Iraqi couple creating new life in land which destroyed their own

 

AMERICA:Amjed and Aseel Saeed expect to be happy in Virginia but keep an eye on their war-torn home, writes LARA MARLOWE

SIX WEEKS after they began their trek from Baghdad to Amman to New York’s JFK airport and on to Alexandria, Virginia, Amjed and Aseel Saeed are still euphoric.

“We left on my 38th birthday,” recalls Aseel, “so I felt very optimistic”.

The Iraqi couple are new immigrants in a nation of immigrants, the modern-day equivalent of the Europeans who arrived at Ellis Island in past centuries.

“When we landed at JFK, we were joking,” Aseel recalls.

“We didn’t hear anyone speaking English. We said, ‘Where are the Americans? Maybe this is some place else’.”

I met Amjed Saeed in Baghdad in 2004. He was my interpreter, and we got through dangerous days in Falluja and Sadr City together.

The following year, Amjed was hired by the American aid agency USAid, where he met Aseel. By the time they married in 2007, both had fled the war, he to Libya, she to Malaysia.

When the US extended its Special Immigrant Visa programme to all Iraqis who had worked at least one year for the US operation in Iraq, they returned to Baghdad to apply.

“We just wanted to feel safe, to lead a normal life, like other people in the world,” Amjed explains. “We want to have a home, a car, enjoy ourselves, meet friends on weekends . . .”

Fear is a habit not easily shaken off.

“You were working with the Americans . . .” said an Iraqi friend of Aseel’s when she visited the couple in the spartan apartment provided by Catholic Charities. “Shhhh!” Aseel said in a panic, before bursting into laughter.

“In 2006, I would say goodbye to my mother each morning, thinking it was the last time,” she explains. “I thought someone would kill me because I worked for the Americans.”

Now, in this snow-covered Virginia suburb, with its unsightly strip malls and low-income housing, Aseel still watches the ground, for fear of stepping on a booby-trap bomb.

“When we go outside, we catch ourselves looking around for gunmen,” adds Amjed.

Both survived near-misses. Aseel had just left the United Nations building in Canal Street in Baghdad when it was destroyed by a suicide bomber in 2003.

She was in the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross when it was blown up. And she was on the Jumhurriya Bridge leading into the Green Zone when a convoy was attacked there.

Amjed was travelling in a public mini-van when insurgents missed the police car ahead and detonated a bomb under the van. Miraculously, no one was killed.

Last summer, Mounawar al-Zubaidi, a close friend of Amjed’s who had also worked with western journalists, died in the suicide bombing of the Iraqi finance ministry.

One of Aseel’s neighbours, a Christian named Marwan, died in front of his own mother when a suicide bomber struck as they were leaving church.

There’s no table in the Saeeds’ temporary apartment, so we set our mugs filled with cardamom-scented tea on a chair.

“I just feel incredibly lucky to be here,” says Amjed.

A portable laptop with a bilingual Arabic and English keyboard sits on the floor, tuned to Iraqi radio and TV stations on the internet. Each time there’s a bombing in Baghdad, the couple contact family and friends to make sure they’re okay.

Amjed and Aseel left with little more than the shirts on their backs – 20kg of luggage each. They surf the internet for several hours daily, searching for an inexpensive apartment and jobs.

“The hardest part is not having a car,” says Amjed.

After the stultifying bureaucracy of the Arab world, the US is a cinch. The couple obtained Social Security cards in January, and this week received Green Cards (permanent residence status).

Amjed and Aseel recognise the paradox: the US wrecked their country, and now welcomes them with open arms, and they are grateful.

Neither feel the slightest regret about leaving. Amjed is Shia; Aseel Sunni, though he stresses, “We don’t think that way.”

They accuse Iran and Saudi Arabia of fighting a Shia-Sunni war by proxy in their country. Both believe the 2003 US invasion was not worth the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and millions of displaced it cost, though Amjed admits, “There was no other way to dislodge Saddam Hussein.”

Corruption, almost as much as the continuing violence, made them want to flee.

“If we’d had good governments after Saddam, it might have been worth it,” says Aseel.

“But again we have a government that is working against the Iraqi people. The governments since 2003 have done more damage than Saddam did in 35 years.”

“We knew settling in America wouldn’t be easy, especially the beginning,” says Amjed.

“I don’t care,” says Aseel. “My father died when I was 22 and I supported my whole family. I count on myself for everything.”

The couple intend to have a baby, “an American citizen”, as soon as they obtain jobs, an apartment and medical insurance.

“We’re not so young anymore,” admits Amjed (39), “but we can still achieve our dreams”.