Sunday, July 6, 2008

Life ∩ Independence Day

As I listen to stories about citizenship and patriotism this Independence Day weekend, I think about an occasion two weeks ago, when I had the honor of meeting a young Iraqi face to face.

Twenty-nine years old, he had been in the United States for a month and had come to Chicago with someone I know who had served in Iraq as part of the Reserves. The Iraqi risked his life as a translator for the Americans in his country for a year-and-a-half and had worked with my friend. Handsome, with a square jaw, dark almond eyes and slender build, he spoke excellent English, used slang smoothly, and told me he loved our language.

“I think English is beautiful,” he said.

He learned English in school, had a college degree and talked of how members of his university’s English department would joke very quietly among themselves about Saddam Hussein.

The young Iraqi was granted asylum in our country – one of a lucky few – thanks in part to my friend’s efforts, after a convoluted and financially expensive struggle with government officials.

More than 250 translators working for the Americans have been murdered in Iraq, according to the Washington Post (“Asylum Program Falls Short For Iraqis Aiding U.S. Forces,” by Walter Pincus, Washington Post, January 22, 2008). Their families are in danger as well. The Post reports that a U.S. asylum initiative applied to 50 interpreters a year in 2006, expanded to 500 interpreters for 2007 and 2008, and will shrink back to 50 next year. Some 429 Iraqi and 71 Afghan translators – and 482 family members – have been admitted to the United States as refugees since September 2007, yet there are about 7,000 interpreters who have worked for the U.S. since the war began.

“Have you known people who were killed?” I asked the young man.

“Yes,” he said. “One day they exist, and then they do not. You forget that they are dead and go about your life until you go somewhere or talk to someone else and realize that the person you knew is no longer there.” He shrugged.

I showed off Chicago to my guests for two days – the city’s architecture, our lake front studded with sailboats, our restaurants and institutions. The Iraqi exclaimed with delight as he read the script on ancient coins on display at the Oriental Institute.

“These are words from the Koran,” he said, uttering them out loud in Arabic and English. He received a call on his cell phone about a possible job as he wandered among the museum's collection of idols, pottery shards and stone tablets unearthed at sites across his homeland. He stared up at our buildings, out at Lake Michigan and across our lush parks, all dazzling in the June sun. I imagine he told his new bride back in Iraq of these sights during his nightly phone calls to her. His voice would reach her early in the morning, Iraq time.

He would like to bring his bride to the U.S. One of them is Sunni; the other is Shiite. They had to keep their relationship a secret in Iraq. He is not sure how to contend with his mother-in-law, who does not want him seeking the advice of female Iraqis now in the U.S., young women who may be good companions for his wife when she arrives. Her mother fears these women may appeal to this young man, far from home.

“What is romance to you?” he asked me on our second night together as he, my friend and I walked up Broadway after hearing a French jazz quartet play their hearts out at the Green Mill, my favorite jazz club.

“It is when two people make life special for one another,” I answered. “When they celebrate each other in small and large ways.”

“Yes!” he said, raising his open hands in front of him. “Tell me more! Other women I’ve asked think it's about roses and dinner out.”

“I think romance is when one person makes the other feel that wonderful things are possible,” I said.

The young man smiled as we walked along.

Later that evening I drove the three of us along the winding boulevard that leads to the Midway Plaisance, a mile-long stretch of parkland in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. This oasis, on the city’s South Side, is home to the gothic University of Chicago and the stately Museum of Science and Industry.

“This looks like a road that winds through Baghdad,” the young Iraqi said, looking out the window at the dark trees. “It is just like an area in Baghdad!”

I thought of the Tigris River, how its water must afford a green and curving path through that city, even today.

I felt like reassuring this young Iraqi that by some fluke we were not in Baghdad and that he was safe. At least twice in as many days, as we stood in the sun or before one of Chicago’s landmark buildings, I saw him sigh and smile. “I am safe,” he said out loud.

Happy birthday to our nation and, especially, to one of its newest immigrants.


2KoP said...

This is a beautiful piece, Ardis, and a fitting birthday tribute to a country that often forgets its immigrant heritage. It sounds like you had an exciting Independence Day celebration.

FYI, here is a link to a story that ran on WBEZ's Worldview in March on Iraqi translators in danger.

Sue said...

This young Iraqi man embodies what this country should always be about: offering hope and opportunity to those without them in their own countries. Particularly poignant is this translator used as our necessary friend in Iraq as we invaded his country. I am only sorry that it was difficult for him to come here but glad that in the doom and gloom of war there is at least one person who can feel safe.

Girl on a Hill said...

For another take on Iraqi translators coming to the US,listen to the "This American Life" story, "Kill the Messengers," which broadcast on NPR July 4, 2008. Go to