Refugee Stories: Being human

The following interview was done by Valerie Luckey, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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Adam Ali* teaches English and living skills to refugees in Erie, Pennsylvania, United States of America at Saint Benedict Education Center (SBEC), a ministry of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie that provides education and job placement services. A refugee himself, he understands their struggle. It is through his work with these refugees and others that he has grown in compassion for the inherent struggles of being human; it is also through his work with these refugees and others that he has grown himself as a human. He recently sat down with me to share his story for the Peace Stories blog.

Adam Ali was born in Iraq, outside the capital city of Baghdad. As a young child, he spent time with his four sisters and four brothers. His father worked as a carpenter and his mom worked at home while being self-employed as a carpet maker. He also played with friends, growing up in a neighborhood with “green areas called orchards” and “natural life and quiet.” He played soccer and enjoyed going to school – a normal upbringing for many children. Adam said it was his mother and father who taught him, “This is wrong. This is right,” and “You have to be respectful of people, even if they don’t agree with you.”

In the top tier of his class, Adam attended both high school and college, choosing to study English literature at the university level. There he read the classics like Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, as well as Waiting for Godot and Great Expectations, while learning grammar and composition. Adam was studying to live his dream of being a translator or a teacher. His oldest brother was an Arabic teacher, and another brother was an instructor in agriculture – his role models.

Little did he know how those dreams would realize themselves.

After attending university, Ali began teaching English at the high-school level. This was during the 1990’s, during the First Gulf War. At this time many Iraqi people, including his friends “left legally and illegally, having to give money either way.” Adam said he did not have the money to leave the country, but if he did he “would have spent it on the family.” Making only the equivalent of three U.S. American dollars each month, he had to sell gold and furniture, work in the market, and teach private English lessons to the children of wealthy citizens to support himself.

During this time as a teacher, Ali married his wife and began a family. Then the year 2003 came. Saddam Hussein fell from power during the United States-led invasion of Iraq in March of that year. Now, there was no government. One day Adam was walking and saw a Humvee with an announcement declaring a need for doctors, engineers, and interpreters. Adam felt encouraged to apply as an interpreter. With his translation skills, he passed the written and oral exams with ease and was hired immediately.

From 2003 until 2009, Adam worked for the Civil Affairs of the United States government in Iraq. During that time he “rebuilt schools, orphanages, and hospitals.” He “talked to people in the street, asking, ‘What are your concerns?’” I wondered why Ali would choose this work where “people will look at you like a traitor,” where he was threatened more than once, where he moved to live in different locations at military bases away from his wife and children for days at a time. By 2007 the sectarian violence had escalated greatly: “If you are an interpreter or translator, you are killed right away. Many of my friends were killed, thrown in a dump field.” Why then, would you do this work, full of risk and danger?

“I helped people,” Ali told me, “like rebuilding schools and other things. When you do something like that, you feel you are human.”

Ah, there it was. Adam felt like he was human. I asked him to elaborate. He told me, “It made me feel proud.” I asked if he felt the same way, the same goodness of being human, working with refugees here in Erie. “Yes, being through this myself, I want to help them.”

In 2008, Ali applied to come to America through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He was in the first one hundred accepted. People wondered, with the danger to his life in his US government work, why he stayed as long as he did in Iraq, “My family did not want to come because life here is not easy, especially if you don’t have friends or relatives, so you have adapt.” Again, Ali conveyed to me his understanding of and compassion for the struggle for so many refugees today. While many members of his family still live in Iraq, he had to tell them, “Just let me go; I want something safe.”

In 2009, Adam and his family came to the United States of America. When they were in Frankfurt, Germany he thought he was coming to Raleigh, North Carolina, but there he was told that he would come to Erie, Pennsylvania.

Since then, Ali has worked as a translator for a family doctor and for the International Institute, a committee that works to help uprooted people rebuild their lives. Once he found employment at SBEC, he started teaching in a classroom again. More than just English and life skills, he teaches his students that they are worthy humans, “Here they feel embarrassed and nervous, so I teach them to be confident.”

In 2015, Adam became a citizen of the United States. But even as he continues to settle here with his wife and children in this country, he remembers the reality of being human, a reality he has learned through his own struggle, “You don’t know:  Today you are healthy; tomorrow you are sick. Today you are rich; tomorrow you have no money.” Adam is moved to compassion when he sees others struggling, “When you someone in need, you wish to help them.”

Adam’s story, unique yet filled with the truth of being human, taught me that in all the uncertainty intrinsic to life, the best thing we can do is be there to help others in their need.

*Not his real name.

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Valerie Luckey recently entered religious life in the community of Benedictine Sisters in Erie, Pennsylvania, USA. She is currently a novice studying the history of monasticism and the community while exploring many new adventures. Before entering, she taught fourth grade in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  

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