Why they fled

Karen O’Reilly

 

 

1

 

The waiting room of the refugee agency was crowded and airless; the smell made me flinch as I opened the door. I looked around. New asylum-seekers were crammed together on benches: veiled women squeezed between bearded men. Younger men stood in the corners; children sat on the floor, listless, between their mothers’ feet.

I didn’t see anyone who matched the photo of the refugee whose file I held in my hand. I called out the ID number written in black marker on the front. A man stepped forward immediately; he knew his ID number by heart. How many times had he already been called here, I wondered; how many interviews had he already had?

The man who came forward didn’t resemble the photo in the file, so I asked to see his registration paper. He unbuttoned a plastic folder and searched through the stack of documents inside until he found it. His name had split along the fold of the paper. The tape holding it together had turned brownish-yellow and frayed. The name on the registration paper was Rami Hussein Ahmed, the same name as in the file.*

 

It was June 2009, and I was working for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Amman. It was over six years since the US-led invasion of Iraq had begun, and up to half a million Iraqis were estimated to be living in Jordan. Because Jordan wasn’t a party to international refugee-protection laws, refugees could not, for the most part, remain legally in the country for longer than six months. Thereafter, their options were to return to their home country, remain illegally in Jordan, or be resettled to a third country, which in most cases meant the US. I worked with men who had been kidnapped, women whose children had been killed by bombs, and teenage boys who had lost limbs when US forces had shot at them, mistakenly believing them to be a threat. Most had fled since the invasion in 2003, but some had left during Saddam’s regime and, in the current climate, could not return.

My job was to handle applications for resettlement. Though I worked with some Somali, Syrian, Lebanese and stateless refugees, my clients were almost all Iraqis. Colleagues identified refugees who were eligible for resettlement and referred them to me and other resettlement staff. I interviewed the clients I was assigned and, using the information they gave me, argued their cases to try to persuade third countries to take them in.

 

I led Rami to the interview room, shut the door and told him to take a seat. The room was filthy with dust and stiflingly hot. I sneezed, and reached for a flattened roll of toilet paper that lay on the desk. Rami placed the plastic wallet before him; I opened my laptop. I needed to note everything Rami told me, to use in the argument I would write to persuade a resettlement country to take him in.

I asked him about his family, and he answered my questions in an incongruous California-teenager accent. He had lived in Santa Cruz between the ages of six and thirteen, he told me, while his father was studying there.

‘You fled Iraq in 2006?’ I asked him, turning the pages of his file.

He nodded, not looking up.

‘Why?’ I asked. In my argument, I had first to establish that he was a refugee by the definition outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention: that he could not return to his country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.

Rami sighed. ‘In 2005, I found a job as an interpreter for American election consultants in Iraq. But I had to work in secret, or I’d risk being killed for assisting the occupiers. Then one day at a meeting between American advisors and Iraqi politicians, a camera crew arrived and started filming. I panicked. What if my face was shown on TV, and everyone learned that I was working for the US? I asked an American diplomat what was happening, and she told me not to worry, that the film was for their archives only.’ He paused. ‘I was so relieved.’ He looked around, then up at the air-conditioner attached to the wall. It was broken, the cord dangling uselessly from the machine. He pushed his hair from his forehead. It stood straight up with sweat.

‘That night,’ he continued, ‘my friend called me. He was worked up, you know, irate. He shouted, “What the hell were you thinking?” He said I’d been on the evening news – on four different TV channels. I was shocked.’ He raised his hands in bewilderment. ‘The next day at work, people I didn’t know, when they passed me on the corridor, exclaimed, “Hey, bigshot!” or “TV star!” Then, a few days later, I went to a conference at the Sheraton in Baghdad. Two receptionists came up and asked to have their photo taken with me, because I was “The guy who was on TV”.’ He was silent for a moment, shaking his head.

‘What happened after that?’

Rami twisted his fingers. ‘One week later, my mom was in the front yard, hanging out washing. She noticed an envelope lying on the ground. On it was written, “To Rami Ahmed, the Infidel and Traitor. In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful.” She brought it to me to open, but we could already feel what was inside.’ He paused, staring at the desk. ‘A single bullet. They sent it as a death threat.’ He turned the plastic wallet over in his hands. ‘I resigned the next day, and went into hiding until I had my visa. Two weeks later, I fled Iraq.’

I typed as Rami spoke. His story so far wasn’t unusual. Following the invasion, many Iraqis took jobs with the American and other international organizations now based in Iraq. The economy left them with little choice. But those who did accept this work were often targeted by militants who opposed the US-led invasion and saw them as traitors. Their cases were easy to argue. ‘The applicant,’ I would write in my arguments, ‘has a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of imputed political opinion as a perceived supporter of the US-led occupation. Thus he meets the definition of a refugee according to the 1951 Convention.’ I had used the argument so many times that I had saved a template, from which I copied and pasted.

When I’d finished typing, Rami asked if I wanted copies of documents to back up his story. He pulled sheaves of paper from the plastic wallet: originals and photocopies of ID cards, employment contracts, the envelope that had contained the bullet. I examined the originals and placed the copies he had made carefully in his file. He passed me a photograph: the shell of his apartment, looted and destroyed as soon as he’d fled Iraq. Another photo showed a room inside his apartment, the walls demolished by grenades. A large heavy dresser with faux-gold edging remained, its drawers open, empty, raided. A lamp with a faded red velvet shade lay strewn across the floor.

‘My neighbour took these pictures of my home and sent them to me after I left,’ Rami said. He placed the other photos back on the desk. I pulled one out from the pile. It was of a picture of Rami, smiling, standing next to the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who had supported the US war in Iraq. I looked up at Rami. ‘When was this?’

Rami peered at the photograph. ‘That was when I worked for the Electoral Committee. Blair came on a visit. I was interpreting for British advisors and Iraqi MPs.’

I stared at the photo. Blair was holding a cup and saucer, cafeteria-white and plain, close to his chest. His smile was strained. It occurred to me that I would have spat on Blair if I’d gotten that close.

I asked, ‘What was he like?’

Rami laughed. ‘He was quiet. He didn’t say very much.’

I placed the pictures of Blair and Rami back on the pile. I asked, ‘Do you think things will get better in Iraq?’

Rami looked at me, then turned away. ‘It’s not good there. Right now, it’s hard to believe.’

‘I had one client’, I told him, ‘who told me he thought things would improve, but it would take ten years.’

Rami smiled ruefully. ‘That’s optimistic. Ten years? No.’ He shook his head and spoke quietly. ‘It’s not possible that things will be better in only ten years.’ He pressed the button shut on the plastic folder, then pulled it open again. ‘My life there is over. I can’t return. I wish I could go back and work again as a doctor, get married, have children – just a normal life.’

I lifted his file then balanced it, vertical, on the desk. ‘You were a doctor?’

He looked up, seemingly surprised by the question. ‘Yes. A surgeon.’

‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘Why did you stop?’

Rami looked up and put his hands to his hair. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t mention this earlier – you only asked me about why I left Iraq in 2006, not about what happened before.’

I nodded. ‘No – you’re right, that is what I asked you. But why did you stop working as a doctor before that?’

Rami brought his hands down to his eyes, rubbed them hard, and blinked. He lowered them to the plastic wallet and pulled the button open again.

‘When I was working in the hospital, many conflicts were taking place. The Mahdi militia group always insisted that we treat their members before treating anyone else. And they threatened us for helping the people they had attacked, those they had tried to kill for working with Americans. They would stand over us while we worked.’

The Mahdi Army was familiar to me: a Shia paramilitary group that regularly threatened, kidnapped, and killed people who cooperated with Americans or other international forces in Iraq.

Rami pressed the button shut. ‘Al-Mahdi members also set up checkpoints around the hospital, and would ask everyone for their IDs on the way in. From my name they could see that I was Sunni, and this made me even more afraid. They would threaten all the doctors who treated their victims, but Sunnis were especially at risk. On a night in November 2004, they drove up to the hospital and opened fire. They stormed the hospital and shot at staff. They praised Muqtada al-Sadr, in whose name they said they were acting. They shouted that they had come to kill those who were helping the collaborators. I was running down a corridor when I was shot and a bullet entered my leg.’ He brought his hand to his left calf. ‘The men abducted three staff members, two doctors and a technician. All men. All Sunni.’

I looked to Rami’s leg. ‘What did you do when they shot you? Were you treated?’

He pulled up the left leg of his jeans and showed me the bullet scar.

‘I crawled along the corridor, made my way to the doctors’ residence. We had a small amount of equipment there. I removed the bullet myself, and cleaned and stitched the wound.’ He paused. ‘There was no anaesthetic.’

I looked at the shiny hollow pink scar. ‘Was it all right?’

He shrugged. ‘I didn’t have everything I needed, and the wound became infected. It was painful for a very long time.’

‘And the people who were kidnapped?’

‘Two were released when a $30,000 ransom was paid. The other – he was never seen again.’ Rami inhaled deeply. ‘But the ones who were released – they’d been treated very badly.’

‘What happened to them?’ I asked.

He shook his head. ‘Terrible things.’

I said, ‘I need to know. I need to include everything when I argue your case.’

Rami nodded, looking down to the folder. ‘They had been beaten very badly.’ He lowered his voice, almost to a whisper. ‘They’d also been abused.’

I stared at him. ‘They’d been raped?’

He closed his eyes and nodded. He pulled at the button of the wallet. ‘It became too dangerous to work as a doctor. We were threatened for treating militias’ victims, and kidnapped because the militias thought we were rich. So I left to try to find work as an interpreter just after this.’ The heat in the room was overpowering. I rubbed the sweat on my face with the heel of my hand. I was working to a quota: twelve families or individuals interviewed and submitted for resettlement each week. A graph pinned to the office wall was updated monthly to show how close we were to meeting our targets for the year. The graph was hand-drawn with black marker and yellow highlighter – the kind of graph that might adorn the walls of a primary-school classroom. Our funding – which came from resettlement countries, in particular the US – depended on us meeting these numbers. By summer 2009, I had interviewed, and argued on behalf of, hundreds of refugees. I knew that things had been particularly bad in 2003 and 2004, the period when Rami worked in hospitals.

I looked at Rami for a moment before speaking. I said, ‘You must have seen many other terrible things during that time.’

He lifted the plastic folder and rolled it into a tube. He hit it against the table, then let it unroll. His leg, the bullet-scarred one, was trembling beneath the desk.

‘There were many awful things, but there was one event that was particularly bad. It was several months before I was shot.’ His knee knocked the table. He clasped it with his hand, as though to restrain it. He looked away.

‘What happened?’

He sucked in his breath. His knee was still knocking, and he looked down at it, as though willing it to stop. He didn’t speak. The table-leg was rattling against the floor. He pressed the button on the plastic wallet closed, then pulled it open again. He brought the wallet to his face, bent it in two, then let it unfold again on the table. ‘It was my friend.’

I nodded.

‘Mohammed.’ He looked down at the desk. ‘He had taken a job at the Ministry of Transport with the new Government. A job as a clerk. It was the only job he could get.’

He pushed the folder away from him and began to cry. ‘I’m sorry.’

I bit my lip. It was rare for a male Iraqi client to cry before me. I said, ‘It’s OK.’

Rami inhaled deeply. ‘They – the Shia militias and Sunni insurgents – you know they hate people who work for the new government. To them it’s the same as working for the US.’

I nodded.

‘I was still working as a doctor then, and one day when I was in the ER, a huge group of people arrived, hysterical.’

Rami was crying harder now. I pushed the roll of toilet paper across the desk. He tore sheets from the roll to blow his nose, breathed in heavily again.

‘I saw that I knew these people – they were the parents, cousins, aunts and uncles of my friend.’

He shut his eyes. Tears leaked onto his cheeks.

‘I asked Mohammed’s dad what was wrong.’

He opened his eyes, pressed them with his fingers, and lifted the wallet again, tapping it against the desk. ‘He told me what had happened.’

Rami bit his lip and rubbed his face. ‘Mohammed had gone to work that morning as always. His mother was at home. At around eleven, a man came to the door. A street-sweeper, she thought. He was holding a plastic bag. He told Mohammed’s mother he was sorry to disturb her, but he had bought some meat from the butcher that morning, and if he kept it with him all day, it would go bad. He asked if she would possibly store it in her refrigerator, and he’d come back that afternoon, when he’d finished work. She said, “Of course.”’

Rami’s lower lip was trembling. He spoke through choked sobs. ‘Mohammed didn’t come home that evening, and his family became worried. They phoned his office, and were told he hadn’t reported for work that day. They began to panic, and called other relatives to their home.’

Both of Rami’s legs were shaking now. He was hitting the table with the folder, over and over.

‘At some point in the evening, Mohammed’s father went to the fridge to get a glass of water. I don’t know. A drink. He saw the plastic bag in the fridge –’ Rami stopped speaking, crying uncontrollably. ‘He took the bag out and asked his wife what it was. Mohammed’s mother – she said, ‘Oh, it’s some meat, a man asked to leave it here earlier – he must have forgotten to come pick it up.’ So Mohammed’s dad opened up the bag, and inside –’ Rami was bent over, rocking on the chair now, sobbing noisily. He spoke disbelievingly, pleadingly. ‘Inside was Mohammed – his son’s – head.’

His hands covered his eyes, his fingernails digging into his forehead. He lowered them and stared at me. His voice was high-pitched, choked; he was struggling to take in air.

‘Why would someone do that?’ He shook his head and lowered it again. ‘Mohammed had no enemies. He just had a job as a clerk. This is what they do?’ He cried loudly, desperately, like a child. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry for this.’ I breathed out heavily, focusing on the desk. We sat, not speaking, Rami crying, doubled over in pain, my hands clasped over my mouth. Outside, I could hear workmen somewhere, hammering something. I looked at Rami’s details on the page before me. He was thirty, the age of my brother, four years younger than me. My brother worked as a TV and radio presenter. His life was filled with laughter, parties. On weekends, he went with his girlfriend on trips to London and Rome. I looked at the passport photo stapled to Rami’s form. He was smiling in the photo. His smile was knowing, confident, flirtatious. The photo must have been taken before the invasion.

I re-read the last paragraph of my notes, then looked up.

‘Who killed Mohammed?’ I asked quietly.

Rami shook his head. ‘Men acting in the name of the Shia resistance – or the Sunni insurgency. No one knows.’

He breathed out deeply and tried to smooth his hair. ‘When will I hear from you?’

‘In a few months,’ I told him. ‘I will submit your case to the US, then they will do their own interview before finally deciding whether to accept you.’

He nodded. ‘I’d like to go to Chicago. I have some friends there. Otherwise,’ he paused, staring at his hands, ‘I am alone.’

‘They –’ I shrugged. ‘I don’t think you get to choose the city. I’m sorry. But I’ll make a note of your preference.’

Rami nodded. ‘Thank you. And – I am so sorry for being upset.’

He smoothed out his folder and buttoned it shut one last time. The photo of him with Tony Blair was still at the top of the pile. He blew his nose, pressed a wad of toilet paper to his eyes, and stood up. He smoothed the trouser leg he’d pulled up to show his scar. He caught sight of the passport photo as I closed his file. ‘That was in 2002,’ he said. ‘Before.’

I sneezed again. Rami reached and tore a strip from the toilet roll, passed it to me and smiled. When I was finished, he stretched out his hand again and shook mine. He carried the bent-up folder like a briefcase as he left the room.

I sat down and turned again to his passport photo: a young doctor, handsome, flirtatious, optimistic. I thought of him now, of his leg shaking uncontrollably, of his hollowed-out pink scar, of him crying, doubled over in pain. I brought his file upstairs to my office, and began writing to the US to request refuge in his name. I would leave Jordan three months later, before we got an answer. I never found out if he was accepted or not.

 

 

2

 

In the years after I left Jordan, I worked for UNHCR in the Central African Republic, Kenya, Guinea and Senegal. In 2016 I moved to New Mexico, where my husband is from.

Shortly after his inauguration as US President, Donald Trump announced a 120-day ban on the resettlement of refugees, and an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. My former colleagues sent me photos of meetings held to inform refugees that, after years of waiting in hope of resettlement, it was unlikely they would now go anywhere. The photos showed rows and rows of people, faces in hands, looking broken. My boss from Senegal told me of Darfuri refugees in Chad – refugees whose cases I had worked on – who had sold their shelters and all of their belongings and travelled for days to reach the airport, only to be told that they were no longer leaving. This after living in camps for twelve, fourteen years. Now they didn’t even have a home in the camp to go back to.

Our weekends now were full of protests and rallies. I joined a march to Albuquerque airport with my children, who were three and four. We and the other protesters sat on the floor in arrivals while security officers, grim-faced and heavily armed, watched us closely. I thought of Rami. I thought of Somali clients I had known in Uganda: Ama, a suicidal teenager, and Celeste, a transgender woman who had been arrested and beaten thirteen times, and Safi, a woman who was forced to work as a sex-worker and contracted HIV. I thought of the Darfuri children I’d worked with in the Central African Republic in 2010, whose entire village had been bombed to the ground. I shouted angrily, like the hundreds of other people sitting beside me on the filthy airport floor in front of the row of heavily armed security, protesting a law that would prevent such people from being able to find a new home and start a new life.

On 5 September 2017, Donald Trump announced that he would repeal DACA – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy. The policy was aimed at people who had entered the country illegally as minors; those who qualified were allowed to work and were protected from deportation. The futures of the 800,000 or so people who relied on this policy were in jeopardy.

On the same day that Trump made his DACA announcement, I had my interview to become a citizen of the United States. I sat in the waiting room of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, clutching the folders of documents that would prove I was who I said I was, that I hadn’t done anything wrong. Other than lawyers and my husband, I was the only white person in the room: most of the others awaiting interview were Latino, and one couple was African. Walking into the interview room alone, so nervous I could barely speak, I thought: This is how it is to be on the other side. The man across the desk from me now held all the power. I had spent hours getting ready, trying to look respectable and responsible, and weeks studying US history and civics questions. Did the man across from me know how worried I was? Did he care? Would he be kind?

Of course, this wasn’t how it was for a refugee to be on the other side. My life didn’t depend on passing this interview. If I failed, I would get another chance. If I failed again, I could still remain in the US, as a permanent resident. Even if that weren’t true, I had an Irish passport, and could live anywhere in the EU. And I probably wouldn’t fail: English was my first language, and it was easy for me to learn what was necessary and fill out the applications. It was easy to say the right thing. And, then, failing all that, I knew that I would be treated with less suspicion than the other people in the waiting room, because I was European, and white.

My interview lasted fifteen minutes, after which I was told I had passed, and presented with a letter congratulating me on becoming a US citizen. My husband drove me home, then left again to pick up our older son from school. I turned on the TV. The news was reporting the overturning of DACA. A woman was being interviewed. She had been brought by her parents to the US from Mexico as a toddler, and never returned. She didn’t speak Spanish. She had no memories of Mexico; the US was the only home she knew. She was studying for her third university degree. Now, with this new ruling, she was in danger of being deported – to a place where she had no family she knew, no connections at all, and where she didn’t speak the language. I looked at the letter in my hands.

 

You passed the tests of English and US history and government.

Congratulations! Your application is recommended for approval. At this time, it appears that you have established your eligibility for naturalization.

 

Since Trump’s executive order on refugees, I had been going after the more hateful and uninformed anti-refugee posts I saw online – responding with facts about resettlement and security checks, and statistics about the numbers of refugees involved in terrorism. I was persistent. I began to feel like I was trolling these people – these commentators spreading hate and misinformation. One person called me a ‘traitor to the US’ for supporting refugees. My attempts to counter misinformation made no difference that I could see. People wanted a target for their hatred, their resentment. But I did it anyway. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I felt – naively or not – that if they could hear refugees’ stories, their hearts would open: that their hatred had only come about because they didn’t know. I wanted to tell some of these stories. Rami’s story, other people’s stories. I wanted to say: Look, this is why they fled. You would too.

On 1 December 2017, the Trump administration announced that it would close down some of the refugee agencies working in the US. Since few refugees were being resettled now, the agencies didn’t have much work. Later that month, I gave a presentation to staff of the local Lutheran Refugee Services. I talked about life in refugee camps and the resettlement process. The presentation ran way over time, and I apologized. The director shrugged: ‘Don’t worry about it. We have so few new arrivals now, we have little to do.’ She told me about some of the people on their caseload: where they had fled from, where they had been resettled from, and when they arrived. There were Iraqis I could have interviewed in Jordan, and Central Africans whose cases I’d likely reviewed in Senegal.

In the same month, I attended a ceremony to swear my allegiance to, and become a citizen of, the United States. Almost two hundred people of forty nationalities were being naturalized. Some of the people in the room had certainly come as refugees. Had Rami ever made it? What about the man I had interviewed around the same time, who had been tortured in Saddam’s prisons? The man who’d spent thirteen years in a Rwandan prison, after a wrongful conviction of genocide? I thought, too, about the thousands of people who were now without any hope of resettlement in the US.

We stood together, some having come here by chance, some because their lives depended on it. With right hands raised, we renounced foreign princes, vowed to support and defend the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, promised to bear arms on behalf of the country when required, and swore that we were undertaking all of these obligations freely, without any mental reservation, so help me God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Author’s note: Names and identifying details have been changed.

 

 

 

 

 

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