Editor’s Note: As journalists, we spend a lot of time talking with officials and community members and distilling it into stories that explore important issues of our time. But we realize that sometimes it is just more powerful to hear it straight from the source. This essay is a special feature focusing on the experience of immigrants and refugees in the Pittsburgh area. Mustafa's last name is being withheld to protect his identity and the safety of his family in Iraq.
I am from a poor Iraqi family. My father was a carpenter and, at the time, my mom stayed at home. I am the eldest son of two brothers and two sisters. We lived hand to mouth — partly due to sanctions the United Nations put on my home country following Operation Desert Storm.
Millions of people were dying because of the severe lack of medication and food. I remember a lot of nights we slept without dinner because my father couldn't bring food or money home to my family.
When I was in 12th grade, in 2003, the United States and its allies invaded Iraq. The United States claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The war dismantled the Iraqi army. Thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed and injured. It destabilized the Middle East and Arab world.
Surrounded by despair, a self-motivated whisper came to my ear. This whisper would come to me again throughout my life, throughout Iraq and with me to my journey to Pittsburgh. It is a whisper from within, guided by Allah (God), literature and my spirit. The voice said, “You should apply to university and pursue a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature.”
The same year my country was invaded, I got the approval to be one of the English Department’s freshman students at University of Anbar, College of Education for Humanities.
I completed my first year in the college successfully.
In late 2004, Al-Qaeda group insurgents came across the unsecured borders and entered into most Iraqi provinces (including my hometown of Ramadi). A lot of rebellious Iraqi fighters formed their groups inside the cities to fight against the U.S. army. The rich families fled to safe places. My family could not flee the city because we were poor. We couldn't rent houses in different cities.
One day, the fighters grouped off into all the neighborhoods of the city. They prepared to engage in a fight with U.S. troops. I was outside, heading to the market to buy some food for my family when the fighters opened fire against U.S. soldiers.
The clashes ended after two days. I took cover inside the supermarket. A few other men and I ate from the store’s supply while we were in hiding. Before I returned home, my family had thought I was dead. Many civilians were injured or killed that day, but I survived.
The first day I headed back to college for my second year could have been my last.
I dressed up and I took my books.
I went to Ramadi downtown to ride the bus to college. I rode the bus with 20 students: girls and boys, their ages around 19 to 25. We were about 1 mile from Ramadi headed to the University of Anbar when a roadside bomb exploded. I was in the back of the bus. I took cover behind the seat. The scene was extremely horrible and bloody.
I rushed toward the door to get out. Everything was silent. I got out of the bus with two others. I ran to one of the houses nearby to take cover. I feared another explosion or maybe a confrontation between the U.S. troops and insurgents. When I returned home that day, I realized that I sustained only minor injuries to my head, arm and chest.
Later, I heard from the news that all the students on that bus were killed except three. I was one of the three students who survived. My parents, relatives and friends advised me to stop going to the college.
“That's too dangerous to do so,” they said.
But after a week of silence at home, that familiar whisper came to my ear again. I had to return to college and pursue my dream.
Around this time, my father became sick with diabetes and kidney disease. He didn’t have the medications or the money to take care of himself.
My mother became a math teacher in elementary school.
In August 2007, I graduated from college with my bachelor’s degree. I wanted to help my family financially and I always wanted to make my father proud of me. I applied for a job within the Ministry of Education to be an English teacher in high school in my hometown. I got the approval. I was 24, and that was my first official job.
I wanted to teach English to Iraqi students and develop their skills in that language because, unfortunately, Iraqis are not big fans of learning English. I dedicated myself to do something, to make students love this beautiful language. I also earned some money from teaching and I hoped to be able to help my family. Unfortunately, the income from the government was not enough to cover my family's expenses and medications.
The whisper came back. This time, it said, “I have to do something remarkable to improve my family's monthly income.” I had dreams: I wanted to build a second floor at my family's house, complete my master’s degree and buy a new car.
But, how could I achieve those goals with my monthly income of $500? That salary went to transportation, non-government power, food, etc.
I decided to search for jobs in different ways. At that time, a lot of international organizations came to Iraq to help people in need. I got various types of jobs, administrative and human resources, with these organizations. They paid well.
Through the Will of Allah (God) and self-determination, I achieved many personal and social goals even though it was unsafe in my country. I completed my master’s degree in American literature, built a second floor at my family's house, bought four cars, taught English to more than 1,000 students, helped people get jobs with international organizations in Iraq and helped to coordinate support for displaced families by providing them with food, hygiene kits and more.
Still, more tragedy came my way. At that point I thought I suffered the greatest loss of my life.
In February 2012, my father passed away. He was only 59. His chronic renal failure took his life. Our family lost our provider and cornerstone. I wanted to make him proud. I wish I could share all these accomplishments with him.
But unfortunately, this is how life goes.
The beginning of ISIS
December 2013 marked the beginning of dangerous life again — when ISIS/ISIL invaded Iraq.
They entered into my hometown quickly. This war was entirely different from the past wars I’d witnessed. ISIL would start street battles against the Iraqi army and anyone whose opinions or beliefs differed from its extremist ideology.
My whisper came back. The voice said, “It’s enough. I can't handle the instability and insecurity of life in Iraq anymore. We have to apply for immigration, seeking stability and security in another country.”
My mother wouldn’t agree to leave the country, so I applied by myself through a long and complicated process.
I often saw dead bodies in the streets. And again, we lived days and nights without food. Militants were preventing food and fuel from reaching parts of the province, particularly those that the extremist group did not fully control.
In February 2014, ISIL showed up at my house and forced us to leave.
They used our houses as their military bases or booby traps. We left our house and we couldn't take anything. I left behind memories, furniture, pictures, laptops, books, clothes, all academic certificates, everything.
My family and I rented a small apartment in downtown Ramadi. I remember one day I went shopping when suddenly the man walking next to me fell down dead. A sniper had shot him in the head. I felt the bullet hiss by my head. This was an example of our daily lives at that time. The bullets were flying everywhere.
One night, two bullets hit the apartment window while we were sleeping. They hit the wall inside the room, just above my head.
Through the desert
Eventually, in mid-2015, ISIL took control of all of Ramadi. Hundreds of thousands of internal displaced families (including mine) headed toward Baghdad through the desert of Anbar. It took a day to cross the desert.
Once through the desert, we came to a small iron bridge called Bzebiz, which links Ramadi and Baghdad. It is the only way to the the city. But the Iraqi government prevented us from entering the capital for days because they feared we were undercover ISIL operatives. The government treated all people as if they were suspects.
We were stuck in the desert climate for days with little food or water and no medication. Old men, old women, boys, girls and other adults suffered. Some died of dehydration and infections.
I saw an old woman die because she couldn't go to the hospital and get a surgery for her heart. I saw a pregnant woman deliver her baby in the desert, and the baby died. Little children cried around me, and I felt their pain.
After days of waiting, the Iraqi government approved to let the people cross the bridge into Baghdad — under one condition. They told us we have to call someone originally from Baghdad as a sponsor. We had to complete paperwork and then they would allow us to pass the bridge.
Fortunately, I called one of my friends in Baghdad and he came to us. We completed the documents for sponsorship and finally entered Baghdad.
At that sad moment, a self-motivated whisper came to my ear. It said, "I should do something to help internally displaced families.”
I rushed to one of the international organizations in Baghdad to follow through with this. Through an organization, I contributed to helping hundreds of families. When the organization’s project was over, I took my family and headed to Erbil in northern Iraq.
Meanwhile, I completed my immigration interviews and medical tests.
I finally received the phone call I’d been waiting for. The person on the line told me, “You have been selected and your case has been approved to go to the U.S. as a legal refugee. Your departure date will be Sept. 28, 2015, from Baghdad International Airport.”
I felt sadness and happiness. I am going to leave my country and family alone. Yet, it felt like I was being given the chance to to live a secure and stable life.
Some of my friends and relatives discouraged me to travel outside Iraq. They told me, “You are going to be homeless again in the U.S.” They told me that my life was going to be ruined in America.
But again I heard that familiar, self-affirming whisper. Their preconceptions didn’t have to become my reality. While I was preparing to leave, I received a phone call from one of my neighbors in Ramadi. He told me our house had been destroyed.
He sent me pictures through Facebook. We prayed and hoped that one day we can return back home and rebuild the house.
Even though my house had been destroyed, my life was not over. I redirected my energy toward achieving my new goals in the United States.
I landed in Pittsburgh on Oct. 1, 2015.
Coming to America
My first challenge in the United States was the language. Though, I was an English teacher in Iraq for several years and worked with various international organizations, I didn't practice English for long time because of the wars and dangerous conditions there.
In my first three months of living in Pittsburgh, I challenged myself to read English and to listen to the American accent and conversations. I wanted to refresh my mind again. I enrolled as a refugee student at Literacy Pittsburgh.
The second challenge was a big one.
The organization that was responsible for my immigration case informed me that they were going to pay for my rent, utilities and bus pass for only three months. How would I pay for everything by January 2016? They told me that I had to get a job in order to live in the United States, otherwise, I’d end up homeless.
I applied for dozens of jobs (human resources, admin and recruitment work) in my first three months in United States. I got rejected and I felt frustrated over and over. It was hard to have no family, no relatives or friends here to guide or help me.
My younger brother was in the United States, too, but he was an international student at Youngstown University in Ohio. I hadn't seen him for more than five years. It was such a great surprise to him when I came to Pittsburgh.
At the end of October 2015, I learned there would be a job fair event at UPMC in the U.S. Steel Tower.
I participated with a ray of hope. I told the people there I had come from Iraq, looking for a stable life away from war zones. I told them about my goals. And I mentioned that I had good international experience in human resources tasks. In early December 2015, I started working with UPMC in the human resources department.
This was a great moment, but tragedy was just around the corner for me and my family again.
On Sept. 29, 2017, my phone rang and I saw that it was my brother’s roommate from Youngstown University. He said my brother Muntaseer was dead. At first, I thought it was a sick joke.
My brother was trying to change the oil of his car when the car fell and crushed his head. He died immediately. He left a wife and a baby girl behind. It was an unbearable shock to my family, especially my mother. She had expected my brother to return to Iraq in 2018.
I buried my brother in Youngstown. That was the most tragic event in my life.
Still, I must press forward in his memory. I continue to work now for UPMC in its HR compliance department. I decided to get a master’s degree in business administration with a concentration in human resources management at Carlow University; I am going to finish my program in December 2018.
Making ends meet is difficult. Sometimes I get loans from close friends to pay bills. It’s time again for me to listen to my inner voice and find a new opportunity that will better position me to pay for our expenses.
Beyond my personal ambitions, I continue to hold hope for my home country.
For many years, Iraq has been bleeding. The people are dying because of deadly wars. I hope peace and happiness will return to Iraq soon. I hope love and prosperity return to Iraq soon. I hope to see my family, relatives and friends find stability.
I hope to eventually build or buy a home for my family in Iraq, but it won’t be for me. I wish to earn my U.S. citizenship.
I always wanted to live a tranquil life. And I believe I am in the right country, the land of the American dream, to finally have that.
Mustafa works for UPMC’s Human Resources Compliance Department. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This project has been made possible with the generous support of The Heinz Endowments.