After a decade of war, a blessed and peaceful Father’s Day
As an Iraqi civil engineer working with the U.S. forces, Ahmed’s life was in constant danger. He learned to take precautions: not answering phone calls from unknown numbers, frequently changing his schedule and his route to work, and even moving his family. He wasn’t the only one with a target on his back; the militias also threatened his wife, young daughters, and family members.
“I used different ways to keep myself and my family safe,” he says. “So many groups wanted to kill us because we were working with the Americans.”
Ahmed began working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Iraq in 2003. There was so much destruction, so much rebuilding to do. Engineers—particularly those who spoke fluent English—were desperately needed. For 10 years, Ahmed continued to work for the Americans, through the Corps of Engineers, USAID, and the United Nations.
Along the way, he lost many colleagues—Iraqi and American.
Ask him if he has any regrets joining the American effort, however, and this gentle, soft-spoken man answers with a vehement “no!”
“We were living with a dictator,” he explains. “We were all serving him. We were doing everything he wants. It was terrible.” He pauses, struggling to explain. “Everything changed when the Americans came. Every one of us who worked for the Americans believed we were doing a good thing—not only for ourselves, but for our country and people, too.”
The Soul of Iraq
Hillah, Ahmed’s hometown, lies 62 miles south of Baghdad. A city evenly split by the Euphrates River, its name derives from the Arabic word for beauty. Nearby are the ruins of the splendid and ancient city of Babylon—the “soul” of Iraq, the cradle of civilization that remembers its history not in centuries, but in millennia.
Beginning in 2003, this area of south-central Iraq earned another moniker: The Triangle of Death. It was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the Iraq War, as the horrors of Saddam Hussein were replaced by the terrors of Al Qaeda, the Shia death squads, and, most recently, ISIS. When Ahmed speaks of his birthplace, you can hear the sadness and bitterness in his voice as he grapples to understand the escalation of sectarian violence.
“I am Shia, my neighbor is Sunni, and we never have a problem,” he explains. “We grow up together. We don’t have this kind of hate,” he says, shaking his head. “Not until the militias arrive.”
By 2008, with the threats against himself and his family growing daily, Ahmed applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), specifically designed for Iraqis and Afghans who have provided crucial support to the U.S. military. His hope was to temporarily resettle his family in the United States until security in Iraq improved. But obtaining a SIV is, by necessity, a very slow process; the screening and background checks are thorough and time-consuming. Ahmed realized he would have a very long wait for his visa.
He was still working for the American forces in 2013 when the Iraqi government offered him a scholarship to pursue his doctorate in civil engineering in the United States. It was a great honor and wonderful opportunity, and soon Ahmed and his family were heading to the University of Iowa in the American heartland.
“Everything was new,” he says, smiling. “But the people were so friendly and nice to us.”
While Ahmed and his family were adjusting, ISIS had taken control of almost a third of Iraq, including their family’s home province of Babylon. Ahmed’s extended family was forced to flee. There was seemingly nothing left of their old life.
“I don’t have another choice,” thought Ahmed. “I have to keep my family safe.”
Iowa Justice for Our Neighbors
“She was very kind and very patient,” Ahmed remembers of his first meeting with Iowa JFON site attorney Ann Naffier. “Everybody at JFON was so helpful and understanding.”
Ann helped Ahmed apply for asylum and then renewed his application for the SIV, along with a waiver needed because of his student visa requirements. His asylum case is still pending, but his SIV and waiver were approved. Now Ahmed, his wife, and daughters are on their way to permanent residency in the United States.
“We are very happy,” Ahmed says emphatically, “and very thankful to be alive.”
While Ahmed settled into his studies, his daughters settled into their local elementary school with the remarkable resilience of children. They discovered snow. They like snow. They speak only English, and they are going to camp—the quintessential American institution—this summer.
With their mother’s help, they are planning a party for their dad for Father’s Day.
“They are,” says Ahmed with a chuckle, “very American girls.”
“We think now we belong to this country,” he adds. “We belong here in Iowa.”
Cover photo of Iraqi father: P. Sands for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR).
For security and privacy reasons, names and a few minor details have been changed in this story.