1:44pm

Tue March 19, 2013
Middle East

'We Survived Iraq': An Iraqi Makes A New Home In North Carolina

Originally published on Tue March 19, 2013 5:51 pm

Ten years after the Iraq War began, NPR is catching up with people we encountered during the conflict. Back in 2008, NPR's armored car was targeted with a so-called sticky bomb in Baghdad. Ali Hamdani, an Iraqi who worked for NPR as a translator and producer, narrowly escaped. Shortly afterward, he left Iraq for the Unites States as a refugee.

The last time I saw Ali Hamdani was in a compound protected by armed guards surrounded by Baghdad's dun-colored buildings. This time, the bright green of the North Carolina foliage encircles the quiet Raleigh development where Ali and his family now live.

While the setting has changed, some things stay the same: Iraqis will always overwhelm you with food when you visit.

The small living room coffee table is covered with food, but instead of the traditional Iraqi sweets there are doughnuts and poundcake. We laugh about the combination of Iraqi hospitality and American baked goods

Ali is a doctor who moonlighted as a translator in Iraq. He worked with me and my husband — who's also a reporter — from the very beginning of the war in 2003 until the day he left.

Among the many unsung heroes of Iraq's bloody war are people like Ali. They acted as interpreters, drivers, cooks or even cleaners for the U.S. government or private American companies. For that, they were often targeted by insurgents.

Sitting in the safety of North Carolina, we reminisce and the laughter quickly dies. Many of the memories are hard ones — the friends we lost, the horrible things we saw.

Ali tells me he knows how lucky he is to be in America.

"Since I am the one who had the chance to get this, I have to do it so well, and make everyone who knows me proud of me and to be proud of myself at the end," he says.

A Limited Resettlement Program

Ali arrived to the U.S. under a program launched in 2007 to resettle Iraqis who had been targeted because they worked for either U.S. companies or the U.S. mission in Iraq.

But it hasn't been easy. He arrived just as America slipped into deep recession.

Making matters more difficult, the refugee program here gives limited help to families who have left everything behind. Ali says he got some assistance for about three or four months, and then you are on your own.

"You are left with no medical insurance, no income," he says. "You are supposed to look for a job like any other American who has been living his whole entire life here and speaks the language and knows the culture. I struggled," he adds with a shrug.

Ali didn't even know how to apply for employment or write up a resume. But eventually, because he spoke fluent English and was good with computers, he managed to land a job as an emergency services interpreter.

His time in America has been filled with surprises but perhaps the biggest one, he says, is how little Americans know about Iraq despite their long war there.

"You'd think Americans are so concerned about Iraq. But then you come here." he says. "Nobody cares."

He was afraid he would be stereotyped as a terrorist. But instead, he says, people have been incredibly kind and helpful, smiling and polite.

"It's a completely different place. It's very peaceful, very quiet and very happy," he adds.

Bad News From Iraq

That is in marked contrast to the news he is getting from Iraq.

"Things are getting worse. People are starting to get new death threats, assassinations. People are talking about sectarian issues again," he says.

While America's military involvement in Iraq is over, the threat to those who worked for the U.S. is not, says Kirk Johnson, the founder and director of the List Project to resettle Iraqi allies.

"The programs we set up have been lamentable and by almost every metric a failure," Johnson says, noting that the program that sponsored Ali is set to expire. And thousands of Iraqis still haven't been processed by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

"The Iraqis that worked for us are still in great danger. They are being hunted, they are being killed," he says.

Back in North Carolina, Ali Hamdani opens his closet and brings out his oud, or lute. It's the only thing he brought with him when he left Iraq.

He strums softly and his voice floats over us, reminding us of the many warm Baghdad nights we shared together, talking and listening to him sing.

He's chosen a mournful song about his homeland. The lyrics say: "Peace be upon you Iraq, you are the cradle of civilization, I pray for you to wipe away the pain."

It brings tears to our eyes.

"We survived, it's an achievement, we survived Iraq," he says. "I don't believe in happy endings in stories. But this one did have a happy ending actually."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's been 10 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq, and we're taking a look back this week, revisiting people you first heard on our air years ago. Today, Ali Hamdani, a former NPR translator at our bureau in Baghdad. In 2008, Ali was with one of our reporters when their car was destroyed by a bomb.

ALI HAMDANI: I felt like I'm chained to this place, and that bomb, rather than like cutting my body into pieces, it just managed to cut all these chains and set me free from this country.

BLOCK: Well, shortly after that interview, Ali left Iraq for the U.S. as a refugee. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro caught up with him in North Carolina where he now lives with his family.

HAMDANI: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hello. How are you? Oh, my God. All right.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Have a seat.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The setting couldn't be more different. The last time I saw Ali was in a compound protected by armed guards surrounded by Baghdad's dun-colored buildings. On this day, the bright green of the Carolina foliage encircles the quiet Raleigh development where Ali and his family now live. Still, some things stay the same. Iraqis will overwhelm you with food when you visit.

HAMDANI: You can have all.

(LAUGHTER)

HAMDANI: It's all for you guys.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, look at that. Iraqi hospitality...

HAMDANI: Oh, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...with American baked goods.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ali is a doctor who moonlighted as a translator in Iraq. He worked for both my husband - also a reporter - and I from the very beginning of the war in Iraq...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ali is a doctor who moonlighted as a translator in Iraq. He worked for both my husband, also a reporter, and I from the very beginning of the war in Iraq until the day he left. Among the many unsung heroes of Iraq's bloody war are people just like Ali. They acted as interpreters or drivers, cooks, even cleaners for the U.S. government or private American companies. For that, also like Ali, they were often targeted by insurgents.

Sitting in the safety of North Carolina, we reminisce and the laughter quickly dies. Many of the memories are hard ones - the friends we lost, the horrible things we saw. Ali knows how lucky he is to be in America.

HAMDANI: Since I am the one who had the chance to get this, I have to do it so well and, you know, make everyone who knows me proud of me, basically, and to be proud of myself at the end.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Making his life work in the U.S. hasn't been easy. He arrived just as America slipped into a deep recession. And the refugee program here gives minimal help to families who have left everything behind.

HAMDANI: The assistance you get, let's say, would be enough for like, three, four months. And then you are left with no medical insurance, you know, with no income, and you are supposed to actually look for a job just like any other American, who's been living all - his entire life here and speaks the language, understands the culture. I struggled.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He didn't even know how to apply for employment or write up a resume. But eventually, because he spoke fluent English and was tech savvy, Ali managed to land a job as an emergency services interpreter. One of the biggest surprises, he says, is how little Americans know about Iraq despite their long war there.

HAMDANI: You'd think, like, Americans are so concerned about Iraq. But then you come here and you find out nobody cares.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He was afraid he'd be stereotyped as a terrorist, but instead, he says, people have been incredibly kind and helpful.

HAMDANI: Here, they smile all the time. They say excuse me so often.

(LAUGHTER)

HAMDANI: We never used it in Iraq. It's very peaceful, very quiet and very happy.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ali is also very happy he came here, especially when he gets news from back home.

HAMDANI: Things are getting worse. Like, people started to get new death threats and assassinations, and people are more talking about sectarian issues again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which is what makes what has happened to the program that allowed Ali to come to the U.S. so worrying, say advocates.

KIRK JOHNSON: The programs we set up to help them have been lamentable and, by almost every metric, have been a failure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kirk Johnson is the founder and director of The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. He says the program that sponsored Ali is set to expire, and thousands of Iraqis still haven't been processed by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

JOHNSON: Although the United States has left Iraq, the Iraqis who worked for us are still in great danger. They're still being hunted. They're being killed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in North Carolina, Ali Hamdani opens his closet and brings out his oud, or lute. When he left Iraq, it was the only thing he took with him.

HAMDANI: (Singing in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He sings a mournful song about his homeland. The lyrics say, peace be upon you, Iraq. You are the cradle of civilization. I pray for you to wipe away the pain.

HAMDANI: (Singing in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It brings tears to our eyes.

HAMDANI: We survived, you know? It's an achievement. We survived Iraq. You know, I don't believe in happy endings in stories, but this particular one did have a happy ending, actually.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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