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From Baghdad to Doraville

An Iraqi refugee finds safety in America



Ahmad Ali wants no part of Iraq's sectarian war. Raised in a mixed neighborhood in Baghdad, Ali didn't even know he was a Sunni Muslim until he was 18 years old. He didn't know what the words Sunni or Shiite meant. In his mind he was, and is, simply a Muslim and an Iraqi who, despite the war that has torn his country apart, wants only to live in peace with his neighbors.

For now, his wish has been granted. Sort of. He lives at peace with his neighbors. Only his neighborhood is no longer in Baghdad. It's in Doraville.

Ali left Iraq in 2006 with his wife and two children. As hard as he tried to avoid the country's sectarian bloodbath, the war kept finding him. Rather than fight or die, he fled.

Ali and his family are just four of the more than 4 million Iraqis forced from their homes by the chaos and brutality that followed the March 2003 U.S. invasion.

The Iraqi refugee crisis is one of the world's largest humanitarian catastrophes. In this century, only the genocide in Darfur has sent nearly as many innocent civilians running for their lives.

Yet despite our government's oft-expressed concern about the welfare and safety of Iraqi people, the United States has turned its back on the Iraqi refugee crisis. The United States gave refuge to just 1,608 Iraqis last year, 43 of whom now live in Georgia. By contrast, Sweden, a country of 9 million people that played no part in the invasion, has accepted 31,300 Iraqis since March 2003.

Relative to other Iraqi refugees, Ahmad Ali and his family got lucky. Stranded in Syria without work along with more than 1.5 million other Iraqi refugees, the United States granted the Ali family asylum in December. He only got into the United States, he believes, through the recommendation of friends he made during his career as a journalist and English-Arabic interpreter for various Western news outlets in Iraq.

Ali spoke to Creative Loafing over a two-week period. He discussed his youth, his initial enthusiasm for Saddam's overthrow, his disappointment at the U.S. occupation and the violence that forced him to become a refugee.

Ahmad Ali is a pseudonym. To protect members of his family who are still in Iraq from reprisals, Creative Loafing agreed to change his name and omit some details that may help identify him, including photographs. Ali believes at least four people, including members of his family, have already been killed as retaliation for his association with the Western media.

CL has read Ali's journalism and spoken to two of his former colleagues at a Western news organization, who confirmed his relationship with them.

Ali was brought up in a middle-class neighborhood in the south of Baghdad. The majority of the neighborhood was Shiite Muslim, but Ali's family is Sunni Muslim – one of many Sunni families in the area.

To be very honest to you, I didn't know I was a Sunni and my best friend was a Shiite. Both of us didn't know about being Sunni or Shiite until we reached 18 years. It's a funny story.

In Iraq [during Saddam Hussein's rule], the law says when you reach 18 you have to join the army. If you were studying, what you need is to get a letter from the school or the college and give it to the recruitment center. They process your papers in order to say that you [don't have to join the army] until you finish your studies.

The man who was supposed to [get me the letter] was stealing my money. I was bribing him because [the office] was very crowded. I was patient with him for one week, then I got mad and hit him. They took me to a [police] officer. He did ask me whether I was Sunni or Shiite. I didn't know what it means.

I went back to my best friend and asked him. He said, "What? What does this mean, Sunni or Shiite?" We went to his mother and we did ask her about it. I told her the story, and she said, "I'm not gonna answer you. Leave this. It's not serious." At that time we realized I am Sunni and he is Shiite.

My parents never made a distinction. If they did, I would know I was Sunni. My brother got married to a Shiite woman. His son, who was kidnapped [after the U.S. invasion], also got married to a Shiite.

To be honest, my family is not very religious. I think I can call them modern, conservative Muslim. They're not very religious. But they stick to Islam's rules.

In August 1990, Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait. Iraq withdrew after the U.S.-led Gulf War the following year.

I was a student when the Gulf War started. I was with friends. We were eating lunch. It was chicken. We could hear through the radio that the Iraqi army entered Kuwait. Everybody got mad. I was against the [Kuwaiti] royal family but that doesn't mean you should go to Kuwait. They are Muslims. It is prohibited in Islam that you should invade your neighbor.

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