In 2015, I received a call from my sister, a widow living in southern Iraq with her children. She told me that her son had been kidnapped, taken while playing outside of their home. He was returned to safety a day later, frightened but unharmed. My sister was scared out of her mind.
We’ll never know for absolute sure who was behind this kidnapping, or why they did it. But it’s most likely retaliation due to my work with the United States Army during the Iraq War.
How do I know this? Because I myself was kidnapped years ago during the war. On my way back from a US airbase where I was meeting with army officials, I was abducted, interrogated, and tortured by a Sunni anti-US offshoot group. They wanted to send a message of fear to others who might choose to work with the United States.
To this day, the experience was the most disturbing and terrifying incident of my entire life. The idea of anything like this happening to my nephew, a child who has done nothing wrong, knocks the wind out of me. The idea that it could be caused because I chose to assist the US army —because of my actions — makes it even worse.
For years, I have prayed that he, along with his siblings and their mother, would be able to join me and my family in the United States. We have waited for years while going through the steps: the refugee application, the background check, the Embassy interviews, the pleas to remove my nieces and nephews from the danger of revenge. And last week, just days before my sister’s scheduled interview with the Department of Homeland Security, President Donald Trump’s executive order banning anyone from seven Muslim-majority countries has shattered my family’s hopes of being reunited again.
My story is not unique. Thousands of Iraqis assisted the US Army as translators or workers during the war. Of these, many are still patiently waiting to seek refuge from retaliatory violence by fleeing to the United States — though the US government won't give an exact number, only 19 were granted visas in the last three years.
Trump’s Muslim ban has destroyed the hopes of the people already in the midst of the long and arduous emigration process. While the administration has relaxed its rules to exclude those who worked with the US Army from the ban, it does nothing to help extended family members who are often at risk of vengeful danger.
All I can hope is that the executive order is permanently reversed before something terrible happens to my family.
I was kidnapped, beaten, and interrogated for working with the US Army
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, I was living in Baghdad with my wife and children. I ran a construction company that eventually signed a contract with the United States to assist the effort to rebuild Iraq after the US-led bombings. We were tasked with building schools, hospitals, and border forts. I chose to work with the United States because I wanted to help to restore my country. Plus, there wasn’t much other choice — at that time, the only group signing contracts to fund construction projects was the Army, and I was happy to help.
In 2005, I was driving back from a United States airbase in western Iraq. I had stopped to fill my car with gas when a group of cars surrounded me. Men with machine guns emerged. They took me, another engineer, and a worker traveling alongside me, blindfolded us, and transported us to a large room in an unknown location.
There, the men with machine guns, Ansar al-Sunna members, interrogated us on our work with the United States. They asked us questions, beat us, and tortured us with cables. They refused us water and didn’t let us go to the bathroom. They threatened to execute us for betraying our countrymen. In the hours when I was held hostage, I was convinced I would never see my wife and children again.
Luckily, the US Army conducted a raid on the area hours after the abduction, causing my interrogators to flee and leaving me safe. From there, I was transported to safety and immediately made plans to take my wife and children to Jordan. We spent several years living in Jordan away from the risks of al-Qaeda attacks as I finished my contract.
By then, I had lost hope that peace would come to my home country. Warring factions and terrorist groups were out of control. Everyday violence, from revenge killings to ethnic violence to kidnappings for ransom, became completely normal for my friends and family in Iraq. It was then that I started to look into the emigration process to go the states, knowing that they had a program set up to protect people like me who risked their lives to assist the US. As much as it pained me to leave behind my home, I knew that fleeing the country was the only way to keep my children safe.
The long, intense, uncertain vetting process
I started the long and intensive process of emigrating to the United States under a Special Immigration Visa, set up specifically for people like me who assisted the Army during the war. The visa would cover both me and my immediate family, and I hoped that my brother and sister could apply through different refugee programs. Going to the US was my one and only hope for stability and a future for my children.
I am one of the lucky ones. There are so many Iraqis still trying to come to the United States who are stuck in bureaucratic limbo. That’s because the vetting process is extremely long and thorough. We waited for two years from when we initially applied to enter the US under the Special Immigration Visa and actually made it to JFK airport in New York City. In that time, we had multiple in-person interviews at the US Embassy as well as a thorough background check from the Department of Homeland Security.
I’ll never forget the months of waiting around for our status to be approved. Waiting was hell. My wife and I would check our email some 20 times a day for an update. We would get up multiple times in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, and check to see if our long nightmare would finally be over.
The moment that we received word that we were approved to come to the states was full of joy. It was 4 in the morning when my wife woke me up, tears streaming down her face that we had been approved to leave. I couldn’t believe that our wait was finally over. We would be safe. My children would be safe. Everything was going to be alright.
Life in the US has been good — until recently
In 2012, my family and I resettled in Baltimore, Maryland, close to family members who had moved here in previous years. Things were a little rocky when we first got here, but life has been stabilizing slowly. I was able to get a job as a researcher for Army Research Laboratories. My wife got into a master’s program in engineering at Morgan State. My kids have been adjusting and thriving in school.
Things had even been looking up for my brother and sister who still lived in Iraq: My brother was finally approved for entry and joined us here in Baltimore last year. My sister had her second interview scheduled, a last step to refugee approval. We went out and bought toys for my nieces and nephews that we could bring to the airport to welcome them to the US. Life had been good, and was getting better.
Throughout last year as the election raged on, I felt pangs of worry at Trump’s anti-Islam rhetoric. But I never took it too seriously — I didn’t think he would win, sure that Hillary Clinton would claim victory. I thought that Trump’s “Muslim ban” was all talk in an effort to win the election. I did not think such a harsh and arcane policy would ever actually be enacted. This was America, after all, a free country that afforded all people individual rights and civil liberties. This was the country of checks and balances and a free press. I didn’t think it could ever happen here.
I’ll never forget the night of the election when I put my daughter to bed. I told her that when she woke up, we would have a woman president. That could never happen in Iraq, and that is why our new home, America, is so great — because anyone and everyone could become president. I never dreamed that I would have to shatter these hopes the next day when I sat across from her at breakfast, telling her that a man who ran a campaign of hate against our religion was now the president of the United States.
I have to say: I’m very scared of what is happening here. I’m scared because I’ve seen it before, in my own home country, and what I’m seeing is the rise of a dictator. I fear that everything I fled in Iraq is materializing right here in the United States. And I feel powerless to stop it.
If I could say one thing to my American neighbors, it’s that my country and my fellow Iraqis are not the people to fear. We are the victims of terrorism, and we have shed blood fighting this ideology of hate in our hometowns. To ban everyone from Iraq and these other countries is to shut out the millions of people who suffer from violent terrorism the most.
Every night, I’m filled with a deep, aching sense of dread. Should I have never signed that contract with the US Army? Would my sister and her children be in mortal danger today if I hadn’t? Am I the cause of all this fear and pain for my family? Will I ever be able to forgive myself?
Yet every morning when I wake up, I feel a new sense of faith. My kids have started a new, stable life here in Baltimore, and that never would have happened if the United States hadn’t opened its arms to us. And even though our president doesn’t believe in me and my family, my neighbors, my co-workers, my friends, and the citizens I interact with every day remind me that the American people have welcomed us with kindness and joy. I have faith in humanity, and I have faith in this country to do right.
— as told to Karen Turner
Zakariya Al Sagheer was born and lived most of his life in Baghdad, Iraq. He has a degree in civil engineering from the University of Baghdad and is married with three children. He now lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and works at Advanced Resource Technologies, Inc for the Army Research Laboratories. His dream is to make sure his kids will have better and bright future, and for his widowed sister and her children to join him in the US soon so he can help to take care of her and her children.
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