An Iraqi Revolutionary’s Journey To the United States

The Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, Iraq - the city where Ahmed Abbas is from.

by Sarah Abbas/Guest

An interview between a father and daughter about the former’s journey from Iraq to the US.

In March 2002, my mom and I left Iraq and traveled to Syria where we stayed for three months with my grandpa (my mom’s father). In April 2002, my dad came to Syria to see me and my mom. In Damascus International Airport, at the age of seven, I met my dad for the first time. After three months, my mom, grandpa and I went to Jordan and stayed there for around a year because our case-worker made a mistake with our interview. We were supposed to leave for the United States in less than a month in Jordan, but that mistake kept us there. In March 2003, my mother and I finally arrived at Hancock International Airport in Syracuse and that’s when our life changed forever. Today, I have two sisters and a brother; our life is full of ups and downs but I’m thankful for everything. My dad’s journey is much longer in detail and I’m very proud of him. I’m so thankful that he’s alive, even though I feel selfish because most of his friends could not escape and passed away. My family’s story is just one out of the many stories of Iraqi families that were broken once because of Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, many were not as lucky as mine.

sabbas

Ahmed Abbas and his wife Donia Selmen pose with their daughter Sarah Abbas for their first family photo in the United States.

Sarah Abbas: Please describe your life in Iraq?

Ahmed Abbas: I came from a wealthy, well known family in Najaf, Iraq. I lived in Najaf with my parents, three brothers and two sisters. I worked in my family’s business starting from a young age, my dad relied on me the most even though I wasn’t his oldest son. I was very responsible and matured faster than many young men that were my age. My family owned a mechanic shop, clothing stores, etc. and a building that had apartments which we rented. So rather than continuing on with my education, I took over the business along with my dad.

SA: What was the reason you left Iraq?

AA: I escaped from the army during the Gulf War and didn’t go to Kuwait. I was a participant in the revolution (called intifada in Arabic) of 1991 which succeeded at first but then Saddam’s Ba’ath Regime took over once again. If the rebels didn’t escape the country, they would be executed once they were found.

SA: Did you escape Iraq right away after the ending of the Intifada?

AA: No, I stayed living in Iraq illegally trying to stay hidden. I went around Iraq, trying to stay outside of big cities, especially Baghdad and my house. I also had to stay away from my relatives’ houses because government officials searched through the houses of anyone related to those that were involved in the Intifada but were not caught. However, I secretly visited my family and hid in the houses of my relatives throughout the few years I stayed in Iraq after the Intifada. Thankfully I was not caught.

SA: Did anything special happen during that time? (he made me ask a question relating to his marriage)

AA: In April 1st, 1994 I married your mom despite being in a dangerous situation. Her house became one of the targets since government officials thought I’d visit often after knowing about the marriage. Marrying your mom gave me a reason to keep fighting for my life.

SA: When did you leave Iraq?

AA: January 24, 1995; exactly four days before you were born.

SA: How were you able to escape Iraq?

AA: I paid money for a passport (bribed one of the officers) that was done right away and took a bus to Jordan without my wife (who was pregnant) knowing. I left taking a big risk, not knowing whether I’d get caught and killed or escaping freely. The government at that time said anyone that escaped the Gulf War and participated in the Intifada must either have one of their ears cut or they’d be killed.

SA: How long did you stay in Jordan and how did you live?

AA: I stayed in Jordan for around one year. It wasn’t as difficult since it was an Arab country and surviving wasn’t bad. I brought money with me when I left but I worked different jobs in Jordan. I lived with other Iraqis that escaped and we tried not to get caught there either. I tried to leave Jordan but no one gave Iraqis visas to Europe or anywhere outside of the Middle East.

SA: Where did you go after the one year in Jordan?

AA: I went to Syria with the help of a political party, Hizb Al Dawa. At that time, any Iraqi found in Syria means automatically getting killed. The parties were the only way to get into Syria; they only helped their families or people they’re close too. They also helped those well known, wealthy families. I got lucky and went to Syria for a year.

SA: What happened in Syria?

AA: I tried going outside of the Middle East, to Europe. I made a business visa in the Russian embassy in Syria. I made a business visa to Russia because I had a document similar to a business ID relating to my family’s business. In 1996, I finally arrived in Moscow where my second journey started.

SA: How long did you stay in Russia?

AA: I stayed four years from 1996 till 2000, going back and forth between Moscow and Kazakhstan.

SA: What happened in Russia?

AA: I tried to go to Sweden because my aunt lived there or any other country in Europe but everything was denied. I didn’t have much money left after six months in Moscow. I ended up meeting with a person that smuggled people to Sweden, Holland, etc. My aunt in Sweden sent me money to offer to the smuggler so that I could leave Russia. The man said the only way to leave was through Kazakhstan because he bought train tickets from there. I and few others who tried to escape went along with him. We took a five day trip from Moscow to Almaty, Kazakhstan. The man rented us a place for a week and made us fake passports. Unfortunately, in the airport we were caught by the immigration officers because of our fake passports.

SA: What happened after you were caught?

AA: Me and another Iraqi man were put in jail for six months. I learned the Russian language; reading, writing and speaking. After six months they let me out and told me ‘go home’. I didn’t have any ID, money, or anything in the middle of Almaty, Kazakhstan. I found people that took me in and helped me.

SA: What did you do for a living during those four years?

AA: A few days later after I was let out of jail, I went to the United Nation’s office and registered myself. They opened a case for me after they reviewed my history and gave me a refugee case number. I worked as a driver and a delivery man, with other side jobs. At first, half of what I earned during the delivery and side jobs went to the police so I could get a driver’s license. I finally earned enough to buy myself a car when I got my license so I could work as a driver. I often had problems with police because I was a foreigner. Finally in July, 2000, the United Nation’s in Kazakhstan had an interview with me and gave me an approval. In December, 2000 I arrived in Syracuse airport.

SA: How did you keep in contact with your family?

AA: I didn’t have any contact with my family until I reached the United States. They didn’t know whether I was dead or alive.

SA: What did you do when you arrived in the United States?

AA: After coming to US, I immediately contacted my family and your mom sent me your documents. After I received the documents, I immediately applied for a visa for you and your mom. I worked very hard and often had more than one job. I saved up the money to support myself and send you and your mom money once you left Iraq.


Sarah Abbas is a student at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, NY. This interview, between Sarah and her father, is the first interview in a series of many more to come on Love and Rage that captures the stories of local refugees and how they came here. Although members of Love and Rage will interview people as time progresses, those stories that are particularly important and powerful are the ones where family members are interviewed by another family member. This is just one of countless stories of resistance, risk, sacrifice and love.

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