I’d been waiting in the Starbucks with my project partner for an uncomfortable twenty minutes or so, driven to racially profiling customers and even asking one or two if they were the people with whom we were supposed to meet. After we anxiously exchanged ideas about what to do for a few more minutes, a young man pushed open the door and immediately began looking around, and we were finally able to begin. Mustafa, one of the Iraqi refugees that I had contacted for an interview, led us outside, where his friend Sajid was waiting. We explained the basis of our project, which concentrated on studying the journeys of Iraqis that fled to Syria during the 2003 war. I had begun to work with an organization that assists refugees in San Antonio the previous spring, and found the perfect opportunity to conduct research for our conflict in world politics course.
Without too many questions, Sajid* and Mustafa* began to talk eagerly. Sajid had a soft, almost conspiratorial manner of speech, his wry smile the only factor that betrayed his conflicting emotions. When he began to speak about his journey to the United States, I prayed that the tape recorder would capture his voice despite the background noise of the wind. Sajid was a translator for the U.S. military, and behind his methodical explanation of asylum policies for Iraqis like him, I could hear the wariness in his tone.
Throughout our interview, my project partner seemed to be just as riveted as I was, to my relief, because I didn’t want to miss a single thing that Sajid and Mustafa could possibly want to say. I was rewarded with details about their lives, such as the desolation of the biggest Iraqi encampment in Syria, Sayyida Zaynab, and how Mustafa was surprised to find that he was shunned in Syria.
“One night,” said Mustafa, “we made the decision to leave [Iraq]…I told my family that it was now or never. [I had suffered some injuries from a car bombing, and it was like the last straw for me.] I kept explaining how much better our cousins were doing in Europe. They were going to close the border in one hour, and in that hour, we packed up what we could and left.”
After wading through article after article about Basshar-al-Assad and statistics collected by NGO’s, these personal anecdotes were not only a breath of fresh air, but a portal into the true complexities of war
They both spoke of the frustration of being continual “guests”, in Syria, in Jordan, and now the United States. They faced discrimination, alienation, depression, and unemployment. Sajid faced a safer but economically uncertain future in the U.S. after being separated from his family and friends. Mustafa explained that he faced discrimination in Syria if he let on that he was Iraqi because Syrians felt they had too many poor Iraqis flooding their cities.
When the wind grew too cold and loud to ignore, we moved inside. We had been talking for over an hour.
“We’re sorry to keep you so long,” Mustafa remarked.
The contrast of silence inside seemed to make them realize how much they had talked and released into the open, with little direct questioning from the two college students listening to their stories, but then he began to smile.
“I hope you can actually use some of what we’ve been talking about for so long.”
The tension was broken then, with all of our laughter, but Sajid’s expression quickly reverted back to seriousness. It looked like he had wanted to speak for quite some time, and he hunched his shoulders over the table in preparation.
“The [government] budget for Iraq in 2010 was 78 billion. Pro American and anti Saddam people were tortured…of course [the] Iraqi concept of torture, to be beaten, this is not torture-they were starved, their money and phones were taken, they were blackmailed. 200-500 Iraqis deported back every month. Those who get deported are lucky. Some are taken into “political security” like FBI here. If you have problem with regular police, this usually can be solved with 200-300 dollars. Those caught by the FBI like force were tortured, and spent time in prison-usually these were translators.”
If I were a fearless journalist, I would have asked him if any of his friends had experienced that treatment, and I almost regret it. Somehow, in my naïveté, I believe I made the right decision to gain his trust instead. Before we left, Sajid and Mustafa thanked us sincerely, much to our confusion, as we thought that we should be the ones thanking them for their time and trusting us to share their stories. They explained that they appreciated our willingness to listen and learn.
*Names are changed to protect privacy