Many of my friends began to hate me, the faces of people who looked at me differently at airports and other public places, even my co-workers; making derogatory comments. I apologized to many people over the years, even people that I didn't know. All I wanted to do was to tell the world that I am not a "terrorist."
My family and I fled Iraq with no choice. Saddam Hussein personally organized a team of men in a plot to bury my family alive. The reason for killing my family was vague, it was only understood that my father worked as an informant for the CIA to oust Saddam Hussein in the 80s and 90s.
My family lived in a dangerous world, moving from town to town in fear. While my father's work was classified and dangerous, my family of 7 managed to survive. In 1988, Saddam Hussein put an open contract out on my father's head and the heads of my entire family. Several times, we were shot at and faced the very real threat of being buried alive. Although life was rough and dangerous, my father continued with his job until suspicion was aroused among the Iraqis that my father was working with the U.S. He always supported America in removing Saddam Hussein. And that alone was the Iraqi’s dream.
In November 1996, president Clinton ordered my family to leave Iraq immediately. It was great to see that president Clinton intervened and helped my family! In February 1997, we arrived in the United States, in the state of Utah. Ecstatic and extremely lucky to have survived that tyranny, my family and I were no longer in fear.
It was snowing and freezing when we were dropped off at a one-bedroom house on the evening of February 25, 1997. The electricity wasn't functioning properly and the heater wasn't turned on. At that moment, I thought I was in the freezing dark mountains of Kurdistan, once again. Except, of course without the fear of being killed. Our rent was only half paid, even though the initial agreement, from the Rescue Committee, stated the first three months rent were paid. We needed to find jobs – and soon!
I desperately went on a job hunt. Luckily, I found a job at a nearby college, working in its library. My English was terrible. I was hired to reshelf library books so I didn’t really need to communicate. That job earned me enough money so I could pay the other half of the rent. The landlord seemed to have no patience; he warned us that if this happened again, we could be faced with eviction. In Iraq we would have faced execution.
By mid March of 1997, my father also found a job doing carpentry work. Meanwhile, I wrote numerous letters to our congressman and the state senator about our situation. No response from either.
The immigration department labeled my family as illegal, despite our initial status of “Political Asylum.” In 1998, we applied for our status change to get our Green Cards. Eight months later, they had lost our forms. It didn't make sense! We tried fighting for our rights, but nothing could be done without a good attorney, but we didn’t have the money to spend on high priced lawyers. I wrote several letters to Homeland Security as well as the director of Immigration. I also sent a letter to the Bush Administration. Again, no response!
Shortly after 9/11/2001, my family and I decided to move to Detroit, Michigan to avoid any discriminatory backlash. The reason for our move was simple: Detroit offered "more diversity."
One early afternoon my father and I went for a drive in and around downtown Detroit. It had been a while since we had a father-son talk and one of the topics we discussed was my father’s wish to stay in Michigan and apply for our Green Cards because the Salt Lake office had lost our applications.
While driving on I-75 North, I wanted to exit the highway and go towards downtown when, suddenly, I lost track and took a different exit which led me on I-94 towards Canada. The 8 lane road bedlam was jammed with small vehicles, SUVs and Semi trailers. The only thing I could do was to go straight toward the border. As we approached the border checkpoint, I simply told the man that I had taken a wrong exit. Suspicion sparked when I told him I was from Iraq. He had us wait there for a few minutes while he made his phone calls, and told us to go straight and to make a sharp U-Turn. I was ecstatic!
I drove away as instructed, but more than fifteen border patrol officers with their rifles pointed were waiting for us ahead. This was embarrassing! They had us get out of the car with our hands above our heads. They searched for “bombs” as they combed through the car. Then the K-9 unit arrived and they also searched us. After forty-five minutes in the freezing temperature, we were taken into an office on the border, still handcuffed.
Three Federal Agents awaited our arrival. The agents had photos of alleged terrorists and asked whether we knew any of them. Then my father told the agents, he worked for the CIA before in Iraq. The agents seemed to have no interest about my father's work as an informant. The interrogation went on for 4 hours that evening until they realized we were clean.
It wasn't long before my family moved back to Utah, where the employment rate was very low.
The examples of being treated unfairly abound. In one instance, I was removed from a plane because I sat in the exit row. Another time, my luggage was lost for 8 days. Then, I was nearly attacked by a U.S. Marshal for having a fishing pole on board of the plane. They thought I had snuck a rifle onto the plane!
The Immigration Department as well as the Obama Administration should really focus on those that are legal in the U.S. today and process their documents before moving on to those who are illegal. There are so many refugees and immigrants here in the U.S. legally who are awaiting their status change. I am eager to see some major changes within the Immigration’s processing lines.
Today, my family and I are still fighting with Immigration for denying and delaying our documents. As for my father, he still lives with that disappointment and is determined that some day, he will find justice.
Alan Karam attends the University of Utah and volunteers his time to teach English at The Refugee and Immigrant Center at the Asian Association of Utah. He is currently working on a memoir about his experiences as an “unwanted” Iraqi immigrant during the post 9/11 era.