Resettled in the Heart of America: Part 3

In this third part of our World Refugee Day special series on the experiences of men and women from around the world who resettle in America, we speak with Ahmed about his journey from Iraq to Syria – from one conflict to another – to reach the safety of Idaho.

Written by Hanne Steen Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Ahmed Abdullah (left) with his younger brother. Stronger Shines the Light/Angie Smith

Chasing Peace Through the Middle East: Ahmed’s Story

Ahmed is a soft-spoken and understated 16-year-old. He fled Baghdad with his family in 2007 after years of conflict following the 2003 U.S. invasion. They managed to reach a relatively safer part of Kurdistan, but this was just the beginning of a long and arduous journey chasing peace in a region devastated by conflict.

From Kurdistan, Ahmed and his family moved to Syria to seek help from the United Nations. With millions fleeing the Syrian conflict that started with the uprisings of 2011, it might have been a move in the wrong direction. After seven exasperating years of waiting, they did not receive refugee status. With the Arab Spring protests and the ensuing violent crackdowns by the Syrian government escalating into full-blown civil war, Ahmed’s family was forced to move again. This time they returned to Iraq where they stayed with relatives for another four months.

Desperate and exhausted, they made their way to Turkey to resume their asylum application process with the U.N. refugee agency. In Turkey, neither Ahmed nor his siblings were able to go to school. Racism against Iraqis was commonplace. At 14, Ahmed worked with his father to support their family. He cut wood and worked in a factory that manufactured plastic doors and windows. Finally, in 2014, Ahmed’s family received the phone call they had been waiting for. U.N. officials informed them that they had been granted asylum in the U.S. and a chance to start a new life in Boise, Idaho.

Iraq, second only to Saudi Arabia in oil resources, has long suffered complex economic, political and sectarian turmoil. Once a British colony, the country morphed into an oppressive dictatorship over the past half century, with forced imprisonments, disappearances and ethnic conflicts between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. Chemical warfare by Saddam Hussein’s government on the Kurdish population in the 1980s, economic sanctions by the U.S. in the 1990s, a major international conflict led by the U.S. from 2003-2011 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism have all contributed to a protracted humanitarian crisis and massive displacement. Human rights abuses include chemical warfare, sexual slavery, sex trafficking, imprisonment, disappearances, beheadings, ethnic cleansing, torture, child soldiers and the use of civilians as human shields. The UNHCR estimates that nearly 2 million Iraqis have fled since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and another 1.9 million are displaced within the country, with projection of more large-scale displacement in the coming period due to the expansion of ISIS and renewed conflict.

More than a million Iraqi refugees fled to Syria during the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003. In recent years, however, escalating violence in Syria has seen both Iraqi and Syrian refugees crossing borders back into Iraq due to the limited options. Following the massive influx of Iraqi refugees fleeing the first Gulf War, Turkey tightened its borders, and refugees from Iraq who do find a way in often suffer grossly inhumane treatment. Because of their sheer numbers and the inability of humanitarian organizations and receiving states to absorb them, Iraqi refugees often do not live in camps. Many have been transitioning from city to city in neighboring countries, while experiencing perpetual hostilities, violence and mistreatment.

Ahmed’s Words:

“I was afraid. We were traveling for 12 hours on the high seas [to get to Turkey]. But I’m glad to be finally here in the U.S., to be able to finish my education and to have a better future.

“I keep my circle of friends at school small and I try not to get entangled with messy situations. I have Russians, African Americans and even white people – English and American – as friends. But still, it’s a small group. I keep my circle small because you can’t trust a lot of people around here. At least that is what I think.

“Not here, but I’ll say in Turkey, there were a lot of Iraqi people, and when one got into trouble then everyone else got into trouble, too. For example, one of my friends got into a fight with Turks. I wasn’t there, but the Turkish group saw us and they started attacking all of us. I had nothing to do with that. But they still attacked me, because I was part of that larger group of Iraqis. This is why I keep my circle small. I learned from my past.

“To escape my emotions of the past, I started working out. I woke up one day and went for a run. The next day I started to feel the soreness and it was the best feeling in the world – knowing that you put work in, and knowing that you’re getting stronger. It is a positive reinforcement from your body. As a teenager you experience a lot of emotions and angst in general. If I am frustrated or angry at something, I start to work out and put my emotions in it. It helps me deal with what I think about – sometimes from the present, what’s happening in my life right now, or it’s from the past, something I remember and that I get sad about.

“I’ve never had someone discriminate against me in America. In Turkey, yes, but not here. I heard in the news they want to stop the Syrian refugees from coming in because what happened in Paris probably scared many people and scared the government here. But I don’t think they should stop it because of that. The people who were involved in the Paris attacks have nothing to do with us. We have nothing to do with them.

“I’m Iraqi and I’m proud of who I am. Sure I want to be an American, but I’ll never forget who I am and where I come from. We have family in Iraq. We worry about them. In Baghdad, there is still a lot of bombings on a daily basis. I’m here like other refugees, for a better future for myself and my family. If we stayed in Iraq, I don’t think I could do anything. [Here] with hard work, discipline and dedication you can do whatever you want.

“I’m considering doing architecture. I like designing things. If that does not work out or if it proves difficult to manage the student debts, I will try to work my way through military service. After all, it’s not my country, but if I finish my service, then college will be for free – free scholarships, free food, free shelter and Medicaid for life. It’s pretty risky I’d say. But, hey, it’s worth it if I make it.”

This series has been produced in collaboration with Stronger Shines the Light Inside– a photography project that tells the collective story of resettled refugees in Idaho. We will present a new individual account every day this week in the lead up to World Refugee Day on June 20.

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