Having fled oppression and death in Iraq and Syria, a young man reflects on life in America and its divisive election campaign.
Ten years ago, my father and I had breakfast together before he left for work and I headed to school. I kissed him goodbye. I never saw him again.
I was born and raised in Baghdad, in a loving family of two parents and three siblings. We come from the Mandaean community—a religious minority group, one of the oldest in the world. During and after the rule of Saddam Hussein, Mandaeans have been the target of persecution and violence in Iraq, and many have fled the country in search of safety. As a result, the Mandaean community in Iraq is almost extinct today.
In March 2003, Iraq was at war with the United States. I was 13 years old. The first night of the invasion, my family and I were gathered in my bedroom watching the news. I remember hearing missiles flying over our house and detonating seconds later. I was terrified. Every time I heard a missile, I would hide under my blanket, thinking it would somehow protect me.
Shortly after the invasion, sectarian civil war erupted throughout Iraq. I grew accustomed to seeing dead bodies on the streets, watching cars explode on my way to school and hearing non-stop gunfire. At the time, my oldest brother and sister decided to seek refuge in Jordan. Kidnappings, killings and discrimination against religious minorities were an everyday occurrence. My family and I were constantly afraid.
In November 2006, the danger we feared became reality when my father was kidnapped on his way home from work by an unknown armed group. My family and I have not seen or heard from him since.
Though heartbroken, afraid and devastated, my mother insisted on staying in Baghdad for months to continue searching for my dad. She found no trace that could lead us to him; and with him gone, I lost any sense of belonging in my own country. Fearing for our lives, we fled to Syria where we would be safe, leaving behind everything we had ever known and any hope of finding my father.
Go Finish School
In Syria, I taught myself English by listening to American music and joined the Iraqi Student Project, established to help Iraqi refugee students complete college in the United States. I was accepted to a small liberal arts school in upstate New York, but this meant that I had to make the most difficult decision of my life: staying in Syria with my mother, or traveling to a place completely foreign to me—alone. With teary eyes and a soft voice, she told me: “All I want for you and your siblings is to succeed in your lives and be happy. Go finish school.”
Certain candidates serve as a megaphone to amplify their fear and their hatred of people and cultures they do not understand. It is reminiscent of the danger and oppression I fought to escape.
I arrived to the United States in 2008 and immediately fell in love with this country and what it represents. For the first time in my life, I was not discriminated against because of my religious background. I had been given a new sense of belonging and a new sense of purpose.
After finishing college, I realized that there was no chance for me to return to Iraq. With the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) it has become even more dangerous for religious minorities. I applied for asylum to remain in the United States.
While the asylum process was rigorous, daunting and slow (it took two years before the immigration office ruled that I could be put on the long path to citizenship), the wait taught me something invaluable. Having the opportunity to spend the past eight years in the US, I have come to understand three core American values: freedom of speech, the idea that all people are created equal and that everyone has the right to life, liberty and to pursuit of happiness through hard work.
In my current job, part of my role is to explain and raise awareness about the situation in Iraq to members of US Congress. I also have the opportunity to help children displaced by ISIS in Iraq and make a difference in the lives of those in need. Most importantly, I now can have an opinion to share with people. My voice can be heard. If I was in Iraq still, I would not be able to do any of these things.
Ignorance and Fear
However, I have been paying attention to the 2016 Presidential campaigns and have noticed that some candidates are set out to destroy these principles.
Theirs are campaigns based on hateful rhetoric, ignorance and fear. Discriminatory ideas like banning all Muslims from entering the country or carpet-bombing cities in the Middle East are disgusting and shameful. What saddens me is the number of people who agree with these reckless thoughts. Certain candidates serve as a megaphone to amplify their fear and their hatred of people and cultures they do not understand. It is reminiscent of the danger and oppression I fought to escape.
Some of my best friends are Muslims who came with me to the US. When I talk to them about these racist and stigmatizing ideas, they often appear confused and afraid. They, like me, came to this country to escape violence and seek shelter, to be free, to learn and to build a better future for themselves and their families. Religion and terrorism are two completely separate things and we must not confuse them together.
I am living proof that the United States is a place where dreams come true with hard work. I am living the American Dream. It is real. But it is at risk.
We cannot buy into the fear and hate shouted by some presidential candidates and blindly repeated by their followers. America is already great. If we remain true to our American values, it always will be.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.