Immigrant to America inspired to enlist after interpreting for U.S. Special Forces in Iraq
Editor’s note: Coming to America stories are unique to each person who has chosen to make a home in the United States. In this two-part series, three National Training Center Soldiers from Central Asia, who have come here in the past five years, tell their stories. United States Army Sgt. M, an Iraqi immigrant, shares his story below. His name is not used, because of the changing political situation in the region, where his family and friends still live.
Sergeant M, a non-commissioned officer with 51st Translator Interpreter Company, here, graduated from a high school in Al Kut in June 2003.
“It was during Operation Iraqi Freedom,” said M. “It was tough going to school. We were struggling to get through the March midterm exam.”
M was accepted to enroll at Mosul University, six hours from his home city. He returned after only a few months.
“I didn’t like Mosul”, M said. “It had lots of terrorist attacks, and it was a 45-minute walk to the university. I went back to attend the city university, Wassit in Al Kut. I was in the science college, in medical microbiology, for three years. I loved the classes. There was a lot to learn, medical stuff – hematology, histology, microbiology, genetics, and genetic engineering.”
But the situation in Iraq was changing, and M had to drop out of school.
“The violence there compared to the rest of Iraq, it was actually calm,” M said. “There were IED’s, car suicide bombers, but it was a lot better than other cities, better than Baghdad, Mosul and Basra.
It was almost normal, but probably three or four times a year, there were attacks. In 2004, we didn’t go to college for about a month, when it was bad over there.
“I didn’t finish. I had two jobs after the university. I owned a medical lab, for tests like blood exams, blood diseases. I had another job. I used to work in an internet shop providing internet services, fixing computers, printing photos, reports and doing research.
“I needed to make some money, find another way to live my life. The economy was bad. From these two jobs, I used to make about five, six hundred dollars a month.”
M was the second youngest child in a family of six. His father, a health department employee, and his mother were both working, but they were barely making it, he said.
“We were trying to help each other … [but] my two jobs didn’t provide me with enough, so I started working with the American forces,” M said about first becoming an interpreter.
“In Iraq, we start learning English in the fifth grade,” M said. “At college, most of the subjects were taught in English. If you just study the textbooks and don’t pay attention much, you know English; you can write it and read it, but as far as speaking, no.
“I used to watch movies a lot and American TV shows. Sometimes, in trying to improve my English, I would watch a movie three times – one with Arabic translation, one with subtitles, and the last time I’d watch it with no subtitles. The first time, I know the words in translation; the second time, I know what they said and their accents. I don’t know the words, but I know what they said. The last time, I would just listen to it, and try to translate it myself. That’s how I improved a lot, actually.”
After working with the U.S. Air Force transferring detainees from Basra to Baghdad, M switched to translating for U.S. Special Forces.
“I didn’t like Basra, I didn’t like the work I was doing, with a lot of detainees,” M explained. “They were from all over Iraq, and it was dangerous for me, my security, and my family.”
M then worked for U.S. Special Forces units from January 2008 through July 2009, doing a variety of military missions, which included: liaison work with Iraqi and allied forces, house searches, psychological operations, civil affairs and humanitarian aid work.
“Combat missions were all over Iraq, but we did humanitarian missions in the Al Kut area,” M said. “I enjoyed it. There were Soldiers sitting with me, giving me classes, because they knew I was trying to get to the United States.
“They would tell me, don’t consider America to be just easy living, like in the movies, that you’re going to get a job, make a million dollars. It’s not that easy. You have to survive, you have to fight. These were [staff sergeants] and [sergeants first class] who were telling me this.”
In late 2008, a Soldier told M about a special immigration visa program for interpreters working for the U.S. government. Another Soldier, an assistant team sergeant, told him of a larger program that was accepting 10,000 Iraqis a year.
“I trusted his word,” M said. “The only reason I trusted him was that we did a lot of missions together. He had my back, I got his back. So I applied for it, and actually, my number was 128 out of the 10,000.”
M said his parents encouraged him to immigrate.
“My mom and dad, they actually lived in England for five years,” M said. “They were pretty open-minded. They had an idea of the West, so they supported me a lot. My sister is an English teacher. I have two brothers. They are officers, counter-terrorism officers in Iraq. They did a lot of missions with me, with Special Forces and support units doing joint operations.”
Others in the U.S. reached out to help him, including a chief warrant officer who was assigned to an engineering team at Camp Delta in Iraq. She welcomed him to the U.S. at the Atlanta airport on Jul. 8, 2009.
“She helped me a lot,” M recalled. “She got all my paperwork. She sponsored me.”
M also was helped by the International Organization for Migration and a non-denominational organization, Church World Service, which has helped refugees resettle since the end of World War II.
“It’s a religious organization, but they don’t discriminate, whatever your religion is,” M said.
“They help refugees from Burma, from South Sudan, from Cuba. They helped me a lot, with rent, electricity, for the first couple of months.”
A month later, an Assyrian friend from Iraq – a mechanic who was already living in Atlanta – helped him get a job at a pizza business in a small town near Atlanta.
M said that Iraqis are aware of the ethnic background of their fellow Iraqis.
“Sometimes you speak the language, notice their accents, their physical features,” M said. “Most of the time, you’re conscious of that, but 90 percent of Iraqis don’t discriminate, we don’t have racism.
“I used to go out to his shop. He knew another guy was working in delivering pizza, about 20 minutes from where I lived. I went there and had a job for a year. I was here less than a month, and I got a job. In the beginning, I didn’t have a driver’s license, so I worked as a cook. I think I was making the best pizza there.”
M’s first experience with pizza was on military bases in Iraq.
“Pizza in Iraq was delicious – organic and fresh, even the dough,” M said. “The vegetables, the meat were fresh. It’s not traditional Iraqi food.”
It didn’t take him long to get settled in as a delivery man in the Atlanta area, M said.
“A couple of months later, I was paying my rent myself, paying my bills myself,” M said. “I bought a car, a Chevy Lumina, 1990, for $800. It was in good shape, so I started delivering pizzas.
“Every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I was making $150-200 dollars, but I was determined from when I was in Iraq, that if I get to the United States, I would join the military. The passion the Soldiers had, the love to serve the country. I could see how the Special Forces were helping the people of Iraq. They had a lot of good heart. I thought, ‘I’m joining the U.S. military’ – that was my intention in leaving Iraq.”
M scored high on the military entrance exam, but because he was not yet a U.S. citizen, he couldn’t enlist in Special Forces and chose instead to enlist as a linguist (military occupational specialty 09L).
Like all new recruits, basic training was a memorable experience. While his basic training company had a handful of 09L recruits, M said his company overall was well represented by Soldiers from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
“We were separated, alphabetically, by our last names,” M said. “We had a lot of Hispanics – Puerto Ricans, one from Guatemala. You had whites, blacks, brown-skinned, Asians. It was a good experience. Sometimes, before I joined the Army, I heard how Americans have racism. I never had that. It’s the way you act, how you treat people. You give people respect, you get respect back. That’s how it is.”
Making his way with people of different cultures is not something new for M.
“People ask me, ‘What’s going on in Iraq?’,” M said. “I say we have bad people, we have good people – a lot more good people than bad people. In Iraq, we have the Assyrians. They are the first Christians.
“Iraq is an old civilization, dating back to 6,000 BC. We were living together peacefully. My dad is Kurdish, my mom is Arab. We have Turkmens over there. We have Sunni, Shia.”
“The U.S. is nice, different and complicated,” M continued. “The first thing I needed, when I first got an apartment, was to get internet [connectivity]. In Iraq, you just open up Wi-Fi and you see the different networks and see a phone number next to their name. You call that number, give them some money and you get internet.
“In America, I found an AT&T shop. They asked for identification, social security. I don’t have it. ID? I don’t have it. I had a passport, but needed a bank account. I don‘t have a bank. They told me to walk across the street, past the traffic light, to Bank of America over there. I went over there, opened a bank account, and got my card. This was very complicated for me.
“In Iraq, we used to walk to the market. You walk, and there are shops everywhere. Over here, you have to drive your car everywhere you want to go. To get your mail, you drive your car to the post office.”
After basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., M completed advanced individual training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Having already done interpreter work with U.S. military forces in Iraq, M was ready for training as a translator/interpreter.
“AIT was easy,” said M. “It’s not language training, it’s how to translate – body gestures, positioning, how to control the speed of the speakers. We had a lot about Afghan culture [and] learned a lot of other countries, their cultures.”
Since being assigned to Fort Irwin in Oct. 2010, M has deployed twice, acting as interpreter for U.S. forces training Jordanian forces while conducting joint operations.
“I speak Levantine Arabic, which is close to the Jordanian dialect,” M said.
M deployed again in May 2012.
“It was the same mission, going to Kuwait and Jordan, but this time, I spent three months in Afghanistan,” M said. “It was a different experience for me. I met a new language, tradition. Everything is different. I never thought I would go to Afghanistan. Arab linguists usually go to Arabian countries to translate Arabic.”
M said he teased his fiancée, now his wife, a California-born Afghan he met two years ago, when she owned a jewelry cart business in a Sacramento shopping center.
“Yeah, I’ve been in your country and you’ve never been in your country,” M said. “She was born here. She speaks Dari. She follows Afghan tradition. She’s open-minded, but not too much.”
After his promotion to sergeant in December 2012, M was selected to be his company’s unit training NCO.
“I’m doing medical systems rosters, profiles, safety, deciding what training is suitable for the company,” M said. “It’s a different kind of experience than doing training in the field.”