Iraq, they had to do that because they were afraid that radiations or whatever kind of diseases we might have carried with us from there.
L.A: did you feel undignified because of the way they treated you in the hospital? Do you think the hospital stuff dislike the place you came from?
A.A: Yes, they did.
L.A: how was your respond to the new society?
A.A: I was so afraid.
L.A: from what?
A.A: everything. After one week, I begun to attend school right away.
L.A: How was your interactions in the school with students in particular?
A.A: Their reaction toward me was a new student who didn’t spoke any English. Frankly, my English was so bad back then. I barely spoke couple words. Most of the time, I didn’t understand a word from what they’re telling me. I speak few words, like five or six, such as Hi, how are you and these kind of stuff. But I tell you in my uncle house..
L.A: how many years have you studying English?
A.A: In Iraq one year, but all the years was private sessions.
A.A: In Jordan also was a year, but it was British. It was all different. I started to understand them a bit, but I couldn’t do any homework without my uncle’s wife.
L.A: so she tutored you.
A.A: yes, but the problem was that I even couldn’t understand her either (Irish American who speaks English only). Man, when she used to say hi to me, I would only wave to her by my hand. Similarly with my mom, they kept saying hi to each other. We didn’t speak it. When I first saw my dad speaking, I was like wow; where did he learn it?! The first day in school, they called an Iraqi girl who was younger than I to assist me. But honestly she only showed me where my class is. I didn’t understand anything, they all left me by myself. Oh, Lord, What am I going to do? I was scared to death. In addition, my music teacher was extraordinarily nice to me, he welcomed me. Every morning I would go to see a band practicing. One day he posted a sign saying not to enter, so I didn’t. Next day I saw him and he told me that I’m an exception to the rule, and that I can actually enter. He knew that I like these stuff, and I’m not a troublemaker.
L.A: so he distinguished you from everyone else. Do you think he was sympathetic since you are Iraqi.
A.A: Yes I do think he was sympathetic because I’m Iraqi.
A.L: what did you feel about all that?
A.A: I respected him because…… (quite)
L.A: do you think you are lucky because your uncle was here given that he knows the country very well? (He came to the U.S. in about more than 40 years ago). You know some people come without having proper documentation and has no one to offer help for them.
A.A: Yeah it was really tough on us. Without him, we are destroyed……
After that, we wanted to move out, because we wanted to find a place where jobs are available, so my parents could work. We first thought about moving to Sacramento, but we finally came to Daly City where your uncle’s live. There was so Arabs who live there. We aren’t alone. It was nice.
L.A: so you told me you came nearby San Francisco to find a job right.
L.A: okay, from what do you pay living expenses during you first three years?
A.A: we rented our home in Iraq. Also, some assistances the government provide us with. Currently, my mother is working, and my father is still looking for a job.
L.A: what do you mean by assistances? Is it cash aid and food stamps?
L.A: many Americans believe that those who take these services are parasites. What do you think about that?
A.A: it’s not a shame.
L.A: I said parasites. (Those two words parasites and shame has a similar pronunciation in Arabic).
A.A: if they take it over than five years, then they are.
A.A: But we are still new. We just came here. They were born here … (Interrupted by me).
L.A: are you saying you really need those aids?
A.A: definitely. Because…. Uhmmm (laugh) ……. Because we are starting from the zero. It’s as if you were just born, so wouldn’t you need aids? And you can’t even work. It’s hard to find a job easily.