My name is Mohammed and I was born in 1989 in Baghdad, Iraq. From the moment I was born up until the war in 2003 it was normal, to a point. I mean, it was a dictatorship in Iraq, but I did have an innocent childhood. There were only three channels allowed by the government, cartoons only once a day, no other sources or ways to watch cartoons other than that one period in the day. It was normal. There was no violence, no gangs, nothing like that. Right now it is not normal. After the war, it is violent. Kids grow up and they are thirteen and all they’ve grown up with is war and violence. I remember two kids talking about the sound of a missile, that you can tell what kind of missile it was based on the sound. These kids shouldn’t be talking about this, that is not a kid conversation. Also, there was a line at the coffee shop and there was this girl that said that she couldn’t wait to go to Disneyland. Put these two together. I wish that these kids would have a normal childhood.
I was born right after the war with Iran ended. It lasted eight years. Dead bodies came in nonstop. In terms of the economy, it affected my family. We didn’t feel the effects of the sanctions directly. There were a lot of people who had it a lot worse. There were people who were close to starving. Hospitals were not good. You learn to adjust.
My dad was in the military and my mom was a teacher in elementary school. We were lower middle class. My neighborhood was a lot different than here, and a lot different than other neighborhoods in Baghdad. The fancier neighborhoods in Baghdad look like the ones here, but those others look like poverty. But everyone knows everyone, the whole neighborhood, not just the whole street or the whole block, but the whole neighborhood. We would play in the street barefoot and spend the whole day outside. We’d come home from school then go play, then do homework and go to sleep.
If there was a funeral in the neighborhood, it would last three days. Right now people do it inside mosques, but some people still do it in the street like we used to with a big tent. That’s where everyone in the neighborhood comes together, breakfast, lunch and dinner, drinks throughout the day. It was the people of the neighborhood who would do it because the family would be doing other stuff.
My family wasn’t very religious but it was conservative, tradition-wise, like how people dress. It was mixed Sunni and Shia. For example, before 2003 when Saddam Hussein was in power Shia were not allowed to practice their traditions so there was not much of a religious practice, but after 2003 people were started to do what they couldn’t do for thirty-five years. My mom’s side is Sunni and my dad’s side is Shia. It was common to have a mixed marriage. It wasn’t during the war, but now it is getting back to normal.
It was traditional, not religious. For example, look at Turkey and Saudi Arabia, they are totally different. That’s the traditions and the traditions have influence on religion. In the more fancy neighborhoods they don’t dress as conservatively. By conservative I mean wearing hijab for women. In the city men dressed like they dressed here, but there were men who wore more traditional things like you see in Saudi Arabia. It is like it is here, like with the countryside and cowboy hats. If you go to southern Iraq they have their type of clothes or if you go to the north you can see the Kurdish people and they have a different type of traditional clothing.
Before 2003 my dad had no choice but to be supportive of the government. You couldn’t get a job, you couldn’t get promoted if you weren’t active in the political party, the only one. My dad was in prison. Someone was speaking against the president and someone recorded the conversation and someone wrote a false report against my dad and he was in prison for months. There was a good chance that we never would have seen him again, but my uncle was the general of the police and he knew a lot of people. It took forever but he finally got to the cousin of the president and got him released. That wasn’t easy. My dad went into the military after university and was there for about ten years. He didn’t go to the frontline, he was more administrative.
In 2003 I was fourteen. It was weird seeing all these military tanks and we didn’t know how to react. It changed. At first it wasn’t violent. After the first couple months things started to take a different shape. For example, one of the things that Saddam Hussein did was release all the criminals from the prisons across the country right before the war. After that is when things started to change and the reactions started. I wanted to be a historian, but it changed because of the war, because you have to be in survival mode. You can’t be a nerd. Survival mode, I didn’t care if I died or if I lived. I’d walk into any situation even if there was a very good chance that I would die, it didn’t matter. The people I’d hang out with, the places I’d go, the things I’d do, it all changed. Violence became part of the normal life. You’d see it especially during the Civil War — killing, killing, killing, killing. If a car slowed down next to you, you don’t know if they are going to shoot you or drag you out. If you were stuck in traffic you wouldn’t know which car was going to blow right now.
A lot of people here don’t remember or have no clue. Almost one hundred percent of Americans can’t point to Iraq on a map. I did a presentation about the war one time and no one could find Iraq on a map. I don’t want to make you feel bad but I want you to understand how you can’t find the country on the map that your government occupied for ten years. There’s something wrong with that. The war started in 2003 because they said that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. There were no Iraqis on the plane. They found zero evidence to connect Iraq to 9/11 whatsoever. They said that we had weapons of mass destruction but they found nothing. There was zero evidence. The war was built on a lie. Some of the documents were released after the war showed that Dick Cheney met with some of the oil companies and they already assigned the oil fields that these companies were going to get their hands on once the war started. He and Bush were oilmen from Texas. It was about business. It was about money. It was about making the rich people of the country richer, it was about getting the poor people of this country to kill the poor people of other countries. That’s what it is. That’s why they allow people with felonies and DUIs to go into the military. They just needed people to throw into the war zone. They didn’t give a damn about them.
The war started in 2003 and they let the military go, they canceled the military. Al-Qaeda was in control of everything. A lot of the terrorists were arrested and the US military was in charge of the prisoners and then later you’d find them in the street again. There was a game being played. In 2006 al-Qaeda bombed one of the most sacred places for the Shia and so the Civil War started. Most people in al-Qaeda were Sunnis.
A lot of neighborhoods were mixed. The neighborhoods that were majority Shia kicked out and killed the Sunni minority and the same thing happened in the Sunni majority areas. Huge concrete blocks surrounded all these cities. You had checkpoints, but some of the checkpoints were fake. In the US media they would call it sectarian violence, the US media’s words for civil war. I was living in a Shia area. My grandparents on my mom’s side had to leave before they killed them. They went to a relative who was living in a Sunni-majority area so before they got to them they changed houses. When the Shia militia would come and check on my relatives they would see that they are Shia and be ok. In certain Sunni areas al-Qaeda made the Sunnis who were married to Shia divorce them but that didn’t happen in the Shia areas so my mom was fine. Because my dad was Shia my mom was protected because that didn’t happen in the Shia areas. It didn’t matter if it were the man or the woman.
They know who is Sunni and who is Shia because they are from the neighborhood, they know everyone. At the checkpoints they will know from your last name and they can tell from your last name which tribe you are from. Some tribes are Sunni and some tribes are Shia and some tribes are mixed. If you were from a mixed tribe it gave you a little bit of an advantage because if you got pulled over by these guys you can say that you are Sunni, and some people made fake IDs to say they were from a mixed tribe. It wasn’t always enough. It didn’t guarantee safety. They would tell you that your ID was fake, or they interrogate you and ask you about the rules of the tribe and who you were here visiting, who you came with. A lot of times they would get to the bottom of it, catch you in the lie.
My neighbor was going to Syria with his friends and he was Shia and his friends were Sunnis. They were driving to Syria and they passed by what was called the triangle of death, which was controlled by al-Qaeda — if you are Sunni you pass and if you are Shia you get killed. They told him to mention certain religious names from the history that the Shia follow and they will know that you are Shia. For example, when you swear by Imam Ali, which is the cousin of the Prophet, they will not question you are Shia. Watch your language, be careful what you say. When they got to the checkpoint it was fine, they believed his story, but then he slipped once. They killed him. His dad was never the same. You can see a broken man, he was never the same. You had to stay in your area, you were restricted to where you could go. I couldn’t go to my grandma’s funeral because they moved. Only mom could go because she is Sunni.
I finished high school but I didn’t go to college because I just didn’t see the point. I worked with an American security company. My sister was a translator with the US military, then she quit and went to live in Jordan. She came to the US, came on a student visa. Later they passed a law that allows people who worked for the US military to be granted visas. That’s how she was able to stay. I got a job with a US company that contracts with the Iraqi police academy, to protect the academy. We had over ten thousand people that came in, between the students and employees. We’d search them as they went in and out. It was huge, the size of the city. You’d need a car to drive around.
I came here through my sister in 2010. I wanted to see what’s here. I got tired of the life there. I didn’t see a future there. Because of Blackwater and what they did all the security companies lost their contracts. Blackwater was one of the dirtiest, ugliest security companies in the war. All they cared about was making money. They stole a lot of the stuff from the civilization. They would go on their missions and do their work while they were drunk and on drugs. They were paranoid and they killed fourteen innocent people in the street, just shooting randomly at people. They had done a lot of stuff, but that’s the one that made it to the media. They ended up going back under a different name. These people work with terrorists. In Afghanistan they work with the military to transfer equipment between bases so they would pay the terrorists so they wouldn’t attack them. After Blackwater was exposed, the general who was in charge of the police academy asked the Iraqis who worked for security to stay because we knew the work. It was bombed and attacked outside but they were never able to get inside, so he asked us to switch and work with the police. So I was doing the same thing, but with the police.
I didn’t know what to expect when I came here. I lived in Monterey, CA, which was lame. When you think of California you think of Hollywood, big cities, big buildings and Monterey doesn’t have any of this. The language was hard. I couldn’t understand what people were saying, people were speaking so fast. I felt like going back. My sister begged me to stay and give it a little more time.
My first impressions were that people had no idea what was going on in Iraq. Some people were curious. Divorce was crazy here. Drugs, and how many people use them, that was also something new. A lot of broken families, that was also something I noticed. Divorce, abuse, child molestation, these things were never really back home. I’m sure it happens, but it’s not a thing. No one ever talks about it. Here it is huge to talk about that.
My sister is married and has one kid. My mom lives here and my brother lives in CA. The program was different. We just applied, but it does help to have my sister here. If my sister hadn’t been a translator for the military it probably wouldn’t have been possible to come here. My sister studied English in school. She was an A student, but this one English teacher gave her an A- and that really got to her so she spent all her time learning English and then she went to University of Baghdad and majored in English and when she got here she went to Portland State and majored in English.
From the time I applied to come here, it took three years. Now I am a citizen. I wanted to enjoy the rights of being a citizen, like being able to travel anywhere. You can’t go anywhere with an Iraqi passport. You also need to be a US citizen or in the process of becoming one to work in US policing. Iraq allows for dual citizenship, so I could have two passports.
I want to be a full American, but a lot of people will never look at me that way. I had a lot of experiences with racism, not really in Monterey, but in the Bay Area and here in Portland, too. This one girl at a bar told me a joke. She said, “Knock Knock,” I said, “Who’s there?” She said, “9/11, we will never forget.” She wasn’t trying to be funny. She was trying to insult me. It is probably more noticeable here than in the Bay Area. I was dating this other girl and she noticed that people stared at us a lot. She had always dated white guys so this was new. There’s a lot of interracial couples everywhere, but still some people stare.
I moved to Portland because my sister is here. I was going through some hard times and dealing with depression. There is an Iraqi community here, but I’m not really involved. A lot of them gather at the hookah bars and hang out. There are a couple food carts downtown and a lot of them work in the city center.
PCC students don’t understand, they don’t know a lot. They don’t have any idea, they can’t tell me anything about Iraq. One guy said kabob, that’s it. They know nothing. It is the oldest civilization in the world, the first people to use writing to communicate with each other, chemistry, math, algebra, alcohol, religions, it all started there. There’s just so much to know and to learn, but a lot of people don’t know any of those things. It’s disappointing. I wish they would know more, associate Iraq with those things and not the certain negative things that they know. Iraqis don’t know much about Americans, but there aren’t Americans living in Iraq. That same girl I was talking about, her grandma told her to be careful because these people come here for citizenship. She told her, “Calm down, he’s a citizen.” People think if you date a guy from there he’s going to make you wear a headscarf, or that he has a wife back home. If you are white and you grow up here you have a lot of fear.
After the war I became a different person. I don’t imagine myself sitting behind a desk, so I like law enforcement. You can help people. A lot of police officers can help, like dealing with domestic violence. It’s a well-paid job, it’s something I’d wake up everyday and it will make me happy. I think people should try to understand people as individuals.
To have more diversity in the police force would mean more fair treatment for everyone. People who you work with will understand those cultures better so it has a major benefit. People who look like you will see you, you can inspire people to be comfortable. It is very white, male-dominated profession, so to have more diversity will inspire people to join and make a difference.