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From Baghdad to Brooklyn: My Journey with an Iraqi Refugee

Jennifer Utz Dec 12, 2008

That one sounds like mortar fire,” Mohamed said. “And that was definitely a sniper.” My Iraqi friend and I were at Coney Island for the summer fireworks. As we rode the Wonder Wheel and listening to the explosions over the water, memories of life in war-torn Iraq inevitably came to mind. Just two weeks before, Mohamed had been a refugee living in the slums of Damascus, Syria.

To date, one in five Iraqis have left their homes. More then 2 million have left the country, and another 2.5 million are internally displaced. After the 2006 bombing of the Shiite mosque in Samarra unleashed a wave of sectarian clashes, those who could afford to do so began fleeing in droves, many choosing to wait out the violence in urban areas of Jordan and Syria, the two countries hosting the most Iraqi refugees.

Mohamed, now 25, lived like most refugees. 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 exploited by every crooked landlord who realizes how desperately they don’t want to be sent back.

I first met Mohamed in 2007, when I interviewed him for a video piece on refugees. We became fast friends and during my time working in Syria, we spent our days exploring Damascus together, a city foreign to both of us.

There during the presidential referendum, we found Mohamed’s Western appearance made for some interesting fun. We crashed referendum parties and told revelers we were both 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 placing such a severe economic, social and political burden on their country.

The more I got to know him, the more I wanted to document his story. Yet at the same time, sitting by and simply watching his life unravel didn’t seem right.

I wanted to bring Mohamed to the United States. I took a photo of a bench on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade where one can take in the quintessential view of Manhattan and promised him, “We’ll be sitting there together one day.”

I spent five months in Damascus with Mohamed. Throughout this time I made a good friend and realized the power I have as a U.S. citizen to do my small part to clean up the mess that’s been made in Iraq.

LIFE BEFORE THE INVASION

The son of a diplomat and an attorney, Mohamed lived with his upper middle-class family in a large house in central Baghdad.

Socially, his life resembled that of men his age living in a Western country. 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.

Obsessed with American culture, he taught himself English by watching American sitcoms and music videos, covering the Arabic subtitles on his television with black tape.

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. Scouted by a modeling agency at 18, he flew to Lebanon and Turkey and had his first taste of life outside a culture he found restrictive. Sipping champagne at fashion industry parties, he felt truly alive.

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.

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.

SEEKING ASYLUM, PLEADING FOR HIS LIFE

When refugees arrive in a host country, they can register with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), after which they submit to a series of interviews.

UNHCR monitors and distributes aid to refugee populations. In rare cases, UNHCR refers them to another country for resettlement. This would be our ultimate goal for Mohamed. 

I sent Mohamed’s story to a number of influential people. Representatives from Human Rights Watch and Refugees International and Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) all provided letters of support on his behalf.

I presented Mohamed’s case to a senior representative at UNHCR . The next day, Mohamed received a call — instead of waiting six months for an interview like most Iraqis, he would be seen immediately.

The night before his interview, Mohamed sorted through the pile of documents he’d hastily assembled before his swift departure from Iraq — his passport, personal IDs, modeling contracts and college graduation certificates were the only proof of his former life.

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 UN HCR interviews and ultimately was recommended for resettlement to the United States. It was cause for celebration, but certainly not the end of the road. He spent the next eight months anxiously waiting to meet with representatives from the United States.

These multiple “life interviews” were humiliating and exhausting. Mohamed interviewed four times with the State Department, repeatedly recounting the painful story of his two years in exile. Before his final meeting, with the Department of Homeland Security, he realized this moment would shape the rest of his life.  Over the next few months, waiting for the news he desperately wanted to hear, Mohamed’s heart raced every time the phone rang.

GOOD NEWS AND A NEW LIFE
In July 2008, after one and a half years of advocacy, Mohamed was accepted as a refugee. He flew to New York a month later to stay with me in Brooklyn.

The U.S. government provided Mohamed with Medicaid, food stamps, a $240 stipend, and $900 toward rent, but only for three months. He had to get acclimated quickly.

Each day, I watched him struggle with bouts of excitement, optimism and fear. After having lived in stagnation for over four years, it was hard to find the motivation and confidence to revisit the dreams he once had.

Five months, a handful of unpaid modeling gigs, and many discouraging interviews later, he finally found work as a receptionist at a large Manhattan performance space. The salary is modest, and it’s not modeling, but he’s grateful for the work.

He also moved to Brooklyn — home is now an 8-foot-by-10-foot room that he shares with another refugee.

MOHAMED IS THE EXCEPTION, NOT THE RULE

In recent months, much has been said in the media about refugees returning to Iraq thanks to the success of “the surge.” In reality, most of those returning are doing so because they’ve either run out of money or their visas have expired. Many of those who return often find that other families have has taken up residence in their homes.

After being criticized for inadequately responding to the crisis, the Bush administration recently began accepting more Iraqi refugees — about 14,000 in 2008. But that’s a drop in the bucket — just a third of 1 percent of the total number of those displaced by a war the United States started.

Today, Mohamed says that without me as an advocate, he could never have done this on his own. As an American and a journalist, I was able bring his plight to the attention of many groups and individuals who could move his case forward quickly, and I could help him navigate the perplexing bureaucracy of being a refugee.

His 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 remembering all those left behind.

Jennifer Utz is a Brooklyn-based video journalist who has covered the Iraqi refugee crisis at iraqirefugeestories.org since the fall of 2006. A longer version of this article originally appeared on alternet.org.