From A Refugee’s Perspective: Life in the U.S. and Iraq

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.

Work Cited

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.

Interview Transcripts

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.

Lujain: Okay.

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.

Lujain: Okay

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.

Lujain: Okay

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.

Lujain: OKAY

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.

Lujain: uhmmm

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?

Adel: No.

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.

L.A: why?

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.

L.A: okay.

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.

L.A: okay

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.

L.A: uhmmm.

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.

L.A: okay.

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.

L.A: okay

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.

L.A: (Laughing)…

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).

L.A: Okay.

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.

L.A: uhmmm.

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.

A.A: YES

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?

A.A: yes.

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.

L.A: okay:

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.

 

 

 

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Envisioning Home in the Land of the Invader

Envisioning Home in the Land of the Invader
by C.K. Ramsey, May 2014

Inspired by Voice of Witness–a San Francisco non-profit dedicated to the use of oral history to elucidate the personal accounts of human rights abuses suffered by undocumented immigrants living and working on the fringes of American society–this argumentative essay project endeavors to give voice to immigrants and their unique American experiences. Although our class project is inspired by Voice of Witness, we have chosen to expand our pool of witnesses to include not just those who have endured human rights abuses, but anyone with a contemporary immigration narrative they wish to share. Lujain Alobaide is a fellow classmate from Iraq, who has graciously agreed to share his story with me. Lujain is an intelligent young man with progressive views on a range of topics, most of which we touched on in our extensive interview. We discussed everything from his image of home and family in Iraq, his immigration experience, impression of America and its citizens, to politics and homosexuality, as well as religion and race.

Lujain’s romanticized image of life in Iraq is most likely rooted in the fact that he was a very young child when he lived there, unaware of the privileges his family may have enjoyed considering that they, and the country’s former leader–Saddam Hussein–are Sunnis and occupied the nexuses of power in the nation. I doubt that Shias and Kurds would share his view of Iraq during the era of Hussein. His view on LGBT rights is quite liberal–he supports equal rights for LGBT Americans–but his opinion of homosexuality is surely entrenched in Islamic philosophy that is emphatic in its connection to nurture rather than nature as the source of behavior. But it is his belief that discrimination based on skin color is non-existent among Muslims that was most surprising. He states emphatically that Islamic instruction has settled the issue of racism within the Muslim faith, but there is no escaping history’s impact on the present. All the major religions have histories of racism, and those histories of race and religion contribute to our current attitudes toward people of color, whether you are Christian or Muslim, Black or White. With these topics aside, I have chosen for the purpose of this essay to focus on how the experiences of his young life have changed his concept of home and family, concluding that his journey from Iraq to America has expanded said concept from one vested in multi-generational unity and security in his former homeland, to one that includes a new reality of home and family in his new homeland, while he struggles to extricate himself from the grips of familial discord.

Born in Iraq during the reign of Saddam Hussein, before the American invasion in 2003, Lujain enjoyed a middle-class life of comfort and security with his mother and two brothers, in a house owned by his grandfather, along with two uncles, an aunt, and their children. His parents were divorced, and his father lived in the United Arab Emirates, where he worked as a civil engineer. Forced to flee Iraq to escape escalating sectarian and ethnic violence unleashed by the American invasion of 2003, he and his family found themselves living in the United Arab Emirates with the man he felt abandoned them. Lujain would be pressed to create a new definition of home in a new land, with a father he didn’t know.

A huge smile stretches across his face as the warmth of happy memories of close family ties and a carefree life flood the room when Lujain talks about growing up in Iraq. Although his parents are divorced and he has very little contact with his father, he still looks back on this time with fondness: “I mean this time you could say that even though I don’t really remember what really happens, but it definitely, probably was the best time of my life…I know we had like a really big happy family…” He lived in a large multi-generational home built by his grandfather, with his mother, two brothers, and a host of cousins, aunts, and uncles that filled the space left vacant by his father’s absence. He speaks fondly about school, and a life without “concerns,” although his memory may be impacted by his age at the time. Tisha Ornstein and Lixia Yang, Professor and Associate Professor, respectively, of Psychology at Ryerson University, suggest in their article “The Effect of Emotion-Focused Orientation at Retrieval on Emotional Memory in Young and Older Adults,” that “…the emotion-focused orientation instruction at free recall strengthened the emotional enhancement effect, particularly the positivity bias, in young adults,” meaning that, if we hear positive things about a particular time or place–even if we were too young to truly remember events ourselves–we will create positive associations with that time or place. I believe the necessity of positive memories is paramount to Lujain’s positive associations with national identity and concepts of home and family.

To focus on what he remembers as positive from his childhood assists him in contending with the painful absence of his father, a subject that surfaces immediately in our discussion: h states, “…even though there was a part of me, you know—I don’t have a dad, I don’t talk to him, don’t speak to him—he almost like from my point of view, he almost never cared,” suggesting to me that, even though this may have been a happy time in his life, the absence of his father impacts his memories of this time perhaps more than he realizes. He has to remember this time as happy so as not to deal with the vacuum his father’s absence created. According to Dennis Balcom in his article “Absent Fathers: Effects on Abandoned Sons,” appearing in The Journal of Men’s Studies, “Paradoxically, abandoned sons often have intense feelings related to their fathers…The son’s reaction leads him to reject the importance of his father,” which explains the dismissive tone in Lujain’s voice when talking about his dad. “Until the son acknowledges his unfulfilled needs and longing for his father, he can remain in turmoil about himself…” While I didn’t notice any indication of inner turmoil, this could be due to the role his uncles played in his life. Assuming the place left vacant by his father—“they are like my real fathers, more than my own”—their presence was no doubt valuable in his nurturing, and in the creation of a strong sense of self. Reminiscing about the place where family unity and a life without violence and ethnic unrest still existed inadvertently exposed a wound left untreated by the absence of a parent, an absence that, when juxtaposed against the presence of his uncles, feeds his concept of family in Iraq.

The smile is gone; the warm happy memories have turned into cold recriminations against the liberators who promised freedom, but instead deprived him of the home and family he had come to cherish and rely on. Life in Iraq after the American invasion had descended into violence and chaos: “It was really bad…one of the things that I remember…there was a, you know, they bombed a car…they put a bomb there, and it exploded…a lot of people get killed, and it was really nearby my house…it was really scary…” According to Lujain, the American invasion unleashed sectarian violence and threats of invasion from Iran, Iraq’s closest and most feared neighbor, which Saddam Hussein, through fear and intimidation, managed to keep at bay, a point confirmed by Savera Someshwar, Managing Editor of rediff.com, in her article “Iraqi society has been extremely polarized.” “What started as a US-led coalition invasion to topple Saddam Hussein turned into one of the most brutal sectarian conflicts the modern world has seen…a terrible communal bloodbath that is still continuing,” not to liberate and free the people from the clutches of a dictator, but instead to gain control of the country’s vast oil reserves, “more like colonialism stuff,” he said. He also believes, like many Iraqis, that it was the responsibility of the Iraqi people to depose Saddam Hussein and liberate their own country. He railed against the devastation done to his country by the so-called liberators: “…you just made things worse for me, the United States intervention made my life just miserable. What kind of freedom is that, freedom by killing people, by bombing them?” Home for Lujain and his fellow Iraqis had become a minefield of terror and violence, ripping apart families, destabilizing the security and economy of the nation, pitting religious factions against one another, and destroying the home of his memories, thanks to the benevolence of their liberators, the U.S. government.

Life became so unbearable in Iraq that the family fled and was forced to turn to the father that had abandoned them for assistance. “He called my dad and talked to him, and my dad finally have some emotion I guess, and he said, ‘OK I’m going to come to Jordan and I want to see you guys.’” Lujain was visibly upset by the memory of having to ask the man he felt rejected him for help. If there was anyone else the family could have contacted for help, his face told me, they would have. So, against his better judgment, he and his family went to Jordan, and eventually moved to the United Arab Emirates with a man he didn’t even recognize when he saw him on the street: “I knew who he was only because when I was sitting there I heard like his name, they were shouting his name, so I was like OK that’s him.” It had been years since the last time he’d seen his father; he was still a very young child – four or five years old – when his parents divorced and was now twelve years old, having not seen his father in all that time. “Preparing the abandoned son to engage the absent father begins with clarifying the son’s unspoken wishes. What did he always want to say…ask…share with his father?” (Balcom 6). There wasn’t time for any of this for Lujain or the family, and the reunion turned out to be disaster. “It’s kind of like they really devastating each other’s lives, their really making their lives miserable, and my life…” A year into the reunion, his parents’ relationship began to go downhill, and, according to Lujain, it was his father’s inability to come to terms with abandoning his family, that most likely lead to his parents’ divorce in the first place. Whichever is the case, life in the United Arab Emirates was fraught with contention and Lujain found himself ensconced within the dynamics of a family that were as chaotic as the nation he was forced to flee. Could he create home under these conditions?

After an antagonistic five years together, the Alobaide family decided to immigrate to America, a decision precipitated by the financial crisis of 2008, which limited employment opportunities for the father. The immigration process proved humiliating for Lujain: “…it’s kind of funny and insulting at the same time. She would like as you a question like; when you go to the United States, would you form a terrorist group and bomb people?” With Saddam Hussein deposed, Shia and Kurdish communities that had suffered violent human rights abuses at the hands of Hussein’s Ba’athist government targeted Sunnis, whom they associated with Saddam. But Lujain points out that not all Sunnis liked or supported Saddam, nor was he a man motivated by faith: “Saddam was pretty much a secular guy, he never cared about Islam or any religion, if he had done so he wouldn’t have been the dictator he had became.” Unfortunately, the opportunity to discover that they shared a universal distaste for their former leader was lost, and differences were inflamed by an occupying nation’s desire to colonize the region and exploit its natural resources. The nation’s oil reserves were the targets of daily attacks by Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups, whose sole purpose was to further destabilize the country and gain control of the nation’s economy, in competition with the occupying force. Law and order were non-existent; looting and kidnapping were on the rise, and the country responsible for unleashing this reign of terror on their homeland was now asking them if they would be a threat to this nation. In an interview with John Malkin of Voices For Creative Nonviolence, Iraqi national Walid Waleed talked about what he and his fellow Iraqis have experienced since the invasion in 2003: “On 9th March 2003 my cousin was injured…an American soldier shot her…” Waleed’s cousin was wearing an Arabic dishdasha–a long sleeved collarless garment–which was black, the same color Saddam Hussein’s fighters wore. The soldier couldn’t tell the difference because, according to Waleed, he “…he didn’t have the knowledge to see the fashion of women in an Arabic country.” Throughout the interview, Waleed goes on to describe the difficulty of living without the everyday conveniences most westerners take for granted: “security, electricity, fuel (gasoline, kerosene, cooking gas), jobs, education, medical care, and to get back our houses, which had been looted by Almahdy army, the correct spelling is al-Mahdi. Although Lujain and I had a good laugh about the ridiculous question asked by the immigration interviewer, it was obvious to us both that there was nothing funny about it considering what his country was enduring. The family was approved to immigrate to America, and Lujain would once again have to expand his concept of home and family to include a new homeland, and a new set of obstacles his family would face there.

A new beginning in America would include a new perception of the American people. “I had a lot of hatred towards Americans…I was like, those people who killed my people.” Understandably, Lujain’s view of American was negative considering what the American invasion did to his country. One of his relatives was jailed in Abu Ghraib prison, and witnessed many of the abuses suffered at the hands of American military personnel: “…they would be creative in the ways they tortured people,” he states. His bitterness rose to the surface when discussing the perceptions he believes Americans have of his people “terrorist,” “ignorant,” and “uneducated.” Susan Akram, writing for the Arab Studies Quarterly, suggests that “The demonization of Arabs and Muslims in America began well before the terrible tragedy of September 11, 2001,” and has been used to justify America’s neo-colonialist Middle East foreign policy, the vilification of Palestinians to justify support of the Israeli governments theft of Palestinian homeland, and US military interest in securing the natural resources–oil–of Arab countries to be exact. Moving to America has changed Lujain’s opinion of the American people. He no longer believes that all Americans hold negative stereotypes about Iraqis and want to hurt them: “…it’s not like those people really want to kill you, or just hate you for no reason…you can have a discussion with them.” He says he now understands that people often rely on stereotypes rather than knowledge of different cultures before forming opinions about particular groups. His concept of home and family has expanded to include America and her people.

Like most Americans, Lujain’s view of his new government and its political system is still in the love-hate stage. “We…definitely…have democracy, at least if you compare it to…other countries, but I think there is the United States foreign policy that is the problem.” He believes the American people don’t pay enough attention to what is going on in other countries, and don’t always consider the impact our policies have on people around the world. He may be partially correct—most Americans don’t know much about our nation’s foreign policy—but it’s a mistake on his part to believe that people from other countries know any more about their nation’s foreign policy. I’ve often found that immigrants from other countries that I have spoken with are misinformed about foreign policy decisions made by this nation and theirs. But our foreign policy isn’t the only thing he has an issue with; he doesn’t understand why the richest, most powerful nation in the world would have such a dismal educational system or homelessness: “…and the…shock that I got is how does a country like the United States, that do not have a universal health care…” He pointed out that even in Iraq everyone had access to health care, guaranteed free education from elementary school to college, and there was no such thing as homelessness, until after the American invasion. It would have been great if I could have defended America on these issues, but I couldn’t. Lujain was carving out a home for himself in a country that afforded him the ability to speak his mind on any subject, rather than the fear of doing so in his former homeland.

While he has grown to accept and embrace his new homeland–flaws and all–his nuclear family is still at odds with one another. When I suggested that the transition to this country had been tough on his family, he agreed: “Oh, definitely, and what make it difficult in my case is my parents, they hate each other.” He claims that both his parents want to play the “victim role,” most likely exacerbated by the fact that his father isn’t working: “…when you come from a foreign country they don’t recognize your bachelor degree, unless you go through some kind of process,” a man, who can’t support his family, and doesn’t always feel like a man. His brother is struggling to find his niche; he’s worked in maintenance, in a hotel, driven a taxi. “Now he’s trying to find a security position, he keeps changing. He has a lot of problems, and he’s actually created a lot of problems for the family as well.” We didn’t discuss his brother much, but perhaps he isn’t having as easy a time adjusting to life in America as Lujain. It would be interesting to hear his point of view on America, and how he feels about living here. What is clear is the almost non-existent relationship between Lujain and his father. They barely speak to one another except for the occasional “hi and sometimes goodnight.” Consequently, Lujain spends most of his time, as much as he can, away from home. “The only reason I would go home is if I just want a place to sleep,” he stated. “Marital conflict can cause adjustment issues, complicate conflict resolution styles and alter emotional security,” according to Melody Causewell, of livestrong.com. Life in America has provided Lujain with opportunities he did not have in Iraq, opened his mind to different people and cultures, and has impacted his concept of home both positively and negatively.

Lujain’s concept of home has expanded from one vested in multi-generational unity and security in his former homeland, to include the reality of a new life in America with all the freedom and privileges citizenship affords him, while caught within parental discord. Unlike Iraq, America offers Lujain options that can allow him to change his family dynamic. He can encourage his parents, and his entire family to get counseling, or as a last result, he can convince his mother to divorce his father. Whichever decision they make, they are not alone, many American families experience conflict as a result of infidelity, economic instability, battles over how to raise the children, or for many other reasons. Fortunately for Lujain, his family can come through these difficult times and survive. He can never relive his memories of family life in Iraq, but he and his family can conceive and create a new American family to rival those memories.

Works Cited

“Lujain Alobaide.” Personal interview. 21 Mar. 2014.

Akram, Susan M. “The Aftermath of September 11, 2001: The Targeting of Arabs and

Muslims in America.” Arab Studies Quarterly 24.2/3 (2002): 1-61. Ethnic NewsWatch. Web. 16 May 2014. <http://search.proquest.com/docview/220916?&gt;.

Balcom, Dennis A. “Absent Fathers: Effects on Abandoned Sons.” The Journal of Men’s Studies 6.N3 (1998): 1-25. Gale. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://gale.com/marinacounselingcenter/&gt;.

Causewell, Melody. “The Psychological Effects of Marital Conflicts on Adolescents.” LIVESTRONG.COM. LIVESTRONG.COM, 18 June 2013. Web. 14 May 2014.

Malkin, John. “Life in Iraq: An Interview – February 2008.” Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Feb. 2008. Web. 16 May 2014.

Someshwar, Savera R. “Iraqi Society Has Been Extremely Polarized.” India Abroad 38.25 (2008): 1-2. ProQuest. Web. 27 Apr. 2014. <http://search.proquest.com/docview/362769734?&gt;.

Ornstein, Tisha J., and Lixia Yang. “The Effect of Emotion-Focused Orientation at Retrieval on Emotional Memory in Young and Older Adults.” EBSCO. Apr. 2011. Web. 20 May 2014.

Lujain’s Transcript

C.K. Ramsey: We know you were born in Iraq, What was your life like there?

Lujain Alobaide: First I can tell you my life before and after maybe the war if you would be interested in that.

CR: Which war, do you mean the American invasion?

LA: In 2003, yea so basically even before the war, I mean technically my parents were technically divorced. I was living with my aunt, my uncle I have two uncles, my aunt, and my grandpa they all have like their kids and my family. I have like two other brothers and my mom, we were all living in the same house it was a really big house. Like I don’t know eight rooms or something like eight bedrooms, yea it was really big, it was my grandfather’s house because, as I told you my parents were technically divorced, and my father was in the United Arab of Emirates. During that time I think they were divorced in somewhere in 1998, and I was really young I was somewhere like four years old. I mean this time you could say that even though I don’t really remember what really happens, but it definitely probably was the best time of my like because you know I was a kid, and you know I know we had like a really big happy family you could say. Like you know with my uncles aunts and stuff I was technically really happy you know, go to school there were no concerns and stuff even though there was a part of me you know, I don’t have a dad I don’t talk to him, don’t speak to him, he almost like from my point of view, he almost never cared because he just came, like the second time I ever saw him after they divorced was after seven years, no it was actually even more, yea cause the second time I saw him was in 2006 and it was not in Iraq anyway, we’ll back, we’ll come back to that I guess, so he after they like, after they divorced they technically came, I mean he technically came once before he traveled you know, he just came and bring some candies, I remember and then after that I never seen him. He maybe he, I mean my brother, my oldest brother, he sometime call him like maybe and we talk like once in each six months over the phone and less than one minute so there is like a really big gap that still affects us until today

CR: Yea growing up without a dad is tough. So you say your brother talks to him every six months?

LA: Yea, I also like, I like probably when I grow up more when I was maybe 11 or 12 actually. I probably talk to him like really maybe 1 minute or so.

CR: What did your father do for a living?

LA: He’s civil engineer.

CR: Did your mom work?

LA: My mom during that time no.

CR: Your family in Iraq, you say you had a big house so would you say you lived a middle-class lifestyle?

LA: Uh you could say that, because it was actually my grandfather who built it, and my aunt, I mean you can see we were definitely dependent on my uncles, they are more like they are like they are really my fathers, they are like my real fathers more than my own you can say even though I living with my actual dad right now, which we can talk about later its really complicated.

CR: Do families in Iraq tend to live together in multi-generational households?

LA: They do that as long as you know it’s a big house and there’s no problems, you know sometimes when the kids they got married they go out they buy new house, but usually if you are talking about in terms of middle-class or working-class I mean like maybe it’s just my point of view, like maybe especially like before, maybe 90 percent of the people they had their own house, it was really to see a person who is renting or is homeless there is no such a thing.

CR: No such thing as homelessness?

LA: No not before the war that’s for sure.

CR: What was the environment like was it urban like San Francisco, or rural?

LA: It was definitely mixed but in terms of my life we lived in the capital, which was more like, you can’t really say like San Francisco, San Francisco is really much more modern than Bagdad. During that time I lived near by the airport which was good before the war, but during the war and after, it was really big problem because there was almost the major battles happened there, it was kind of just normal place there were no mall or fancy buildings no.

CR: What about school, were they like American schools or were they traditional religious schools?

LA: I wouldn’t say really religious, but the education system there is fundamentally different than here, that is definitely for sure, ah the school before the war it was good but it was kind of like, they really glorify the president of the country you know, that kind of dictatorship like in every page of the book like when you open the book there is a page that has the picture of Saddam Hussein who was the president of Iraq at the time, as you probably know, and perhaps some excerpts of things that he said some quotes and stuff.

CR: What did you think of Saddam Hussein?

LA: Well that’s a good question, but you really have to know that as a person, I mean he’s definitely a dictatorship you know there’s no argument about that, but if you compare the country in his era and afterwards it would definitely, even the people who hate him they would definitely tell you that when we were in his era there was life much better than now, at least we have some kind of security and stability, now we could anything could happen a bomb or something could kill a lot of people now there is a lot of blood.

CR: Although you may not have liked him, you felt safer when he was in power and there was a better standard of living?

LA: Definitely.

CR: Are you a Sunni, or?

LA: I am a Sunni.

CR: What are the different factions?

LA: Well there is the Sunni and there is the Shia and there is the Curds but the Curds are kind of centered in the north area.

CR: What’s the difference?

LA: Well its basically they’re all Muslims the Sunni and the Shia, it’s really an old you know a kind of stupid argument I would call it because there’s no actual arguments there’s just this has been created you know for when you want to have make a civil war or something they will play on this, the difference between them. When the prophet Mohammed, of the Muslims, when he died there has to be like a successor for him, and during that time there were like four men they called the righteous successors, ah there was their names are Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Ali ibu Abi Talib, they came after the prophet they succeeded him. The Shia believe that his son-in-law, Ali should be the first successor after him because they believe that the Caliph, you know the one that succeeded the prophet should be from the household of the prophet not anyone else, while the Sunni’s believe that the one who should succeed the prophet could be anyone but he had to meet the certain eligibilities, he doesn’t have to be within the household of the prophet, but again this really did not came into place until maybe 500 hundred or more years after the prophet had died so it’s kind of like even ridiculous how things are being now.

CR: So it’s kind of like Christianity in that when Jesus died we got Jews, Catholics, Baptist, and whatever, with everyone saying we’re the real ones, and someone else saying, no we’re the real ones, that kind of thing?

LA: Yea, exactly.

CR: Why did you come to America?

LA: Well we came to it’s kind of like we’re really jumping around cause I mean first of all before we came to America I have to tell you about it.

CR: OK, tell me.

LA: Well after the war you know it was really difficult because there was all kind of civil war all kind of you know people get killed there was a lot incidents that happen to me and my family and to my uncles.

CR: Are these things the Americans did, or because of the American invasion?

LA: It’s definitely because of the American invasion because when they invade the country there was no kind of sovereignty, there was not like one person, there was no specific group that is taking control. There was like Iran our neighbor, you know the country Iran, they was like controlling some areas, there was like Americans, there was like all kind of those players. It was really bad, I mean after 2006 there was a civil war which we had never had before as long as I remember, the first time I knew what Sunni and Shia mean was in 2006 when that happened, ah there was a lot of incidents. One of the things that I remember, we were building a new room in my grandfather’s house and there was a you know they bombed a car, you know they put a lot of bombs there and it exploded somehow, and I don’t know how they remote control maybe, somehow a lot of people get killed and it was really nearby my house, and so I was walking like, I was on a ladder and I was just climbing up and that happens. I almost fell down, it was really scary, and then they did some nasty things. One of the nasty things they did at that time, and people when you see people getting killed and stuff you do, you know what do you do, you call the ambulance and you get help and stuff, so people would be like really crowded right so they do really nasty thing they would put another bomb another car and they would also bomb it so when people was like you know get really packed and crowded they would bomb the second one.

CR: How did the Iraqi people view the Americans, did they see us as people coming to help, or did they see it as an invasion, people there to do more harm than good?

LA: Well you’re talking about just my opinion or the Iraqi people?

CR: Either one, your opinion or things you may have heard about how people felt about the Americans.

LA: Well I would say that the majority of the people know that the United States wanted to invade Iraq, not to free us definitely it was more like maybe oil purpose you know more like colonialism stuff you know, it was not about freeing people. I could really give you a rational answer for that, if you compare the status of the country before and after the invasion, you compare that and you will know definitely that the, I would call it the occupation or the invasion, it was not to free people definitely and a lot of people thought that too. On the other hand they also wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein, so there was this and that. I think like there should have been a kind of like revolution to make that guy step down without you know a phony intervention.

CR: You felt it was the responsibility of the Iraqi people to get him out and we should have just minded our business?

LA: Yea definitely, definitely, I mean definitely because I mean you just made things worse for me, the United States intervention made my life just miserable. I was happy, I was just living there and everything was, I hadn’t had any concerns before even though I had problems with my dad that wasn’t a big problem, it was OK you know, I’m not going to be homeless, I’m going to have food to eat you know, education was free even in the university it was all free I mean you just came in and you try to free me. What kind of freedom is that, freedom by killing people, by bombing them?

CR: When you came to America and you heard how people in this country talked about the invasion did you think we just didn’t get it, did you think the we didn’t know the truth that maybe our government didn’t tell us the truth about the reasons we went over there, or that we just didn’t care?

LA: Well to be honest, I felt like some people are really kind of really ignorant about the issue. Cause some people, they don’t even know where Iraq is located, their like oh really your from Iraq, and some others they really sympathized and apologized, and you know it was really nice you know, to see that at least some people they have sympathy, but in my opinion it was like a lot of people, as Americans they are really more concerned about, you know, their lives, their matters. Which is really understandable because they just want to make a living, and they don’t really have a lot of time to watch the news, which is already corrupted, they just want to get some food, get their child a good education. I didn’t feel like people had time to seek this kind of knowledge about wars and stuff, you have no idea. Remember the reason why they invaded, the actual reason they announced in the media. They say that Iraq had a massive amount of weapons of mass destruction, yea and it was never found, and they say Iraq was linked to al Qaeda, which they totally hate each other. I mean if you really think about it, how many people died in 9/11? Three thousand five thousand, ok, do you have any idea how many Iraqis or Pakistanis died in those wars? No let’s just talk about Iraq, maybe it’s like at least two-hundred thousand, that’s just those who died, and millions have been flown out of the country like refugee, and I just come here too as a refugee status.

CR: After experiencing that in Iraq, what was I like to come to this country, the country that invaded your country, and turned your life upside down?

LA: Well it’s a kind a like you don’t really have another choice, well if you stayed in Iraq you most likely will be killed there or something. Because my uncles, they went out of Iraq because they had someone threaten them, they left an envelope and they put one bullet in it, and they said that if you don’t pay us this amount of money we are going to kill you, or kidnap you know. They could do a lot of stuff, and there was a lot of thing actually happening during that time, so they are not lying to you, they would really do that. That’s why my uncles went, but the reason why I went, well before I came here I went to the United Arab Emirates, and how did that happen was, basically my older brother, he wanted to go out of Iraq because when he grow up as a teenager he didn’t feel comfortable in my grandfather’s house, because you know there, it’s kind of like my uncles kids, he have like two daughters, and it’s like another guy who’s also a teenager, and it’s not likable, I don’t know I thinks that’s the reason he wanted to go. In a teenage.

CR: Is this a custom thing, where men of a certain age, shouldn’t be around girls of a certain age?

LA: I think so, yea. I mean, I think my uncle didn’t like my brother being there at that time. I think so. I mean that’s what I get from what happened, like he never told him, you need to go, no never, and they were actually planning to give us a separate apartment, that was the plan, and then it changed. He called my dad, and talked to him, and my dad finally have, some emotion I guess, and he said ok I’m going to come to Jordan and I want to see you guys. And then we went there, we went there with my auntie, like my brothers sister, which I almost never knew before, and we went on a trip, by car, we drove to Jordon, and here’s the funny thing, we went to a place and we stayed with my father’s sister. Before he came my brother was going to the mall, and my brother was walking in that neighborhood, and then my father came, and my father, he shout at him and say hey, I don’t remember what he said I’m not sure, but like my brother didn’t recognize him, he was like who’s this guy, and he just went on.

CR: You hadn’t seen him in so long. Did you know who he was?

LA: I knew who he was only because when I was sitting there I heard like his name, they were shouting his name, so I was like ok that’s him.

CR: It must have been tough growing up without a dad, huh?

LA: Yea definitely, but it was even tougher to live with him, I would say, because what is happening now, technically it’s not, well here’s the thing, when he comes and then after that my uncle’s family they all fled and they just went out of Iraq, and they all came to live in Jordan, my father got reunited with my mom, which in my point of view, that should never, ever had happened you know. If I were like maybe at this age, or two years, or maybe one years ago, I would never, I would never, allow this to happen. It’s kind of like they really devastating each other’s lives, their really making their lives miserable, and my life, you know. We went to the United Arab Emirates with him and my mom, we stayed there for like five years before we came to the United States, well the reason why we left the United Arab Emirates is because after the financial crisis of 2008, there was a big change in the construction business, so you know the projects were really slowing down, and there was like a lot of financial problems in his job, so my uncle during that time, he decided he would apply to an organization called the international organization for immigration, so he applied, and he helped us and somehow, and we applied through him, I guess, and we had our first interview. We flew from the United Arab Emirates to Jordan, we had like several interviews, they like ask you about your life, they asked you if you give them the permission to, you know, look for every single detail about your life, and we give them that permission, you know, just by security purposes I guess, and there a funny thing that, during one of the interviews, they were like, there were three interviews, the first two you meet with like Jordanian’s, they are like, they are associated with the organization, but the third one, you have to like meet with the American representative or something, and this (he laughs), is really funny. She would ask, it’s kind of funny and insulting at the same time, she would like ask you a question, like when you go to the United States, would you form a terrorist group and bomb people? (I laugh) I’m serious, she would really ask you that, and you know, it was kind of ridiculous.

CR: Like if someone were going to do, you would really tell them, right?

LA: You know, I mean are you serious? Why are you even asking such a question?

CR: That’s crazy. So, when you first arrived in America, where did you go?

LA: Well, when I first arrived, my uncle came before us, so he set up an apartment, and we went to Daly City. We lived there like for one year almost, and then we went to Pacifica, which is where I reside now. There’s a lot of things going on also, like my parent’s, when we came here, we’ve been here like almost three years, or two, and maybe seven or eight months, out of this time, say maybe two or three months, they have not been talking to each other, they are almost like divorced, but we live in the same place, and they just communicate through me and my brother, which I find is really despicable, they just make our life, you know difficult.

CR: You’ve only been in America like eight months?

LA: No, like two years and eight months.

CR: Oh, two years and eight months. Your English is really great, I’m sure that’s something that people say all the time right? But it is. I know people born and raised here, who can’t speak English.

CR: When I first came, I didn’t really like speak any English, the only words I really knew was like, hi, how are you, good afternoon, you know, that’s it, but I went to high school in Daly City, Westmore, and I really study my ass, and I really like, I really wanted to learn, it was definitely a big shock, it kinda like you were in Mars, and you came to the Earth, like everything was different.

CR: Do you think the schools are better here, or better in Iraq?

LA: No, it’s better definitely here.

CR: Americans complain about the school system here.

LA: Well comparatively.

CR: Do you think we’re spoiled?

LA: Spoiled?

CR: Do you think we’re spoiled?

LA: What do you mean, in what sense?

CR: Do you think we don’t appreciate the educational system we have here?

LA: Well no, I don’t think you guys are spoiled, because there is a lot of bad things, I mean there is bad things, but on the other hand there is also some advantages, maybe like Americans complain, about maybe that, I don’t know. What do you guys complain about?

CR: Everything, Americans complain about everything, we’re a spoiled people, we’re used to having a lot?

LA: I think the problem is that, like with the American system it’s more kind of private, there is a lot of money issues going on, I think that as a county the United States should like, even at the University level, that should be free, you’re like almost the greatest nation on earth right now, so how come you have people who are homeless, or you have people who don’t have access to education, well compared to the poor underdeveloped, I don’t know, like the third world countries like mine.

CR: Yea, that’s the debate that some people are having right now. I think America should have free education for everyone, but I think there are reasons why we don’t. I mean America has a long history of colonialism and racism and discrimination on a lot of different levels, and just think that we simply don’t want to educate all of our people.

LA: I see, which is I think luckily in my country, I would say that actually, as far as like racial, or skin color is concerned, there was like almost no such a thing, like because I think Islam has like banished, or what is the word to say, like abolished that idea of racial…

CR: Do mean Saddam?

LA: No, I’m saying about Islam, yea the prophet like, when you know like one hundred four thousand years ago, like one his famous saying is that there is no difference between you know, like red, black, white, whatever color, or ethnicity that person has, it’s only about how righteous, how spiritual, or good you are to people.

CR: Do you have black people in Iraq?

LA: There is in the southern Iraq, there’s not a lot you know but it’s actually like this, in the southern area of Iraq, most of the people are darker skin, but in Basra, that province that I was talking to you about, they are very dark skinned, but like who cares. We didn’t have such a, you know, I’ve never thought about a difference between a person as a color of skin, it doesn’t mean anything to me.

CR: Do you have an American dream?

LA: Well definitely, I mean I have a big hopes about America, you know just like what we’re reading right now, everyone thinks that America, this the country of opportunities, a county where you can make money, a country of prosperity, you know all this stuff.

CR: Do you have a particular dream for yourself? Like, how old are you now?

LA: 20.

CR: 20? You’re a baby. (We both laugh), do you think, in thirty years, this is what I would like to be, this how I would like to be living?

LA: Well, I mean my dream is really like to have a really stable job, not like any job, I’m really interested in innovation and those kinds of things. I really wish that someday I could make my own discovery or something.

CR: So are you talking high tech innovation, or scientific innovation?

LA: Probably a little more with scientific innovation, rather than high tech innovations.

CR: You want to find a cure for cancer? (We laugh)

LA: Well not in biological stuff, I’m more like into physics maybe.

CR: Now that you’ve been here a while, do you still feel the same way about America, as when you first arrived?

LA: No definitely, when I was there (Iraq), I had a lot of hatred towards Americans because I was like those people, even though I came, I was like those people who killed my people, killed distant relatives, one of my relatives was like jailed in, I’m sure you heard about that Abu Ghraib scandal, and one of them was there, and he saw all kinds of torture, and they would do things you know, they would be creative in the ways how they tortured people, and America called my people terrorist, ignorant, uneducated, you know all those kind of stereotypes, so definitely, I didn’t like Americans before, but when I came here, I understand what really Americans mean. When you are there you understand that Americans are white, that’s really the perception over there, but when I came here, especially in California, no it’s not like that at all, you got all those kinds of people, from different backgrounds, there have different cultures, and they don’t even know where Iraq is, or they don’t really, they’re just trying to live their lives. They’re really nice people you know, it’s not like those people really want to kill you, or just hate you for no reason and, if you talk to them some people will understand, you can have a discussion with them, it’s not like, I think in terms of like western and eastern culture there’s definitely stereotypes going on, they kind of like flash back on each other, like Arabs would say Americas are corrupted, they see all the girls are naked, and then that’s kind of bullshit, and other’s would say your ignorant and you don’t respect your women, you know.

CR: Yea, there are misconceptions on both sides. It reminds me of this story of a group of American women I saw on a T.V. show somewhere, who thought they were supporting Arab women, complaining that Arab women shouldn’t be forced to wear the burka’s, and how Arab societies were oppressive toward women. Then a couple of Arab women in the audience stood up and asked what the women were talking about. We’re not forced to wear burka’s, it’s a part of our religion, and it’s what we choose to do. The point being, we don’t know each other, we only have stereotypes to rely on.

LA: Well since you brought that in, as you know, I’m a Muslim, but my mom, she doesn’t wear a hijab, but as a Muslim, I really wish that someday she will be convinced, and she will wear it, because I mean the idea behind that is really not that, as a Muslim we believe that women should be dressed modestly, and therefore should be she should be treated for her own personality and not for like her looks.

CR: But do you believe that it’s her choice?

LA: Definitely, I mean who knows, at the end God will judge her, it doesn’t mean, I would not say that this is good woman because she wearing modestly, and she’s half naked she’s a bad person, no definitely.

CR: Not even a stripper? (we laugh)

LA: Even a stripper you know, she might have some kind of experience in her life that forced her to be a stripper, you know maybe she lived in poverty, which is really, and that’s the peoples problem, I mean like, we are too judging on people without understanding their situation, or what caused them to do that.

CR: What do you think about our government?

LA: The American government?

CR: Yea, our government? It’s your government now also.

LA: Well, like in terms of parties you mean?

CR: It doesn’t have to be about the political parties, I think they’re both the same anyway?

LA: We have definitely like, we have democracy, at least if you compare it to like other countries, but I think there is the United States foreign policy that is the problem, and there is a lot of problems inside, like you got the education system problems, I mean we just mentioned that some people don’t have access to education, you have homeless people, and the really shock that I got is how does a country like the United States, that do not have a universal health care, I mean seriously, if someone doesn’t have money, he can just die or something because he doesn’t have money to pay.

CR: So were you surprised at the push-back against Obama-Care?

LA: Well technically, this push is really, there is a people, they are only concerned about money, they don’t care about people, they know they have enough money to pay insurance, so they don’t care about other people, if they will have the opportunity to purchase insurance or not, that’s the kind of thing I don’t like about Republicans in general, I mean I shouldn’t say Republicans, all of them no, but those ideas of, I think they are really being selfish, in terms of, they have money so they really don’t care about people, they are just pro-business, they just want to make a profit out of people agony, they take worker’s rights, there is a lot of things, the minimum wage, and all these kinds of issues.

CR: Do you like the idea that in America, if you don’t agree with a position, you can speak-out about it?

LA: I mean that’s definitely a really good thing, I mean if you were in Iraq in Saddam Hussein era, if you talk or said the wrong things about him they would definitely get you.

CR: Would they take you for a ride?

LA: Take you for a ride, yea, a long ride. Definitely freedom of speech is really important, but I think it’s also kind of limited in somehow. You can’t really say anything you want, and there is also some kind of implicit stereotypes, like when you want to apply for a job or something there is always some kind of racism, or some sort of discrimination going on.

CR: There’s the official America, then there’s the real America.

LA: Yea, exactly.

CR: Do you think you’ve suffered any discrimination in America? Particularly if people find out your Iraqi, because just looking at you, you look like the average white guy.

LA: I’m looking like the average white guy?

CR: Yea, when I saw you in class, I never thought you were middle-eastern, I thought like the suburbs. But when people find out your Iraqi, do you think you have discriminated against you?

LA: Well sometimes yes, sometimes no. I mean sometimes you, they, I don’t know why they have that idea you came from the desert, you are on a camel. Some people have those kinds of ideas, on the other hand there are people who really sympathize with me, they would apologize you know we are sorry. Then from that I really understand that those people they are really nice, they are not the same, there are some really good people, which is true for every race and every country.

CR: What do you think of us, the American people?

LA: It’s interesting that it’s kind of like multiple countries in one country. You got the White community, you got the Black community, you got the Latino community, then you got the Asian community. There’s all those kind of things, and each one has their own culture and stuff. I think like the Whites in general, they’re really afraid or something. There’s like something going on with them in terms of the changing demographic in the United States. They fear, I don’t know, I guess they fear change.

CR: They fear minority status.

LA: Yea I think so, definitely. I think that’s an on-going issue, that kind of racial thing. I don’t think it will ever end.

CR: Many people thought Obama’s election meant the end of racism. Shit, the tea party said hell no, and they just went after him with everything they had.

LA: There is a lot of things like, they will do everything just to disagree with him. Like even if they agree on something, they will disagree just because, you know.

CR: A lot of Obama’s policies were originally Republican policies. If you look at his policies, he’s not really a Democrat he’s really a liberal Republican.

LA: I don’t this idea of just two parties. I think there should be like an independent, or like a third party.

CR: We do have Independent’s, but most independents tend to vote along one party line or another, usually with the Democrats.

LA: Yea, well they don’t have a party, that’s what I’m saying.

CR: Let’s get back to this. Do you still have family and friends back in Iraq?

LA: I have some friends.

CR: Do you stay in touch with them?

LA: Yes I do. I mean in terms of family, I have like some on my father’s side, some uncles and aunties, but I don’t have any family relationship with them. We never spoke, we never talk. We’re kind of like strangers to each other, but in terms of my friends, I have some friends there that I went to elementary school with, and we try to keep in touch. One of them, I thought he was killed, but happily, and surprisingly, I found him, he actually found me on Facebook.

CR: What does he think about you being here?

LA: (rye laugh), well if you’re talking about him specifically, he’s kind of OK with that because he kind of understands why I came here, but if you’re talking about what people in general think about someone who is in America that’s a different story. They will, it’s kind of like those fallacies you know, like you’re living in the heaven, all the money, you got the big house on the beach. Their implication is they see a lot of movies, and they think that really is what America really is like, everyone is living a happy life, this tone of optimism. Yea, when they disagree with you on something it’s like, ah now your being an American ha. Like they tease you, oh now you’re an American now, they’ve spoiled you’re mind, now your corrupted.

CR: Would you like your friends back in Iraq to come to America?

LA: Well, I know like some of them they wanted to come because there are like all kinds of problems you can imagine, in Iraq, like for example, when I was there electricity is like one of them in terms of like utilities, the government is really; the only word I can think of is bad word, I want to say the government is fucked up.

CR: Oh, you can say that, it’s an American thing.

LA: Interestingly, I wouldn’t say that if I was speaking Arabic, I don’t know, I guess it’s the American part of me.

CR: You see we’ve corrupted you just like your friends said.

LA: It’s not true.

CR: Was it like that before the war – before the invasion – in terms of like, did you have the basic necessities in life, did you have electricity and all that stuff?

LA: Uh, in terms of electricity, it was much better than after the war. There was no water shortage, there was no like gas – which we have a lot of oil, and after the war people stand in line like for a day just to get gas.

CR: Is it still like that?

LA: No it’s better, but I think the worst time was like 2006 to 2008. It was terrible, it was like all kinds of problems. It was civil war, people killing each other, there were a lot of things going on.

CR: Do you work here?

LA: Now, no.

CR: Have you worked here?

LA: I worked like, really not a long time, maybe two month or three, with a self-employed, but he’s an Iraqi too so. I haven’t experience working for American supervisors. My brothers work, my father he doesn’t work because his, you know when you come from a foreign country they don’t recognize your bachelor degree, unless you go through some kind of process.

CR: Yea I’ve heard about that, but your brothers work here?

LA: Yeah.

CR: What kind of work do they do?

LA: Well, one of them he’s currently working also with a guy, he mainly do like construction, not construction, maintenance in buildings, they like fix lights, they paint, I guess they do a lot of this. Its manual job you could say. The other one he used to work as a break-faster, like in a hotel.

CR: A break-faster?

LA: You know the guys who they serve breakfast.

CR: Oh he’s a cook?

LA: No he doesn’t cook.

CR: He’s a waiter?

LA: Kind of like a waiter, but you can’t really say a waiter. It’s like, I remember his position it’s something like a break-faster.

CR: Breakfast?

LA: It’s not breakfast, I know what is a breakfast, but.

CR: I don’t know what that is – I guess you have to be rich to stay in those kinds of fancy hotels. The hotels I stay in have buffets.

LA: Yea they do, but what he told me about the hotel he was in was really not a good one and he quit the job actually, and he’s now he works in cliff-car or something. It’s like he’s a taxi, but he not an official taxi car, and now he’s trying to find a security position, he keeps changing. He has a lot of problems, and he actually created a lot of problems for the family as well, anyway.

CR: I guess the transition to this country has been tough on your family?

LA: Oh definitely, and what make it difficult in my case is my parents, they hate each other. They both want to play the victim role I guess. I mean he always like talk about things, I think he’s really, he plays the role of like he’s always right, he’s the one who has the right principles and ethics, he’s right and we’re all wrong, so if you disagree with him then you’re kind of the bad guy. I think in his earlier life he was totally the opposite person, he was like, I don’t know how do you say that in a good way. He was like in his marriage he drank, he goes with girls and all those things, and now even though I don’t do the things he do, and he still try to be strict, which is disgusting, I mean seriously, you’re talking about me, and don’t you remember what you were doing when you were my age and even when you were married.

CR: With the pressure your under, with the family and stuff, what do you do to release, do you talk to somebody, or get away with friends?

LA: Well, I spend most of my time just not going home. The only reason I would go home is if I just want a place to sleep.

CR: What do you do?

LA: You know for example, like I am in school now, I would just like do my homework. Usually if I would just go to a library or something and finish my homework, or do anything that keeps me away not to go home. Maybe I go to my uncle house, or you know, just not go home. And on the same side, he would always like, and my dad he would say, especially like we would have a celebration or something, and me and my mom would go my uncles house, he would say see you are corrupted, you are bad, you always leave me alone, but on the same hand, what do you want me to do? I can’t stay with you, you always argue and it’s not like you’re talking like we are a family. We’re not a family, we say we are, but we’re not, we’re just people living together, that’s all.

CR: Do you have any friends here?

LA: You mean American friends?

CR: Any kind of friends, outside of your family, outside of your siblings?

LA: I don’t think so, no. You mean like a close friend? No, which is really kind of sad, cause I used to have a lot of friends in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, and I used to hang out with a lot of people, and when you see me you see like fifteen people with me but now I’m alone.

CR: I’m sorry to hear that, you should make some friends, you’re a nice guy, and I think that everybody can use friends.

LA: I think that the structure of like here is they just really want you to work, they kind of like make the system work this way that you go to school, then you go to work, then you go home, then you do this, then you do that. You don’t real have, it’s an individualistic society. It’s definitely that. You have a lot of individualism involved, there’s not a lot of social life here.

CR: Do you identify as Iraqi, or American or both?

LA: I’d say both, cause America has changed some ideas in me, I’ve grown as a person. I think I’ve been more open minded to accept different cultures, and different people, and different thoughts. I mean maybe one of them is the gay issue maybe, if you think like in terms of, if you ask any middle-east person – by the way I hate this term because it’s so misleading term.

CR: Middle-eastern?

LA: Yea, because the term was technically made by Britain when she was like,

CR: invading everybody,

LA: exactly, the term is like Great Britain is the center of the world, and those other countries are the middle-eastern in comparison to where Britain was, in the center. It is definitely geographically wrong, and because if you’re talking about geographically, you would only be talking about Afghanistan and other countries and nothing to do with location. Middle-eastern means all of them are Muslims, which is wrong, and that all of them are Arabs, which is wrong too.

CR: Europe and America get a lot of shit wrong. Would you ever return to Iraq for a visit, or to stay?

LA: If you’re saying like, you know, in maybe the coming ten years or so, I don’t think so because there is a lot of instability, and really the 2006 civil war has bisected the community, there is like a huge, huge corruption in the government, people are just like, they don’t really have like, they are not the same as,

CR: It’s not the same as when you were growing up there.

LA: no, but if things got better, I would definitely like to visit. My uncle, he went to Iraq like two years ago, and he took some pictures of some, you know, the house we were living in, and I like cried man. It’s like really sad, the neighborhood is just all different, the people; he said that even the peoples personalities have been changed. I don’t know.

CR: I think that happens in war, when people have suffered trauma. I can imagine living in Iraq, having a somewhat peaceful life, even if I didn’t like the dictator. I mean I didn’t like Bush, I think he was a dictator too, and then all of a sudden there’s war, and people I know die, bombs are being dropped on me, I would probably never be the same after that.

LA: Definitely, I think a lot has changed, and as I was telling you, I think I’ve changed, and I kind of accept people more.

CR: Well I guess this concludes our interview, and I really appreciate you doing this for me.

LA: No problem (very American).

 

From Eritrea to Sudan to Iraq to Egypt to America: Samira’s Perspective on War

From Eritrea to Sudan to Iraq to Egypt to America: Samira’s Perspective on War

by Thomas B., May, 2013

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I interviewed an Eritrean woman named Samira. Samira had to flee Eritrea because of war. The experience of being forced to leave Eritrea and subsequent experiences affect Samira’s perspective on war. After exile from Eritrea, being a refugee in Sudan, and briefly living in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, Samira was “sick and tired of war.” Samira is skeptical of armed struggles and the insistence of authorities that they are necessary. Eritrea was plunged into thirty years of strife, and in fact it is still facing the threat of conflict. She is disappointed in the government that her country got when it gained independence. From her statements in our conversation, I believe Samira sees violence, even violence done in the name of a cause that appears just, as a never-ending cycle.

Eritrea is a country of six point two million people on the Eastern coast of Africa (Eritrea). To the East lies the Red Sea. Across the sea one will find Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The Southern half of Eritrea is a relatively thin region of land that hugs the coast. In the West the country fans out to cover more inland areas. Eritrea has been subject to continuous strife as a victim of imperialism, regional rivals and an oppressive government. It is a poor country, where one million people face starvation (Masci) and the per capita income is just $680.

The roots of Eritrea’s Independence War go back almost 125 years, to 1890, when Eritrea became an Italian colony. Eritrea remained under Italian domination until Italy ended up on the losing side of the Second World War. In 1949 Eritrea became a United Nations trust territory administered by Britain. In the early 50s, the United Nations made the deadly mistake of turning control of Eritrea over to its larger neighbor to the South West, Ethiopia. This mistake led to decades of strife for Eritrea and Ethiopia.

That the roots of the conflict go back into history many generations is connected to Samira’s perspective that violence is a cycle that feeds on itself, not a confrontation between good and evil that resolves itself. She said of the current problems in Eritrea that “the cycle, the violence just continues.” The cycle of violence that began with Italy colonizing Africa has continued to the present day.

Eritreans waged a long struggle against Ethiopia for independence with Ethiopian forces who fought to hold on to the territory. From 1974 to 1987, Ethiopia was ruled by a Marxist-Leninist government called the Derg. The Soviet Union and Cuba became involved in the fighting, in support of the Derg. Eritrean guerillas persisted in the face of superior military technology and numbers, and for thirty years the Independence War brought strife to the region. The war took a heavy toll on Eritrea, Ethiopia, and neighbors. A famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1984-85 killed approximately one million people (Masci). Many fled to find safety elsewhere. In 1991 Eritrean independence fighters won a military victory against Ethiopia that led to a 1993 referendum in which the Eritrean people voted for independence from Ethiopia.

Samira and other Eritreans hoped that the Independence War would lead to a democratic, accountable government for Eritrea. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. In Samira’s words, “…right now, the people who were fighting to liberate [Eritrea], supposedly, are the one’s who are torturing the people. Right now, my story might be like nothing compared to the thousands and thousands fleeing the country.” As so often happens in the wake of a revolution, Eritrea has come to be ruled by a single man. Isaias Afewerki, who led a leftist guerrilla force called the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front during the Independence War, has held the presidency since independence was established. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front has been reincarnated as a political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. Afewerki expressed support for a multi-party government before independence, but Afwerki’s People’s Front is the only political party allowed in Eritrea. The Country has no media sources independent of the People’s Front, so Afewerki wields total control of news coverage. Off the record, Samira and I joked how Afewerki was “maybe a president, maybe not a president.”

Plans to move Eritrea towards democracy have been indefinitely deferred. An election planned for 1998 and the implementation of a constitution approved by the voters in 1997 have been delayed indefinitely. In a 2009 interview with Reuters, Afewerki said, “I have never said that this a successful democracy.” Afewerki’s government denies that it has no desire to implement a constitutional multi-party government in Eritrea, maintaining that wars with countries like Yemen and the old rival Ethiopia make the country too unstable to risk a political reconfiguration. However, in Afewerki’s own words that he spoke before coming into power, “a one-party system will neither enhance national security or stability nor accelerate economic development. In fact a one party system could be a major threat to the very existence of our country” (President Isaias Afwerki’s Biography).

Samira’s father became involved in the independence movement as an intellectual when she was a small child. He had been a teacher before the conflict began. Samira told me, “my Dad didn’t go to fight, however he was helping recruit people to help with money or to recruit people to help with political things.” He was a member of a group in which each person was restricted to knowing just seven other members, so if a member was captured he or she would not be able to divulge the names of too many comrades.

The Ethiopian government, which of course controlled Eritrea at that time, caused Samira’s family great trouble to punish them for her father’s actions in support of the independence movement. Samira told me “He was imprisoned here and there. For example they would tell him “24 hours to get out of the city” so he’d just have to move, sometimes he’d just have to leave us somewhere and then later on we’d join him.” The government ordered Samira’s father to move around a lot. Their idea was to restrict Samira’s father to being in cities where he wouldn’t be effective for the rebels. He was imprisoned many times by the government and unfortunately he was tortured in prison several times: “they put them in cold water they put them upside down” said Samira.

I think that her father’s politics and the failure of the armed struggle to create an equitable Eritrean government influence Samira’s perspective on war. Maybe if her father had not been so involved in politics, Samira would not see her own experiences in terms of the larger events. But surely having a close family member who was so passionate that he would go in being involved after being tortured would guarantee that Samira would be political herself. The fact that armed struggle with Ethiopia led to a long, bloody war and a despotic government colors Samira’s skeptical perception of war.

Eventually, the fighting made living in Eritrea impossible. One day Samira was at school in the capital Asmara when planes began bombing the city intensely. Samira fled the capital with her brother as thousands of people fled the city. The two followed the flow right out of the city. She described that day: “people [were] fleeing anywhere they could. So we just followed the crowd… All the way out of town…because we didn’t know what we were doing.” Samira said that she doesn’t remember how many days she traveled, because they were moving day and night and it was difficult to think straight. They had no time to get their things or tell anyone they were leaving. It was total chaos.

Samira went to a neighboring city where they believed they would be safe, but soon that city was bombed as well, so they continued to flee. Samira said she would “never forget” how everywhere she went people told her to take off her red sweater, but she didn’t understand why until an older woman told her “[the plane] spots you in bright colors, it spots you right away.” Samira and her brother made their way North to Sudan. They walked half the way, then they got a ride from some Eritrean fighters on a truck they had to ride “like goods.” Samira not gone back to Eritrea since.

In Sudan, Samira had to contend with the threat of being kidnapped in the night by the Sudanese government, which sought to relocate the many Eritreans who fled to refugee camps in Sudan. The camps were located in harsh, remote locations where heat and thirst took many lives. Samira told me that her “neighbors, who were also cousins” suffered being brought to one of the refugee camps by the Sudanese government: “They would come early in the morning when you are asleep. You’re not even awake. You are sleeping. They took them. Two of the children died. It’s just sad. They couldn’t tolerate [conditions at the camp]. I was lucky, we were lucky.” In recent years, the Sudanese government, attempting to suppress a rebellion, committed an act of genocide against their own people in the Darfur region (Genocide in Darfur).

I can only imagine that being separated from most of her family and hiding from the maniacal Sudanese government must have been a difficult adolescence for Samira. She had already known a great deal of strife at that relatively young age. This is the age where most people start to think about politics and things like that, so her adult perspective on war must have been forming during this time. Clearly, Samira and her country were not benefiting from the conflict and the immediate view of it would not have yielded the kind of distance a person needs to have to romanticize a conflict. She must have been truly “sick of war” by this time.

Samira continued her education during this time with help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She completed high school on time, then went on to Cairo to study at a technical institute for secretarial work. She had wanted to study medicine, but that was not really possible because of her status as a refugee. She said “it would have been different” if the conflict had not happened. This is one more reason for Samira to be “sick of war.”

Eritreans weren’t allowed to work in Egypt, so she went on to Baghdad, but left because of the Iran-Iraq war and general dissatisfaction with being there. Even though that war did not directly affect people in Baghdad, she had had enough of being in war zones by that time. Samira came to the United States when she was 19. She lived in South Dakota for a while, then moved to San Francisco.

Samira was reunited with her family in the United States, as family members have left Eritrea over the years. Samira still has extended family in Eritrea, but no immediate family members remain in that country. It reminds me of how Edward Said said that his home Palestine became “a series of Israeli locales” (Said X) and how all of Said’s family and acquaintances were gone from Palestine. Samira was reunited with her father after being separated for about ten years: “I can’t even put a word on it. I’m so blessed.” Samira must have some trauma from the events of her childhood, but she has lived most of life in the United States in reasonable comfort and does not seem like an unhappy person.

In conclusion, Samira’s flight from Eritrea, her difficult time in Sudan and the despotic nature of Eritrea’s independent government made her dislike war as a political tool. Those who only experience war in movies and video games sometimes have romanticized notions of what war is like. They don’t imagine what a bombing raid does to an ordinary little girl and her brother. When people call for a bad government to be driven out by some freedom fighters, they don’t necessarily think about what happens when those freedom fighters become the next government. Now, as a reservation, I don’t believe that Samira feels that Eritrea should be a part of Ethiopia! What I am saying is that Samira stopped believing in the armed struggle. We talked a little after the recording stopped, and she said something that stuck with me: “peace for all the people is my mission.”  When we were talking about the tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea is asked her if parts of Eritrea “are still occupied by Ethiopia.” Samira said, “I think it’s an excuse for just…an ego of the government. It’s not to do anything with the people. They could live safely and peacefully, actually.” Samira doesn’t believe in fighting or in those so-called “freedom fighters,” who are now dictators.

Works Cited

“Eritrea.” Cia.gov. Central Intelligence Agency of the United States, 3 May 2007. Web

“Eritrea: Selected Social Indicators.” Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations. Ed.               Gall, Timothy L. and Gall, Susan Bevan. Online ed. Detroit: Gale. Global Issues In Context. Web. 22 May 2013.
 
“Genocide in Darfur.” United Human Rights Council, 2013. Web.
Masci, David. “Famine in Africa: Are Affluent Nations Doing Enough to Avert Disaster?” CQ Researcher 12.39 (2002). Web.
 
“President Isaias Afwerki’s Biography.” Madote. 13 Nov. 2010. Web.
Said, Edward W. Out of Place: A Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1999. Print.

Transcripts

Samira warns me that she speaks softly, then the recording starts. I am surprised by the sound of my voice. My additions to the conversation are written inside of [—] marks like [this]. My comments on what is happening in the conversation are written on the right side of two forward slashes like //this. Be aware that this is not intended as a word-for-word copy of the mp3 file. The goal is to capture the meaning of what was said rather than the exact words. What appears here should be considered my translation of the conversation from the language of conversation to the language of text.

Me: I’ll just put it [the recording device] closer to you.

Samira: [laughs] ah, ok.

Me: Ok Samira, I’m Thomas. So, tell me about where were you were born.

Samira: I was born in Eritrea; it’s a town called Abudat [SP?].

Me: Is that a small town?

Samira: It’s a city.

Me: In a valley?

Samira: No, actually it’s a low land. But I didn’t grow up there, I was just three months old when I left so I don’t know [the city].

Me: Why did you family leave?

Samira: Well, my dad was a teacher and also politically involved, so they [the government] were putting him from city to city [to impede his political activities].

Me: So, did you grow up in a particular town or did you move around with your dad?

Samira: I actually moved around. I didn’t grow up in a particular place.

Me: And you were going to school?

Samira: Yes.

Me: So, can you tell me about your father’s political involvement?

Samira: My father’s political involvement is a long story. You know about partition of Africa, right? So what happened was Europeans took all of Africa. Eritrea was taken by the Italians and was ruled by the Italians for about 50-60 years. And then in the second world war, Italy became allies with Germany the British kicked out [the Italians]. I’m making the story shorter!

Me: That’s fair.

Samira:.. kicked out..

Me: …the Italians…

Samira: … and they took over…

Me: …Eritrea…

Samira: They took over Eritrea for 17 years. And then what happened was, when all the other countries got independence, Eritrea did not. What happened was the British, or the Eritreans, couldn’t make up their minds.

Me: They couldn’t make up their mind if they wanted…?

Samira: There was a political thing; the US was also involved with that. They wanted to be part of Europea [Europe] and there were some Eritreans who wanted to be with Ethiopia. But when [Eritrea] was federated with Ethiopia without the people’s will, the Eritreans started movements. The teachers and students participated in demonstrations and stuff. My dad was a part of the movement.

Me: For independence?

Samira: First for the demonstrations and stuff. But then what happened was, when the brutality started [I don’t understand this part. It’s around 3:38.], Ethiopians took over, and people didn’t like that. They started grassroots movements called [the seven people?], everybody would know seven people so that way when someone got in trouble they…

Me: Oh, I see //this part isn’t clear to the listener: someone in the movement would know seven other people in the movement so that when somebody got caught by the government, they wouldn’t be able to divulge the names of more than seven comrades.

Samira: He was one of the people that started the movement, in 1961. He started to get watched; he was in prison, all these things. That’s how the trouble started. And after that, when more and more brutality more imprisonment and killing started, Eritreans stated an armed struggle in 1961. At that time what happened was that people went to fight. My Dad didn’t go to fight; however, he was helping recruit people to help with money or to recruit people to help with political things, so he was imprisoned here and there. For example, they would tell him “24 hours to get out of the city,” so he’d just have to move; sometimes, he’d just have to leave us somewhere and then later on we’d join him.

Me: Can you tell me a story about that happening?

Samira: Ok, so one story is this: [PORT] is part of Eritrea. However, it’s very far; it’s very hot. So they put him in 24 hours to go from the city to go to that place [the port]. So he left us there in the city because he could not get us to another city. He left by himself. There were others going there too.

Me: They were telling him to go to this port town?

Samira: To port town. For example, he cannot move from there. He cannot go anywhere. [Father’s birthplace] is his birthplace; they told him he cannot get there; he cannot go to that city. He can go to work, but he cannot move from that city.

Me: He was being kept in the port? He was arrested in the city? And you were with separated from him with your mother?

Samira: Yes, with my mother and two siblings; others were not born. So, after a year and a half or so we joined him in that port.

Me: how old were you when this was happening?

Samira: Hm, when this was happening, I was eight years old. So, we went to there; however, it’s like the climate is harsh so my mother was sick. So we, my mother and me and siblings, not my father, we moved to Ethiopia. It’s not far away [from the port]. Later on he could go to [Ethiopia] but that’s the only town he could go to.

Me: Yeah. So, you were right across the border, and you dad was in this port, and the government didn’t want him to leave this port.

Samira: Yeah, however, they allowed him to that city in Ethiopia because it was Ethiopia it was not Eritrea. Any Eritrean city he could not go in. So, when we would go to Eritrea, we were kind of smuggled. We would go see my grandparents.

Me: How exactly did they smuggle you?

Samira: Well, we would go from Ethiopia; nobody would know. However, when we got to [Asmara?] everybody knows everybody, so they would not say, “they are the kids of so and so,” because that’s how you were known, as “the kids of so and so.” There was curfew there. At six, we would go just right before the curfew and stay in my grandparent’s house and if we had to see another family we would go just before the curfew and not tell anyone that we were coming to stay there for a week or so.

Me: Where were you going?

Samira: To Eritrea. To see my grandparents and uncles and cousins. We would go there, go, go, go, and come back to the city where my parents were born.

Thomas: So then, uh, you must have grown up moving from place to place as your father was getting told where to go, I guess they wanted to restrict his political movements so they were telling him where to go?

Samira: Exactly.

Thomas: What about when you were a teenager?

Samira: Ok, so now…a teenager…I’m like 12, 13? So, when I’m 13…what happened was…when I was 13, the Ethiopian government was overthrown. It was the <<can’t make out, sounds like name of leader who took over>>… It was a communist country, Ethiopia. So, kind of like my dad’s restriction going to Eritrea, was kind of lightened; like he could go Eritrea! But not to his birthplace, but to Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea. So we went there, like he want[ed] to move, so we went there and there was war and stuff. It’s like one day me and my brother, we were like at school…my younger brother…and we couldn’t go back to our house.

T: Why?

S: So…what happened was like…there was bombing and stuff…so we just moved with the crowd, we just went with the crowd. We didn’t know where we were going; we didn’t know what we were doing; we just like…because we…in Ethiopia, when we were there, when the revolution was there, there was also war and stuff, but not bombing. So, we really didn’t know the exact what was going on. So, anyways, what happened was we went to a city by foot…I don’t know how many days we traveled. At first daytime, and then at night.

T: You were fleeing the capital because of the fighting there?

S: Because of the fighting…because of the bombing. The bombing was not only in the city, but the city that we were going to, it was bombed also. We didn’t know that. Nobody knew that, but it’s like the planes and stuff, you know, and people, I think were accustomed <<?>> There was this older woman.

One thing I’ll never forget: I had a red sweater on and like everybody shout[ed], “take the sweater off, take the sweater off,” and I didn’t know what was going on. So this woman came in and took out the sweater, because it’s bright color; it spot you right away…the plane.

Anyways, we got to another city called Keren and that happened to be my parents’ birthplace…

T: When you fled the city, was that immediately when you left school that day or was this more…

S: It was bombing, so it’s not like school was let out, but we have to go; we have to leave. So the thing is our house…and it’s like people are fleeing anywhere they could. So, we just followed the crowd.

T: So you just ran out of school and followed the crowd all the way out of town?

S: All the way out of town…because we didn’t know what we were doing. So, anyway, when we got to the city, it is like everybody is ok [with] what you guys [are] doing. It’s like people are so kind and stuff and they’ll ask you and we say we don’t know where our parent are; we were just at school. Kind of everybody ask[s] you whose daughter or whose son, it’s a small community. Everybody knows everybody. If you don’t know me, then somebody else will know me. So they asked someone and they knew; they came and they took us to their place. Still, they are scared because still the bombing is going on.

So anyways, so it kind of start[ed] in the morning and there was a lot of people who died in the bombing. Actually, somebody I know lost three daughters.

Then, after 15 days staying [in] that city, we decided we couldn’t go back to Asmara, to the capital, so what happened was…

T: So you left all your things in Asmara

S: Oh, yeah, nobody can get anything. So, we decided, somebody, that it’s not going to be safe, so they contacted our family; like, they contacted my mom, my mom.

T: They must have been worried about where you were?

S: Oh, yeah. They didn’t even know where we were, and there’s so many people died. At the same time that my dad was also in prison. That’s why they contacted my mom. So, my mom was like, whatever you could do, you could help them. We went to Sudan by foot…halfway. And then halfway the freedom fighters, they had this lorry that they take like so many…it…we were good

T: People had questions if you were good?

S: No, no, no. We were up, we were on this van, this lorry.

T: Oh, you were riding…a truck?

S: A truck, yes, like we were goods…everybody’s on like everybody there are so many of us.

T: Were you riding on top?

S: There were other people outside the truck. Some people were just holding outside on the truck. If you were lucky, if, you were inside the truck.

T: So, when you were walking from Asmara…and then you walked toward Sudan.

S: We stayed in that city, Keren, for 15 days first. And then we walked halfway to Sudan, and then halfway on that truck.

T: And were you still with other students?

S: We didn’t know. I don’t know if they were students but there were young people. Because we were new at the <<??>> we don’t know. Because we knew…when the bombing started everybody just fled in all directions.

T: So it was just you and your brother looking out for yourselves? The adults were nice?

S: They were nice, but we don’t know them actually. We really didn’t know them.

T: They gave you food and water?

S: Yeah. When we were from the other city, we didn’t have any food. When I say we didn’t have food it’s like, we had just like minimal things like you would get from the villagers. Everybody give you but you don’t even feel like eating. And most of the time, we are trying just to go. But in the city we had food and everything, and after that…so we couldn’t go back to Asmara, because the thing got worse; there was no bombing. But the chaos and the killing continued.

Now, the people who took us from that city, so people who we know…we didn’t know them but our family knew. So we’re going toward to Sudan. Halfway we walk, and then halfway we got the truck. We went to a refugee camp in Sudan.

We stayed in the refugee camp about…how long? Not quite a month. Then UN came…

T: Was there enough food?

S: Not to start. Not the ideal food. There was food. But not the type as here. You just don’t…we were not poor. We had food…

T: At home, but not in the refugee camp?

S: It was not enough; it was not appetizing.

T: So, I’m wondering, when you fled the city and were heading to Sudan, when you came to a village…what would happen when you came to a village…would everyone be fleeing and go on the road with you?

S: No…people in the village stayed there because the villages at the time were liberated and were not under Ethiopia, but under the rebels, the freedom fighters. They were always afraid of the bombing and stuff because everybody else would be hiding. Some of them might, but some of them not.

T: Why did you decide to go to Sudan and not stay in one of the villages?

S: Because, as I said, it’s not stable. You never know. The other thing also, is like…I don’t know. Everybody else was doing it. You’ll end up fighting too.

T: It was safer to go to another country?

S: It was safer.

T: So, you stayed in the United Nations refugee camp in Sudan for about a month, and then did you go back to your parents or did you go some place else?

S: No, our parents were still in Eritrea. What happened was the UN was opening a high school in Sudan, in Kassala, so they took us to Kassala…it’s a city in Sudan that borders Eritrea. There are many Eritreans there; they have been refugees for a long time…probably since the ‘60’s, since the war started, or the conflict started.

So, we came there and my brother went to middle school. I went to high school. They were giving us, usually they called it Unesco…it was not ruled by Unesco; it was run by the UNHCR.

T: When you were in Sudan, did you feel alienated from the native people in Sudan?

S: There were so many Eritreans refugees there; it’s bordering Eritrea. There’s always inter-marriage, you know, family here and there in both places. On the border you know how it is, many are relatives. Especially in that areas there are so many refugees for a long time, so, it’s like so many Eritreans were there already.

But, but, what was happening in the Sudanese government was always threatening the refugees. You cannot be in the city; you have to go to the refugee camp. It’s like always you’re on the run, always you’re in the hide. Even though we have papers for the UNHCR, still we are afraid that somebody will take us to a really, really bad places, very, very hot places, that has nothing, not even stable refugee camps.

T: The government tried to put the refugees in the most inhospitable places in Sudan, in the middle of the desert. No water.

S: Exactly. Yes. That is exactly what has happened to many unlucky people. I remember at one point, one year that we did that so many people died, especially…there was really high…

T: High temperatures, not enough food, not enough water?

S: Nothing, nothing at all. Very remote area.

T: It was not violence but the conditions.

S: Yeah, it was the conditions. We were lucky.

T: Did you experience this yourself?

S: No, I did not experience myself, but I knew about it. My neighbors who also happened to be my family…my second cousins…they took them to Abroham <??> a very remote area. They would come early in the morning when you are asleep. You’re not even awake. You are sleeping. They took them.

T: Kind of kidnapped.

S: Exactly, kidnapped. Two of the children died. It’s just sad. They couldn’t tolerate. I was lucky; we were lucky, didn’t get to that.

T: Did you complete high school there?

S: Yes.

T: When did you learn English?

S: In Eritrea or Ethiopia, you start taking English as a subject in 2nd grade. When you are in middle school all the subjects are in English. That’s how I started learning. In the UNHCR schools all subjects are in English. We had to sit for GEC, compatible to English school if you passed.

T: Were you working? And did you reconnect with your parents when you were in high school?

S: Yes, my last year in high school, my mom and my three siblings came to Sudan. They had to flee. My dad was in prison so they had to leave the country. They couldn’t go to school and my mom was tortured…they would come to the house and take stuff. She didn’t know where my dad was in prison so she had to leave the city. I saw her briefly there and then I had to go to another city to take the exam for the GEC, the General Education.

While I was there after we finished the exam, I just stayed in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. I stayed there about three months and UNHCR was also giving scholarships for Egypt and Kenya. They told they want us to apply to get scholarships. So we applied…they just give you a general English exam that you can pass. So I passed both for Kenya and Egypt but then Egypt was business secretary school and the one in Kenya was for nursing school. But then my friends were going to Egypt so I just go…I don’t have nobody to go with me to Kenya even though I want to do something medical field. I just went them to Egypt, to Cairo.

T: You went to Cairo and started university there?

S: It’s not university. It’s an institute for studying secretarial business.

T: It would have been tough to focus on school while you’re running from all the violence…yeah?

S: That’s very true. It’s been hard but the thing is doable. You also want to try because our father and mother wanted education so bad. They educated themselves, not universities and stuff, but still education was so valued…they value education. They instilled that in us. Even in the refugee camp, you just read. In Sudan, I’ll tell you, in Kassala, we have electricity, but you pay for electricity…but we have to say hi to my teacher.

<<interrupted by teacher in 33:40 — 32:30>>

T: Seems like you have a really good relationship with all your former teachers.

S: They are amazing. I mean, I love my teachers. Even from my childhood. My dad was a teacher.

T: He would have had to stop teaching with the political thing started, when he got involved in politics.

S: I mean, when he got out…he’s here now…yeah, I saw my dad after 11 years, 12 years…

T: I asked you, it must have been difficult to study because of the violence and then you started to talk about the electricity.

S: You pay for the electricity, no matter what. The problem is this: no electricity most of the time, we don’t get electricity…and it goes dark all of a sudden. We have to put kerosene and we have to study hard. Let me give you an example, for history: Compare the American Revolution to the French Revolution. It’s an essay, it’s not like ABC and whatever like you can give.

T: I’m not sure if I would pass that question.

S: (Laughs) I don’t know. No American will pass history. I’ll give you that. That’s what I tell my daughter. I’m being judgmental.

T: It’s sort of true. Even though I’m American, I’ve lived here my whole life, there’s just so many basic things that I don’t know about my own country. It’s embarrassing a little.

S: That’s OK. You know they give you a citizenship exam and I don’t know if any American would pass it. That’s what I tell my daughter. When I say American, I mean anyone who was born here and my daughter was born here.

T: I saw some studies where they asked Americans from the exam and it was abysmal scores.

S: So yeah, we have to study, like oil, it’s lights…we still pay for electricity.

T: So you went to Cairo and study at the institute for secretarial business…

S: It’s a language school, and international language institute but it’s a comprehensive school…it has language, secretarial, business college. Ours was a combined business, secretarial.

T: So you were not able to study medicine.

S: I was not able to do that over there.

T: Do you think it might have been different it you didn’t have to flee from Eritrea?

S: Yes. It would have been different.

T: You managed to avoid getting kidnapped.

S: Yes. It was sheer lucky. We were sleeping here next, and the next door people got taken out, they would go. It was always fear.

T: We had this book about illegal immigrants that has this quote about how the people are afraid of being picked up by the INS and ICE. You must be deal with all the time in your work with asylum seekers.

S: Yes, that’s true.

T: Did you finish the secretarial school?

S: Yes…some of my subjects were transferable here to City College.

T: Was your father still in prison when this was going on?

S: When I was in Egypt? Yes…

T: He had been in prison continuously?

S: Yes.

T: I don’t want to make you talk about things that are too painful, but you said your mother was abused and your father must have been abused in prison.

S: Oh, yes…torture. Torture…he talks about it now. They put them in cold water; they put them upside down.

T: And your mother, did she follow you to Egypt or stay in Sudan?

S: She stayed in Sudan.

T: And were any of your siblings with you in Egypt?

S: Yes, actually one of my brothers was there. He went there on his own from Sudan.

T: He was an older brother who had had already been there for a while…

S: No, not the one that went with me, but another brother. We’re six siblings…I have 1 sister and 4 brothers. One of my brothers went to Egypt on his own. This one was on his own, he flew there from Ethiopia. And then my sister came when I was there…I went to Sudan and brought her to Egypt.

T: When you finished at the institute you must have started looking for work.

S: Yes, but in Egypt you cannot work because you have to be an Egyptian citizen. They are very strict. However, because the UNHCR school had some kind of connection with like they were training us with different companies. The companies didn’t employ us; they take us as trainees they give us some pocket money. The UNHCR was giving us some money too for the education and to survive.

So, after we finish, we have to go somewhere, we cannot stay in Egypt because our student visa expires. Even though we were refugees still we couldn’t live there.

T: How old were you at this time?

S: I was 18, 19.

T: You had to leave Egypt because of the rules. Where did you go? Were you thinking about going back to Eritrea at this time? Was the fighting stopping?

S: No the fighting was still going on. The US and Canada were giving resettlement if you apply. I didn’t want to go far away. So, I went Baghdad to go to university. Stayed there a month or so. But it was not for me. So many things.

T: Everything was different. Language was probably different?

S: No, I knew Arabic. I speak Arabic. It’s not the language, but the political thing. Iraq at that time was good, many Eritreans there…I don’t know…

T: The weather?

S: No, Iraq is beautiful; the weather is beautiful. Baghdad is very beautiful…

T: Something about the culture…

S: I can’t pinpoint exactly…

T: Because you didn’t have family there?

S: Probably. But the other thing there was the Iraq-Iran war. Baghdad was not affected that much but still you could feel the…I was sick and tired of war. So I came back to Egypt again…so, it’s like, where to go? Like nowhere. Did have a choice, so I applied for US resettlement. Got accepted and came here, and went to South Dakota.

(laughs)

The funniest thing is at the UNHCR office in Cairo, Americans like, “Where are you going?” “I’m going to South Dakota.” And the Americans…not anybody else…”South Dakota!?” As if I’m going to the moon or some place. This was 1985.

It’s different there now. At least you can see diversity there now, but when I went there…

T: You must have been the only African in town.

S: Yeah, well, I was not even in town. I was on the outskirts of Sioux Falls. I was not the only African; I was the only colored person there.

T: Was it kind of awkward? Were people really racist there? Or just confused?

S: There were some of the nicest people there. They would go out of their way to do stuff, but they were not racist. They were confused. That’s how I would put it. I would speak English and they would ask, “How do you learn American?”

T: How did you learn our obscure unknown language? (laughs)

S: Exactly! (laughs)

My favorite thing is this…I would be eating…and I’m a Muslim…I would say “Insha’Allah,” the name of god. That’s what you say when you start something. And they’d say, “Pardon” and I would say I’m just calling my god. Oh…she’s not even Christian and she knows about god.

T: So, it’s probably like everyone goes to the same church in this town.

S: Yes.

T: The people were nice but you decided to leave South Dakota pretty quick?

S: I decided to leave South Dakota pretty quick not because of the cultural but because of the weather.

T: It was freezing

S: It starts at the end of October, the first of November, the thing just changed, like over night like freezing. So by the 10th of November, I have to…I came here actually to visit a friend.

T: You came to SF to visit a friend?

S: Actually to LA, to Orange County. My cousin joined me [in] South Dakota. I stayed there about three months. She was there about 10 days. We came here to visit a friend but the weather was so good. I had a friend in SF and I told my cousin, “I’m going to visit.” We just made up our mind; we’re staying here; we’re coming back here. We went back (to South Dakota) and we came back here. When we came back here, I told my cousin, “I’m not crazy about Orange County for me. SF is the perfect place.” I found a place. My place is here.

T: Yeah, this is a great place. A lot of immigrants end up here. I’m one of the only people I know that’s born in San Francisco.

S: You were born in SF? I have a couple of people who were born in SF.

T: I probably have one of the most boring life stories.

S: No, San Francisco…you have a story. Trust me. Believe me.

T: You haven’t told me about any jobs. You were maybe 20 by now and looking for work.

S: I applied to this place and accepted in South Dakota. But I have to leave. So I came here in San Francisco; I got a job at childcare.

T: Did you have work in South Dakota?

S: Yes, childcare…but I was accepted at nursing school. But I moved here because of the weather. So I came here, worked in childcare. They told me to get PPD testing (TB)…a skin test for TB. I went to refugee clinic to get the PPD test and as I was talking to this lady. She’s a nurse, and she said, “your English is good, and we are looking for an interpreter and someone for our pre-natal program, the doctor wants an assistant.” I said, “I have no medical training but, yeah.” She said they train me. So I applied there and I worked there almost 10 years.

What I was doing at the refugee clinic…I was working at the pre-natal program doing vital signs. Refugees from different countries come, but I was responsible for Eritreans and people who spoke Arabic.

T: So you speak Arabic, but I don’t know what language you speak in Eritrea.

S: I speak Arabic, Tigre…in Eritrea we have 9 different languages. So I speak Tigrinya. I was taught Amharic in school. I speak Tigre, Harari, Arabic and English.

T: You speak five languages fluently?

S: Yes…well, if you think I’m fluent in English, then, yes.

T: I noticed you’re wearing a jacket. Do you find it cold here?

S: No, it’s not cold. I’ve been here 30 years, so I don’t when it’s hot. But my body is always cold. Not because…it was windy outside. I’m always cold.

After that I found a job at UCSF Aids project. I was doing HIV triage and counseling.

T: Was it people who just contracted the disease?

S: No.

T: Why was it triage?

S: We will get calls and prioritize this person, this needs. If somebody calls me and says “I’m HIV positive,” I tell them where to go. If somebody calls and says, “I want to get tested,” I tell them to go. I was coordinating. We have nine different sites, so coordinating that. I worked there about 10 years also. Then I got sick and surgery on my hand. I had nerve thing. It was painful, so they had to surgery. After that I had some health issues, so I didn’t go back to work. So I was laid off, also because of funding stuff. I had priority hiring but I couldn’t go back to work for a while.

T: That brings up to the present? You have family in the US?

S: Yes, I live with my daughter and my husband. My family were living in different places, some in Sudan. First, I brought my two brothers, and then my mom, and then my other two brothers. And my sister in Cairo. And the last person I brought to the US was my dad.

T: You told me your dad finally got out of prison after about 10 years. Were you about 30 then?

S: I don’t know…I’m not not good at the timing now. I don’t know if it was the whole ten years. In the time we lost contact. We heard about him from other people. He contacted us.

T: He was free for a little while and then managed to contact you again. And did he come to the US?

S: Yes, after a while. It was a process. They have a family reunification.

T: What was it like seeing your dad after so long a time?

S: I can’t even put a word on it. I’m so blessed.

T: And there’s been continued fighting in Eritrea and Sudan. Has that impacted you since you left Africa?

S: Yes. I don’t have immediate family there but I have cousins and uncles. I have friends. The things is this, Eritrea got independence in 1991 and was recognized as an independent state in 1993. However, right now, the people who were fighting to liberate it, supposedly, are the one’s who are torturing the people. Right now, my story might be like nothing compared now to the thousands and thousands fleeing the country. They were kidnapped from the refugee camps. They’re being sold to the Bedouin in Egypt. And they’re being sold to organ traffickers, their organs being sold. They are being asked to pay $50,000 to get out from the capturers. It just continues. The cycle, the violence just continues.

T: There are still some parts of Eritrea that are occupied by Ethiopia?

S: There’s a border in conflict about it. Whose is this town; whose is that town. I think it’s an excuse for just…an ego of the government. It’s not to do anything with the people. They could live safely and peacefully, actually.

T: Do you think Ethiopia wants to control Eritrea because of the Red Sea?

S: Ethiopia doesn’t have a port, and Eritrea has two ports. Yes, some Ethiopians really want the port of Assab. There are some who say openly that in the government right now. They say they don’t [need] Assab because they are using Djibouti. But it’s easier for them to use Assab. But right now, Assab is a ghost city, not even used by Eritrea. It’s so sad because that port was very alive and very…

T: That’s the place where you separated from father for a while…

T: Do you feel like an exile from Eritrea? Did you have to leave?

S: Of course. There was no choice. I was not given choice.

T: There was day the bombing…

The mp3 Ends here. We continued talking for a couple minutes. I remember she said “my mission is peace for all peoples.”