From Baghdad to Brooklyn: My Journey with an Iraqi Refugee
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"That one sounds like mortar fire," Mohamed said to me. "And that was definitely a sniper." My Iraqi friend and I were hanging out on the beach in Coney Island for the Friday night summer fireworks. Listening to the thunderous explosions over the water as we rode the Wonder Wheel, memories of life in war-torn Iraq inevitably came to mind.
The fireworks came to a close, and a song that most Americans have heard countless times began to play from the nearby sound system. "I'm proud to be an American … where at least I know I'm free …" The crowd began to cheer and raise lighters into the air.
I wondered what else must be going through Mohamed's head. Just two weeks ago, he had been a refugee living in the slums of Damascus, Syria.
To date, 1 in 5 Iraqis have left their homes. Two million have left the country, and another 2½ million are internally displaced. After the 2003 bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra unleashed a wave of sectarian clashes, those with the means to do so began fleeing in droves. Many have chosen to wait out the violence in urban areas of Jordan and Syria, the two countries that host the most Iraqi refugees.
Mohamed had been living like most of them. Unable to work legally in Syria, he relied on the meager savings his parents could send him from Iraq. Over the course of one year, he moved 16 times to a series of filthy, roach-infested, overpriced apartments. It's a seller's market. Iraqi refugees are taken advantage of by just about every crooked landlord who realizes how desperately they don't want to be sent back -- war profiteering on a new level.
Mohamed spent his days sleeping because, as he told me, it was too depressing to watch those going on with their lives while his own had hit a dead end. His nights were spent watching the news on television and worrying about those left behind -- his immediate family was still living in their Baghdad home near the Green Zone. During his time in Syria, five car bombs exploded on his family's residential street, each time blowing out all the windows and doors, but thankfully not harming those inside.
My work as videojournalist has brought me to the Middle East a number of times. I first crossed paths with Mohamed in January of 2007 in Jordan, where I interviewed him for a news piece on Iraqi refugees. I was immediately struck by how much adversity he'd faced by the age of 24.
The more I got to know him, the more I wanted to document his life. Yet at the same time, I felt compelled to use what power I had to see how I could change it. Sitting by and simply watching his life unravel didn't seem right to me.
Many journalists I know have gone through similar situations. You form a special connection to one of your subjects, and you decide to help them -- sometimes sending money for food, school or clothing.
I wanted to bring Mohamed to the United States. The eternal optimist, I was so sure I could make this happen that I took a photo of a bench on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, where one can take in the quintessential view of Manhattan. "We'll be sitting there together one day," I promised him.
From 2007 to 2008, I spent a collective five months in Damascus with Mohamed. Throughout this journey -- at times both tragic and entertaining -- I made a good friend, became part of an Iraqi family and realized the reach of the power that I have as a U.S. citizen in doing my part to clean up the mess that's been made in Iraq.
Life Before the Invasion
Mohamed and I bonded from the first time we met, and I was struck by the similarities in upbringing we had. When I was his age, I was working a full-time job in Portland, Oregon. I had graduated from college debt-free and rarely worried about money. With a 401(k), health insurance and a steady income, my future held promise and opportunity.
Before the war, Mohamed's life hadn't been any less privileged than mine. The son of a diplomat and an attorney, his middle-class family lived in a large house in central Baghdad.
He studied English and French at the University of Baghdad. Socially, his life was not unlike that of men his same age living in a Western culture. As a teenager, he joined a garage rock band. His father begged him to cut his long hair, disapproved of his attire and was incensed when he got a tattoo.
He was also obsessed with American culture. Much to his parents' dismay, he spent more time studying the lyrics of American pop music than he did preparing for exams. He taught himself English by watching American sitcoms and music videos, covering the Arabic subtitles on his television with black tape. His two favorite shows were "Friends" and "Frasier."
Unfortunately, what passed for teenage antics was not condoned as he came of age, and his American affectations became the subject of suspicion and ridicule.
Despite being a cultural outsider, life was manageable. When he was 18, Mohamed was scouted by a modeling agency, and a new world opened up to him. He flew to Lebanon and Turkey on assignment and had his first taste outside a culture that he found to be too restrictive for someone like him.
Mohamed's budding modeling career came to an abrupt halt in March of 2003, when, in the middle of his 20th birthday party, his country was invaded and the war began.
As time passed and the violence escalated, civil society in Iraq all but collapsed. Those perceived as being outside the norm were singled out and targeted. One of Mohamed's college friends was killed and his body cut to pieces. His crime? Wearing cut-off jeans.
Amid rising intolerance, it became too dangerous for Mohamed to move freely in Baghdad, and his family imposed house arrest. For two interminable years, he lived in isolation and sank into a deep depression. In 2005, a note arrived on his family's front doorstep: "Get your son out of the country or we'll kill the whole family." Two weeks later, Mohamed's tearful mother put him on a plane to Jordan.
Life as a Refugee
At the time, Jordan had become a difficult place for Iraqi refugees. In 2005, four members of "al Qaeda in Iraq" carried out suicide bombings in three Amman hotels, killing 67 people and injuring more than 150 others. The Jordanian government stopped allowing Iraqi men ages 18 to 26 into the country and made it increasingly difficult for those who were already there to renew their visas. Mohamed found it best to stay under the radar.
Although physically safe in Jordan, his life had hit a brick wall. At an age where he should have had the energy and optimism to take on the world, Mohamed was living in limbo. He told me that if things didn't change soon, he'd "go back to Iraq and wait for his day."
A month later, that chance came. He was stopped in the street by two Jordanian police officers in an unmarked car. They insisted he come to the police station for "just five minutes."
Five minutes turned into five days in a dingy Jordanian prison, where he was repeatedly interrogated and verbally abused, accused of everything from being an atheist to an Israeli Moussad agent.
After five days of crushing isolation, he was handcuffed and deported. At the Iraqi border, the agent processing his paperwork recognized him. "Aren't you that model from Baghdad?" he said.
The road from the Jordanian border to Baghdad was a dangerous one -- filled with rogue militias waiting for a high-value target to come into their sights. Kidnapping and murder were rampant on the so-called "Highway of Death," and a man with Mohamed's effeminate appearance didn't stand a chance. So when the border agent recognized him, Mohamed thought his time was surely up. But then the man surprised him.
"I'm not sending you to Baghdad because I guarantee that you won't make it alive." He put Mohamed in a car that was taking other Iraqis to Syria. The guard covered his long hair with a towel and told him to hide in the back seat and play sick until he reached Syrian soil.
Just days after he arrived in Syria, I met Mohamed for the second time. I was back in the region doing more stories on refugees. His family had contacted me and told me what had happened. I brought a suitcase full of belongings that he'd left behind in Jordan. We met for coffee, and what I expected to be a short meeting turned into a marathon conversation.
We became fast friends and would spend the next week inseparable. At the end of each day of work, I would meet up with him for dinner or dancing, or to simply take a walk and get lost in Damascus, a city foreign to both of us. He gave me facials and makeovers and introduced me to the latest hits by Beyonce and 50 Cent, which I translated for him.
There during the presidential referendum, in which President Bashar al-Assad would eventually win re-election with 97 percent of the vote, we found that Mohamed's Western appearance could make for some interesting fun. We crashed referendum parties and told the revelers that we were both models from New York City -- everyone from average citizens to high government officials wanted a photo with the foreigners. Little did they know, Mohamed was one of the 1.2 million Iraqi refugees who were placing a severe economic, social and political burden on their country.
I enjoyed the parties, and Mohamed enjoyed being an "American," albeit briefly.
I'd never met anyone like him -- and based on my prior perceptions of Iraqis, I certainly hadn't expected someone like him to have once lived freely under Saddam Hussein.
After a week together, I had to catch my flight back to New York.
Seeking Asylum, Pleading for His Life
Back home, I got to work. Now it was time to research how I could improve his situation. In conversations with a number of journalists covering refugee issues in the Middle East, I found a Canadian immigration lawyer who agreed to give me pro bono legal advice. He suggested I help Mohamed prepare his case for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), an agency mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees.
When a refugee arrives in a host country, they have the option to register with UNHCR, after which they submit to a series of interviews with the agency. UNHCR primarily keeps track of and distributes aid to refugee populations. In rare cases, if it's determined that the refugee can't return to his or her home country, or integrate into the host country where he or she currently resides, UNHCR refers them for resettlement to another country. This would be our ultimate goal for Mohamed.
To begin, I encouraged him to document his life story. Reliving the horrors of war, numerous death threats and a traumatic deportation would take an emotional toll on him, but it was necessary in accomplishing our goal.
Being "different" was something Mohamed had considered a curse his whole life. Now we hoped it could turn into a blessing.
I sent Mohamed's story to a number of people in positions of power. Representatives from Human Rights Watch and Refugees International, and Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, gave me letters of support on his behalf. Combined with his life story and what evidence I had to prove it, I set forth on my mission.
I flew back to Syria for the fifth time and rented a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Damascus. Contrary to popular belief, I've always found the country to be a safe and secular one. Despite my government's role in Iraq, I was treated with kindness and respect by everyone I encountered.
Using connections I'd made as a journalist, I presented Mohamed's case to a representative at UNHCR. She agreed that he was extremely vulnerable and asked for a full dossier to present to the Senior Protection Officer. I supplemented it with a video of Mohamed telling his story, and the next day, he received a call -- instead of having to wait six months for an interview, like most Iraqis, he would be seen right away by UNHCR.
I don't know who was more nervous the night before his interview, Mohamed or myself. Crouched before my feet on the floor of the apartment was the former runway model, unshaven, emaciated and wearing the same clothes he'd slept in for the past week, desperately sorting through the pile of documents he'd had to scramble together before his swift departure from Iraq. His passport, personal IDs, modeling contracts and college and graduation certificates were the only proof of his former life.
I thought of how nervous I used to feel before job interviews, and wondered what must be going through his head. Here he was, preparing to meet with a complete stranger working for an enormous bureaucratic organization, to plead for his life.
Mohamed went through four UNHCR interviews in all, and ultimately, they recommend him for resettlement to the United States. It was a huge reason to celebrate, but certainly not the end of the road.
When UNHCR makes a resettlement recommendation, it's still up to that country to decide whether it will accept the person in question. Following his initial meeting with UNHCR, Mohamed would spend the next eight months anxiously waiting to meet with the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
These multiple "life interviews" were humiliating and exhausting. Mohamed interviewed four times with the State Department, each time recounting the painful story of his two years in exile. When the Homeland Security interview arrived, he knew he had reached the end of the road, but he realized that this moment would shape the rest of his life. As he sat, waiting for his name to be called, Mohamed became so nervous that he ran to the bathroom and threw up three times. Against his better judgment, he asked the receptionist if he could reschedule -- the anxiety was too much for him. Luckily, his name was called just at that moment.
He met with another officer and, again, told his story. But this time the questions were tougher. "Have you ever had sex with a man?" the officer asked. Mohamed found this too private a question to answer -- especially in front of a complete stranger. He was also forced to sign the Selective Service Registration forms, stating that if there was a draft, he may have to go back to Iraq. This further unnerved him.
When it was over, it was time to wait for the verdict. Over the next few months, Mohamed's heart raced every time the phone rang, as he hoped it was news he wanted to hear.
Soon Christmas arrived, and Mohamed's mother and extended family came to spend the holidays with him. I asked them if their Sunni family had always celebrated Christmas, and they told me that in their mixed Sunni, Shiite and Christian neighborhood, they'd habitually celebrated all religious holidays. His mother prepared a traditional Iraqi meal before we set out to the explore old city of Damascus. We ate corn on the cob and took photos with "Baba Noel."
I attended the holiday wedding of his cousin, and saw that, even with limited resources, Iraqis knew how to throw a good party.
It was during this precious time with his family that I observed how Mohamed had become a second father to his young nieces. The kids spent most of the day begging him -- a child himself in many ways -- to play with them. Having been apart from them for close to a year, he was saddened that they'd developed the same habits of the adults in the house -- staying up throughout the night and sleeping all day. The lifestyle had taken its toll. His 5-year-old niece Noona's skin had become jaundiced from a lack of sun. Unable to attend a Syrian school, her studies had come to an end. Like most kids her age, she just wanted to have fun.
Unaware of the severity of the situation, Noona kept asking her parents to take her back to Baghdad so she could play with her friends. As a Westerner, I tried to provide her with new distractions. We played hide-and-seek, had fun with coloring books, and became so close that she insisted on sleeping with me every night.
I also had the opportunity to get to know Mohamed's mother, who was once an established civil rights lawyer, and who was the only woman to have visited the female prisoners at Abu Ghraib during the war. Hoping to return to work one day, she had asked me to bring her a large bag that looked like a purse -- something big enough to carry her files, but inconspicuous enough to not draw attention to her as a lawyer, since professionals have been targets for murder in Iraq.
She shared with me her feelings of degradation and loss, both of her career and her now struggling family. "I used to work. I wasn't only sitting around the home, preparing meals and watching television, like you see me now. I used to be a professional with a good job. We used to have a good life in Baghdad. It wasn't always like this."
Through this family and others, I met a broken people, Iraqis living in a physical and emotional void, yet trying desperately to hold onto some vestiges of their former selves.
Good News, and a New Life
In July 2008, I got a call from the International Rescue Committee in New York City. After one and a half years of advocacy, Mohamed had been accepted as a refugee. His life was about to radically change.
He flew to New York a month later, and I started introducing him to life in the United States. I taught him how to navigate the subway system, showed him where and how to apply for jobs, and struggled to explain our confusing health care system. The U.S. government would provide Mohamed with Medicaid, food stamps, and a stipend of $240 per month, as well as $900 toward rent. But the financial benefits only last for three months; he had to get acclimated quickly.
Mohamed is staying with me in Brooklyn as he gets on his feet. I see him going through various stages of excitement, optimism and fear on a daily basis. He's happy to be here but finds that after having lived in a forced stagnation for over four years, it's hard to find the motivation and confidence to revisit the dreams he once had.
Mohamed Is the Exception, Not the Rule
In recent months, much has been said in the media about Iraqi refugees going back to Iraq as a result of the success of "the surge." The truth is that most of those who return are doing so because either they've run out of money or their visas have expired. Many of those who return find that another family, or worse, members of a militia group, have taken up residence in their home.
After receiving criticism for not having done enough to respond to the crisis, the Bush administration recently began taking in more Iraqi refugees -- in 2008, more than 14,000 Iraqis were accepted into the United States. But for the country that started this war, that's a drop in the bucket -- just a third of 1 percent of the total number of those displaced. After the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians were authorized and ensured admission to the United States each year.
Today, Mohamed says that without having had me as an advocate, he could have never done this on his own. As an American and a journalist, I was able to make him stand out as more than a face in the crowd. I was uniquely positioned to help him navigate the perplexing bureaucracy of being a refugee.
His painful story is one of many. Mohamed and I sit on "our bench" frequently, taking in the magnificent view of Manhattan and reveling in our victory, but we can't help but remember all those who were left behind.
Jennifer Utz is a videojournalist who has been covering the Iraqi refugee crisis since the Fall of 2006. She was one of the first U.S.-based journalists to highlight the extent of the crisis. Her first report aired on Democracy Now! in February 2007. Subsequent reports aired on ABC World News Tonight, France 24 and Current TV.