After working for the U.S. government during the occupation of their countries, Iraqi and Afghan immigrants start new lives in the Puget Sound area.
AT AROUND 11:20 a.m. Baghdad time on April 4, 2010, Munaf Badri Hasan Al Tuwaijari stepped away from his desk to grab a bottled water in the building where he worked as a microfinance administrator for an Iraqi banking program backed by the United States government.
Moments later, a suicide bomber drove his car into a concrete barrier in front of the nearby Egyptian Embassy, at virtually the same time two other car bombers attacked the Iranian and German embassies.
At least 40 people died in the coordinated car bombings.
File cabinets toppled onto Al Tuwaijari’s back during the explosion. But had he been sitting at his desk, he might have been more severely hurt by the flying glass that littered the floor of his office.
Injured, he went right back to work, just to make a point.
It would be one of two times that year when he was saved by water.
On another day, Al Tuwaijari was driving with his wife, Ethar Hassan Aziz, and their 8-year-old daughter, Shams, when attackers in a vehicle started shooting at them. Al Tuwaijari hit the gas and sped away.
The assailants tried to keep up, but luckily for Al Tuwaijari, it was raining. He credits the deluged streets for helping him escape.
Al Tuwaijari, 43, tells these stories from the house in Tukwila where he, his wife and their four children settled after arriving in the United States last year through the Special Immigrant Visa program, designed for Iraqi and Afghan civilians who put their safety at risk by working for the U.S. government or a U.S.-funded agency during the wars and their aftermath in those two countries.
MORE THAN 70,000 interpreters, translators, security officers, professionals in a variety of fields and other support personnel have taken advantage of the program since it started in 2006. Of those, about 2,700 have resettled in Washington state.
Risking being seen as a collaborator — or worse, a traitor — these support personnel worked at jobs that placed them on the front lines of rebuilding efforts in the years following the toppling of their previous governments, in these cases the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Working for the U.S. government doesn’t guarantee an SIV and the complicated application and vetting process can take years. Thousands of applicants have been denied, forcing some to join a wave of migrants trying to enter Europe.
Now living in the homeland of the invading superpower, successful SIV holders receive less attention than other immigrants in the Trump era, a period defined by the president’s harsh rhetoric and tough proposals for admitting newcomers, particularly those from some Muslim-majority countries.
They’ve paid their dues.
A kidnapping that left him languishing in Syria for a year, multiple bombings, death threats — they’ve all left scars on Al Tuwaijari, some in the form of wounds and long-term back problems, others emotional.
Sitting in his living room while his youngest daughter, Jaod, mischievously slips in and out of sight and Ethar, 42, disappears and reappears with servings of sweet Arabic tea, then black coffee scented with cardamom and little cookies, then a cake tinted with pomegranate juice, Al Tuwaijari maintains an impeccable grace.
His eyes are sad rather than angry. Something like nostalgia sweeps over him — not exactly for what was, but for the vision of a rejuvenated Iraq he might have helped to will into being had he stayed back home.
During a second visit, Al Tuwaijari flips through pictures from his work helping to reconstitute Iraq’s banking industry and in the field, which often involved issuing microloans to mom-and-pop businesses in an effort to jump-start a national economy collapsed by war, corruption and civil tensions.
In one picture, he speaks with a barber outside his shop. In another, he’s shown working with a woman in the small bodega she’s set up in her home.
During the invasion, Al Tuwaijari sent his family away to keep them safe while he stayed behind to check in on his father.
He’d walk 10 miles to visit his dad each day, watching U.S. missiles fly over his hometown. His trips grew more and more grim. Iraqi soldiers’ bodies lined the road in increasing numbers. He says he personally helped bury scores of fighters.
Al Tuwaijari is Sunni Muslim, which is an Islamic minority in Iraq. When the U.S. occupation forces started to recruit locals to work with the peacekeeping and rebuilding effort, he was skeptical at first.
The independent but publicly funded United States Agency for International Development paid for his training in finance. Even today, he carries himself like your friendly neighborhood banker, albeit one who cut his teeth in what was one of the world’s deadliest neighborhoods for doing business.
Al Tuwaijari committed himself to reviving Iraq, loan by loan, even as he ferried his family from safe house to safe house.
He says he ventured into Shiite and Christian communities not as a Sunni partisan but as a fellow Iraqi.
In a country whose actual bridges came under attack by coalition missiles and, later, militants’ bombs, Al Tuwaijari found pride in building social ones.
He speaks fiercely about his commitment to hiring female loan officers and of empowering female entrepreneurs.
While working in the field, without a security detail, he relied on sympathetic locals to warn him when militants caught wind of his presence, so he could race out of town.
He recalls numerous times when letters would appear at his home stating he’d be killed if he continued to work with the Americans.
After Al Tuwaijari applied for his SIV in 2010, it took seven frustrating years to receive it because of unexpected delays and complications with the strict vetting process. He wondered, when Trump won the presidency, whether his day would come at all.
In May 2017, he got the good news.
“They shocked me; they gave me my visas,” he says. “I don’t know why.”
The family arrived in Seattle on Aug. 19.
“I want to be normal again,” Al Tuwaijari says.
“Normal,” in his sense of the word, might take some time.
“You know that film, ‘Sleepless in Seattle?’ ” he asks. “I feel like that.”
He says he lies awake till the predawn hours before finally dozing off.
Back home, he had a purpose.
“I think my country needed me more than anyplace else,” he says.
Now he’s not sure what to do with himself.
Al Tuwaijari’s worried about melting into his new community, adjusting to America’s faster pace, establishing a career and financial independence.
“It’s very terrifying, the future,” he says.
He expresses deep gratitude for the SIVs for him, his wife and his kids: Shams, who’s now 16; Elaf, 14; Abdulrahman, 13; and Jaod, 4.
But he feels as if the country that trained him to be a banker isn’t taking advantage of his expertise, especially regarding Middle East banking practices and terrorist financing, now that he lives on its soil.
Al Tuwaijari says he has three broken bones in his spine from car bombings while he was working for the U.S. government. He’s also suffered from recent heart problems. His youngest daughter has special needs, so good medical care is essential for her, too.
Due to his injuries, Al Tuwaijari says he’s not able to take labor-intensive jobs. He was not working when we met.
“When we came here, all this investment goes with the wind,” Al Tuwaijari says of his finance training.
“My life was on the edge working with the U.S. soldiers — very brave people and very nice people,” he says. “We lost many friends, Iraqi friends. We thought when we got here, it would be our salvation. But we found something very different, actually … We are not ‘special.’ ”
IT’S HARD TO overstate the importance of the Iraqi and Afghan nationals who worked with U.S. forces and U.S.-backed firms and organizations, says Nicky Smith, executive director of the Seattle-area branch of the International Rescue Committee, which greets; finds housing for; and provides services to refugees, including a new career counseling program to help those with SIVs harness their professional skills.
“They’re your cultural navigators; they’re your guides; they’re your interpreters; they bring a whole different level of knowledge to your decision-making,” Smith says. “More than anything, they can be your champion.”
Smith says these support workers are courageous, constantly putting themselves, and by extension their families, in danger for a greater good. Adjusting to immigrant life can be hard.
“People don’t fully appreciate what exile means — doing something in the face of adversity, fleeing without the promise of ever going back home,” Smith says. “This is about choosing to survive … Freedom isn’t free. They pay a lot for that.”
NAIK MOHAMMAD HANIF hasn’t looked back.
Considering he grew up in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, weathered a U.S.-led invasion, endured the country’s rampant corruption and steeled himself as a security specialist for foreign VIPs, it’s easy for him to be unsentimental.
Hanif, 31, says he started working with his first U.S.-based security firm in 2006 as a security shift leader. He was 19, happy to see the Americans and glad to be rid of the Taliban.
The work suited him. In a few months, he was working with a firm that provided security to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, protecting VIPs and diplomats as they shuttled in bulletproof Land Cruisers between the embassy and destinations in the field.
As part of the job, he learned survival skills, such as what to do in an ambush.
By 2017, the year Hanif; his wife, Saleema, 30; and five school-age children immigrated to the States under the SIV program, he was an executive-protection specialist team leader who could speak English in several different accents.
In recent years, Afghans have received a majority of SIVs from the U.S. government, according to the Pew Research Center.
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Sitting on the floor in the sparsely decorated living room of his Kent apartment, Hanif speaks glowingly about the jobs that qualified him for the program and of the Westerners, including many Americans, he came to know under extreme circumstances.
The roads in Kabul are notoriously narrow, crowded and chaotic, a dream environment for attackers and a nightmare scenario for anyone in a highly conspicuous armored Land Cruiser.
One day, Hanif says, a motorcyclist exploded himself 10 meters from the vehicle he was driving.
As the U.S. military drew down in Afghanistan, Land Cruisers carrying civilians became even more of a target.
The potential threats were many: Taliban, ISIS fighters, Al-Qaeda militants, the Sunni-militant Haqqani network.
“If something happens, you can’t say what part of the insurgency it was,” Hanif says.
Saleema heard strange knocks on the door in the middle of the night while her husband was at work.
“A couple of times, I was chased from my house to my job location,” Hanif says.
While Al Tuwaijari was moving his family from safe house to safe house all over Iraq and the Middle East, Hanif was doing the same with his family in Afghanistan.
After the war in 2001, people who were suspected of working with the Americans often received letters laying out the stakes: “Do it again, and we’ll create problems for you, even kill you,” Hanif explains.
“At the end, I said, ‘How many times can I change houses?’ ”
He had kids in private school, a car to keep up and moving expenses from relocating so many times. He was making good money (in U.S. currency, to boot), but he could no longer justify staying.
In 2014, he learned about the SIV program.
“I’ve put my life and my family’s life at risk to help these people,” he remembers thinking. Now he needed help.
Three years later, the family was on a plane to the United States. They arrived in Seattle in October. Less than a week after Hanif’s arrival, he was working as a security officer.
Hanif misses his parents and his friends back home, but the area where he resettled is home to many other Afghan immigrants, making it easier to acclimate. He doesn’t even want his kids talking about their homeland.
“If you are living in fear, if you don’t know what will happen tomorrow, then it is never sad,” Hanif says, noting his newfound happiness that his girls can safely attend school here, and his wife isn’t forced to wear a burqa.
“I don’t feel sorry I left Afghanistan,” he says flatly.
AVAN SHWANY WEARS a necklace with a red, white and green pendant in the shape of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region the day she greets visitors to her house in Maple Valley, where she and her husband, Aso, are raising two daughters.
Suppressed for years under Saddam Hussein and later terrorized by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant when it took control of the northern territory in 2014, Iraqi Kurdistan literally and figuratively stays close to her heart.
When the 2003 U.S. invasion reached the ethnically distinct, oil-rich region of more than 5 million, she says, people celebrated. Far from feeling under attack, they felt liberated, and treated U.S. troops as friends. Hussein had forced millions to flee their homes, including Shwany’s family, which had to relocate from Kirkuk to Erbil, the regional capital.
Among the positions she held before coming to the United States as an SIV-holder in 2012, a relatively quick two years after applying, Shwany worked for a USAID agency, where she managed leadership trainings for Kurdish government departments, in particular teams fighting corruption.
As part of her work, she also traveled outside of Kurdistan to ethnic Arab cities in the north of the country, such as Salahuddin and Tikrit, where she’d spend the night in the safety of the U.S.-operated Speicher military installation.
Only Aso knew what she was up to.
Shwany and her four sisters were raised by parents who believed they could do anything. She understood the gender restrictions of the society in which she lived, but she also possessed a keen sense of what was possible beyond those limitations.
Shwany’s work also took her to places like Baghdad and the holy Shiite city of Karbala. She was careful to cover up in more conservative locales, but even in more traditional areas, she encountered women who wanted their voices to be heard, to help rebuild the country and fight the militants.
Still, signs of trauma were everywhere.
Shwany, 38, remembers the horror of the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s. Even today, she is startled by the sound of sudden noises.
ISIL terrorized the Christian Yazidis, but Al-Qaeda had tormented them before that.
ISIL also became notorious for its extreme treatment of women and girls, including rape and enslavement.
As ISIL retreated from cities and towns, women who’d fled “came back with all sorts of wounds,” physical and emotional, Shwany says.
She’s proud of her efforts to provide psychosocial support and other assistance after the war, despite the risk to her own safety.
Aso, 41, was injured in a truck bombing in 2007.
The couple needed to make a decision.
“Do you really want this unsafe environment where your children grow?” Avan asked herself.
Every time the phone rang, she feared it was someone with bad news. Every time someone left the house, she wondered whether they’d make it back safely, or at all.
“It was not life — it was just hell,” she says.
Now working as a clinical program manager at Refugees Northwest, a nonprofit branch of Lutheran Community Services that helps Seattle-area refugees and asylum-seekers who’ve been traumatized by war and conflict, Shwany continues the efforts she pursued in her homeland while Aso looks after the kids.
On a personal level, though, the tug of Kurdistan remains strong.
“It took me a long time to emotionally settle,” she says.
Shwany comes to tears when she talks about arriving in the States on Oct. 3, 2012, after parting ways with her loved ones in Kurdistan. Her older daughter, Yasna, now 12, couldn’t even tell her friends she was fleeing.
During our conversation, Shwany excuses herself to make dinner. Then the whole family joins in.
Within an hour, Kurdish specialties fill the dinner table: hearty stewed chicken, rice spiked with chopped dill, stuffed grape leaves, bulgur-wheat patties filled with minced meat in yogurt sauce.
The fragrant meal is redolent of memories from home, a keepsake from what used to be: Shwany’s way of moving on without entirely letting go.