Refugee Stories: Deaths of friends leads Iraqi to United States

The following interview was done by Zachary Wierschem, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. This story is about Yasser, an Iraqi refugee living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees.

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I sat down at a local coffee shop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA with an Iraqi refugee named Yasser.  Yasser is a young man from Baghdad, in his mid-twenties and in the United States with his mother, father, two younger sisters, and younger brother. I was connected with Yasser through a contact that I had made at Marquette University who had previously worked with refugees in Greece and who currently does work for refugees in the local Milwaukee community. With an air of preparedness to share his experience, Yasser began to unravel his story and experience as a refugee beginning in Baghdad, Iraq and continuing to Milwaukee.

For important context on Yasser’s story, the humanitarian crisis and refugee situation concerning Iraq has been going on for about 30 years, beginning with the Iran-Iraq War (The First Gulf-War) and continuing even to today with the presence of ISIS through frequent terrorist attacks often involving car bombs killing people. Yasser came to the United States in 2015, during the Iraqi insurgency and civil war that began in 2011 which has caused over 4.4 million Iraqis to be internally displaced within Iraq and 264,100 Iraqis as refugees abroad in 2015. As a result of the conflict, many of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) stay in camps with limited resources and difficult living conditions and refugees often face issues of finding asylum in safe countries and meeting their basic necessities in refugee camps.

When I first sat down with Yasser, he expressed a genuine openness and excitement to share his story as a refugee with me. He came to the United States in 2015 when he was about 26 years old. Two years before coming to the United States, his father’s friend from work asked if he would like to go to the United States with him. Initially, Yasser’s father said yes to the offer, but Yasser declined when his father asked if he would like to go too. He declined because he had a stable job in Iraq, and there were no car bombs or shootings that affected him. His family stayed in Iraq for another two years.

Back in Baghdad, Yasser worked with his brother and had lots of cousins and friends that he could depend on and enjoy life with. He spoke highly of his friends, saying that everyday they would call him asking, “Yasser, go out?” Additionally, he recounted that his friends would come to his home everyday to see him and he would often go to their homes and do the same. Yasser shared that, in the United States, he thinks about his Iraqi friends because 19 of them have died. When I asked if he ever witnessed any of their deaths, he replied with a firm, “Yes. Every week. Every month, friends died.” Describing the scene in Baghdad, he said, “My country, area, and neighborhood just like car bombs in the street. It hurt inside.”

He said that a car bomb went off near him when he was in Baghdad and reflected, “And I wish I had died.” His face was solemn as he said, “I think, ‘I want die,’ and I cut my hand. Because why did my 19 friends die?” He still struggles with the thought of his friends dying while he is living his life in the United States. “The people from Church come to my home because I cut my hand.”

A Protestant church in Milwaukee cared for him and his family when they came to the United States and he said that they pray for him whenever he has a problem. Even though Yasser and his family are Muslim, they go to a Protestant church in the Milwaukee area which he described as having an atmosphere of welcome and hospitality for him and his family. The church community has been a good foundation for both him and his family with emotional struggles, offering him and his family support in any way that they can.

Two years after Yasser declined to go to the United States and after many of his friends had died because of car bombs, his girlfriend was killed. Yasser shared, “My girlfriend shared my heart, and I wanted to marry her.” He said that his girlfriend’s mother and father trusted him and gave him their blessing to marry her. “Okay Yasser, I trust you. You good guy.” Taking this moment with cultural context, Yasser shared with me that men can be killed for not taking relationships with women seriously because of the protective nature of their fathers and their brothers. “I ask him, ‘You with her for what? Just time? Or play? Or like wife? What you like with her?,” and if the conversation does not end well, he added, “I fight him, I’ll kill him.” It was a huge honor for Yasser to obtain a blessing to marry his girlfriend from her parents.

The death of Yasser’s girlfriend was the last straw for him, and his mother, father, two sisters and brother migrated to the United States in 2015. When asked if it was easy to come to the United States, Yasser replied, “Yeah, very easy.” It was easy for his family because his father worked for the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and they had passports and visas.

Yasser currently has one brother and one sister still in Baghdad. He said that his brother came with his family to the United States, but then his brother went back because he was crying out of homesickness and had a girlfriend back in Iraq. After 2-3 months, Yasser’s brother made the decision to travel back and eventually married his girlfriend, so Yasser’s family is split between the United States and Iraq.

Yasser and his family made the decision to come to Milwaukee because his father’s friend who had moved to the United States had come to Milwaukee and said that, “It was a nice city and Wisconsin is nice.” Then, Yasser’s father saw Milwaukee, found it to be a good city to settle in, and ultimately decided to resettle there. I then asked Yasser if coming to the United States was a good decision for him, which he responded, “Yeah, it’s good. I don’t care because why I have a lot of friends who died?”

I asked what Yasser misses most. “I miss everything. I miss my brother, I miss my sister, my cousins. I have many, many cousins. Big, big family. My friends.” Essentially, Yasser said that he misses the old life he lived back home. Taking these reflections to mind, he said that Baghdad would not be the same if he went back, and that we would never move back. “No, no. Because what would I have?” He said that if he goes back, he would see his sister and his brother which would bring him joy, but the life that he lived in Iraq has died. Yasser does not want to go to a coffee shop with his friends and see the places where his friends are no longer, referencing the 19 friends who had died.

When asked if there was anything that he would bring from the Iraqi culture to American culture he said, “I wish to teach people in the U.S. that my country is good. That there is no worry.”

Yasser said that he did not expect so many trees and streets in the United States. Additionally, he was surprised about the cold in the Midwestern United States, though he said that he enjoys the cold. He shared that his parents want to stay here and that they do not miss Iraq too much. Thinking about the future, Yasser said that when his younger siblings finish school and get jobs, he would like to buy a house and stay in the United States.

Yasser’s story is one thread in the fabric of the refugee experience which is often filled with tragedy, death, and persecution. Yasser’s affinity for his friends and family shines through his story as the foundations from which he has built his new life upon in the United States. He was also unafraid to share his harsh realities with me, and his authentic vulnerability is an inspiring testimony to his perseverance and strength. Although Yasser continues to struggle with the death of his friends in Iraq, his courage to keep moving forward and think about living in the United States is a shining example which anyone can take to heart and implement in their own lives.

Zachary Wierschem is a student in Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Marquette University in the United States.

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