What 9/11 means to me as an Iraqi-American who fled the war

As told to Supriya Venkatesan.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was 22 and going to school at Arizona State University. I was making my way across the campus to go to my next class when I saw a huddle of students around a TV in the cafeteria. I stopped and watched. At first, I was in pure disbelief: I have seen war my whole life—people bleeding, people hurt in front of my eyes—but this was the most painful thing I had ever witnessed. It was a chilling reminder of the war I had spent my life running away from.

I was born in 1979 in Baghdad. The Iran-Iraq war broke out the next year and lasted until 1988. During the war, my father died of cancer, leaving my mother a 37-year-old widow and single parent of six children. I was the youngest, her baby, at age five. We owned a candy factory, and following my father’s death, my two older teenage brothers took it over and brought us a lot of success. But because money meant power, and power is a threat to any dictatorship, we knew that Saddam’s men were watching.

In 1987 my oldest brother, Khaldoon, was forced to join the Iraqi military. If you tried to escape, they would find you and execute you publicly in front of your home, and then charge the price of the bullets to your family. The Kuwaiti invasion occurred in 1990. Baghdad—where I lived with my family—had always been in control so was left untouched, but the rest of the provinces were in chaos. Dozens of US military aircraft with advanced weapons were flying above us, decimating the Iraqi Air Force.

Khaldoon’s unit had been redirected to the south of Iraq to kill the Iraqi revolutionists—to turn on his own people He couldn’t bring himself to do that, so he defected and surrendered to the US as a prisoner of war. The news of this reached Baghdad, and my family became a target—now there was another reason that Saddam didn’t like us.

Our neighbor warned us that we had to leave immediately or else Saddam’s men would come and execute us. We left our home and possessions behind and fled wearing only the clothes on our backs, because we couldn’t look like we were traveling. We tried to cross the border into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but neither country would allow us entry. Two million people were displaced in Iraq and trying to escape, and they refused to take in refugees of the country they were at war with.

With our dwindling gas, we drove to a fabled camp where we knew there were supposed to be Americans. They gave us meals and protected us for the next month. When their mission to liberate Kuwait was over, the soldiers took us to a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia where there was no electricity, only scraps for food, and so little water that fights erupted between thirsty refugees.

We lived in that refugee camp in constant fear. People were disappearing mysteriously, and many said Saddam’s men were assassinating them. There were improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and landmines everywhere. Many looked like toys, so children would die when they would pick them up to play with them. Adults were killed too, and civilians walked around with second- and third-degree burns. We were lucky to survive.

When we were in the camps, we didn’t know where my brother Khaldoon was, or if he was even alive. The Red Cross took a letter we wrote to him and asked for him in the POW camps. Amazingly, we found him, and we began to communicate via letters. Four months later, the Red Cross facilitated his release from the POW camp and he joined us. We were elated to be together as a family again.

While we were in the camps, we held onto the dream that Saddam would be taken out of power, and we could return to the life we had worked so hard to build. But we knew we couldn’t return as long as he was still ruling, and so two years later, we accepted asylum in America.

For the first 40 days in the US, the five of us lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Phoenix, Arizona. Even though the area was what I would today call a ghetto, it didn’t matter to us—the feeling of not having to fear for your life was exhilarating. There were orange trees everywhere bountiful with fruit, but nobody was fighting to eat them. The oranges just hung there, without any theft attempts. That first month was like a dream, like we were waking up from a two-year nightmare.

We were then moved into a small house with a backyard in Mesa, Arizona. We refused to go on welfare. Rafed got a job working at a burger chain for $4 an hour. Khaldoon got a job at a warehouse lifting boxes. My older sister, Faten, and I went to school. I was in the 7th grade, and I didn’t speak any English. Nobody in my family knew more than a few words or phrases. Afraid both of the Islamophobia and that Saddam would find us even in US, we changed our names. I, Samer, became Sam Adam Freeman. This was also an attempt to make myself feel less like an outsider.

I always saw the kids giving high fives and low fives to each other, so one day in the line at the school cafeteria I made the gesture of a low five to another boy. He just stared at me, and then screamed, “I don’t have any money!” But I also began to make friends. There was a very pretty blonde girl who I remember rode the school bus with me. Every morning she would read to me from the dictionary and teach me words. Slowly, my vocabulary grew. Slowly, I stopped being the outsider.

But after 9/11, I was an outsider once again—this time no amount of studying of the dictionary was going to help. The right-wing media had created a strong association between Islam and terrorism. It saddens me because the Islamic Empire brought medicine, math, and tools of navigation to Europe and the rest of the world—this same civilization gave rise to the Renaissance. But now Islam, and my identity, was equated with violence and negativity. When people look at my mom, they notice first the scarf that is wrapped around her head. They can’t see anything beyond that.

The US invaded my country of birth in 2003, when I was one semester shy of finishing my bachelor’s degree at ASU. My family actually supported the Iraq invasion: We were so excited to hope—once more—that Saddam would finally be removed from power. Regardless of how I was being treated in America, I wanted to help, and I also wanted to see the land I was chased out of and never really saw as a child.

I called the Arab-American councils to see if I could volunteer with the military as a translator. They hired me as a linguist, so I put my final semester at ASU on hold and went back to Iraq as a contractor. I thought this was going to be a quick mission, just like the liberation of Kuwait. I hoped that Iraq would begin to prosper again, like it did before Saddam came into power.

When I first arrived in Iraq, I worked at the military installation that had taken over Saddam’s Republican palace, which later became the interim US Embassy. I helped schools in the immediate area and worked with the transition team to hand the Green Zone back to the Iraqi government. Later, as we settled into Iraq, and I was allowed to leave the base, I went to the home I grew up in and walked the streets of my old neighborhood. To my adult eyes, it seemed much more narrow than what I remembered. Everything was different now.

I saw what post-war poverty looked like. People lived in mud homes with bedsheets for doors. Children were so poor they were often naked. Garbage was everywhere, and diseases Iraq had never known before proliferated because of water and food contaminations. Baghdad had once been the pearl of the East—this is where written language was born. But now illiteracy rates were skyrocketing and the glimmer of hope for a future was barely present. I spent my childhood running away from the evil that is in the world. I spent my adulthood fighting the same evil.

I spent a total of six-and-a-half years in Iraq working in reconstruction assignments. I tried to figure out if we—the Americans—were doing the right thing by invading Iraq, or if this was a just war. I realized that there were a lot of people with good intentions: They wanted to fix things and make it better, but the problem was that they were trying to fix a country that had been broken for a long time. They were trying to stitch the social fabrics of a nation that had been under duress and deteriorating for 40 years, since Saddam came to power. When I came back to America, I told myself that I would never return to Iraq.

The invasion may have ultimately failed, but America as a country did not fail us. After 9/11, America has rebuilt itself as a nation in the same way my family rebuilt itself. Two of my brothers eventually went back to school and became doctors. My sisters both married. I graduated from college, and I’m now an entrepreneur and an MBA candidate. Just like I held onto hope that Saddam would eventually be removed, I am holding onto hope that America will stay united despite the hardships we face, or the messages we receive from right-wing media.

The anniversary of 9/11 reminds me that both America and my family were shaken, but they are trying to heal. After so much blood and tears, we achieved freedom and found a home in a country that saved us from certain death. And if that is not the American dream, I don’t know what is.

You can follow Sam at @samadamfreeman. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search