When Fais and his family moved to the United States in 2009, they landed across the street from us. They had been granted asylum in the United States after the post-war chaos in Baghdad, Iraq forced them to flee. It didn’t take long for us to become friends and share life in many ways. Recently, I asked Fais if I could interview him for this blog to share his experience as a refugee. He was eager to oblige. We were already scheduled to visit a mortgage broker today and planned to do the interview afterwards. I had been walking with them through the mortgage process – it is complicated enough when English is your first language – but things ran long, and as we drove home we started to look for a time to reschedule.
Fais was riding in the passenger seat while his son drove. Now a college student in Pittsburgh, Ibrahim had offered to sit in for the interview. Fais speaks English well, but with an accent. Ibrahim arrived in the US just after becoming a teenager, and now speaks English without an accent. As we started to talk, the story unfolded. Sitting in the back seat, I couldn’t see their faces, but I could tell from Fais’ voice that it was an intimate story.
I did know, but we had never talked about it together. The story hung over everything I knew about their past. Fais had told me about it, in a fairly general way, but I had never talked about it with Ibrahim. It is not the sort of thing that comes up naturally in conversation.
“Are you willing to talk about it?” I asked.
“Sure.” Ibrahim replied nonchalantly, but I don’t think it is a story that he tells often.
“Things were different after the war. People didn’t go outside much anymore. I always would play in the streets and play soccer with my friends. But after the American soldiers arrived we stayed inside. We played a lot more video games.”
Fais had worked with the government before the war and like many Iraqis, the fall of Saddam introduced a difficult period in their lives. As he told me later, “In those days, no one had money.”
One morning Ibrahim left the house in the morning to pick up some groceries. On the way, he stopped at a friend’s house to grab a video game that he had left there the day before. He noticed a suspicious car parked outside, but didn’t think much of it. As he reflected back on it, Ibrahim remarked that the family he visited was known for being pretty well off, and may have been the targets of a kidnapping plot. Ibrahim may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After leaving, he was followed to the store. A strange man in a brown jacket followed him into the market. “In our neighborhood, everyone knew each other,” said Ibrahim. “When this guy, that I didn’t know, started to ask me questions it made the store owner nervous. He told me to wait around till he left. I waited awhile and when it had seemed that he was gone, I left to walk home.”
But he was not alone. Ibrahim was followed across the street and as the man drew closer he was joined by two other men.
“The strange thing was, I was right in front of the school when they grabbed me,” said Ibrahim. A black car rolled up immediately and he was thrown into the back seat. The kidnappers punched him and yelled in his face. Apparently, setting him on edge would enhance the negotiation to follow.
“All I could think about was my mom,” Ibrahim told me. “I was wondering, ‘How is she feeling right now?’”
Back at the house, Fais was getting nervous. He didn’t know where his son was, and his fears rose quickly. A quick turn through the neighborhood revealed that no one knew where he was. In those days, kidnappings were not uncommon. Often, they did not end well.
“I knew right away, that someone had taken my son,” said Fais. Over a decade later his voice still cuts out some as he tells this emotional story.
Five minutes after returning home, the phone rang. Young Ibrahim had been able to give his home phone number to the kidnappers and they called with their demands.
“You son is with us. Don’t call the police. Don’t call anyone. Give us the money and you can get him back.”
“Ibrahim, I am here.” Fais told him, when they handed the phone to his son to prove that he was alive. “I am going to get you.”
His only option was to comply as much as possible and hope that these kidnappers were “honest”.
“I don’t think that anyone would have helped anyway,” said Ibrahim, matter-of-factly. “In those days, the government had bigger things to worry about.”
Fais became a little more animated as he rehashed the events of the story, “I told them that they could come to my house and take anything that we had. Come, I have two cars, you can have them. Take any of my possessions, but give me my son…but they wanted cash.”
They asked for the equivalent of $150,000. At the time, it was an incredible sum of money and practically impossible to get. It would require selling nearly everything they had and borrowing money from relatives, but in the end, they scraped together enough money to make a reasonable counter offer. It was possible that they would take the money and still kill Fais. But he saw no other reasonable course of action.
They arranged a meeting point on the highway and Fais presented himself in plain sight to show that he was not followed. Fais walked forward to the cars that pulled off the road towards him. Ibrahim was in the back seat, flanked by men on each side.
“You have my son. I have your money. Just give him to me and we will leave.” Both parties acted relaxed and friendly so as to avoid suspicion. The exchange progressed smoothly. Fais took his son’s hand, determined to never let it go. They briskly left the scene, caught a taxi and returned home.
“It must have been a relief,” I said. Fais didn’t understand me at first. Maybe the word needed translation. Maybe it was an understatement. Maybe, in hindsight it was seen to be just the beginning of the struggle.
The kidnappers were Shia Muslims, a minority Muslim sect, which happens to be predominant in Iraq. Violence between them and the majority Sunni Muslims colored the post-Saddam landscape with the red of shed blood. As Sunni Muslims, Fais and his family would have been naturally suspicious, but now they knew that they were targets. The kidnappers actually called to confirm the request, and offer their future protection. But now that they had paid a ransom, word might spread. Future kidnappings would become even more likely. They knew that they had to leave.
Three months later they sold their remaining possessions and hired a private driver to take them across the closest border to Syria. They left with nothing but their clothes, some blankets and their remaining money. After a year in Syria, where there were no options for work, they moved again to Jordan. Here Fais got a job as an accountant for a baker and they applied for asylum with the United Nations. After an intensive and extensive interrogation and vetting process, the family was cleared for resettlement, and three years after fleeing Iraq they found refuge in the United States. A relative lived in Pittsburgh, so it was a natural destination.
Pittsburgh is a world away from Baghdad. Their family is safe and the challenges that they faced have knit them together in a tight bond. Each of the four children are either in college or working in the area.
“It was not easy to get settled here,” said Fais. “Not easy at all. It is still not easy.” Perhaps he was thinking of the nearly two-hour meeting that we had with a mortgage broker. “We just want to live and to be friendly with everybody. Just like how we lived in our country.” As our interview wound down, I added the words that I have heard Fais say many times over the years. “We have much to be thankful for.”