FREEDOM BUT FRUSTRATION FOR AN ENGINEER WHO FLED IRAQ
By Fred Dickey
July 4, 2016
We expect our immigrant stories to be Neiman Marcus gift-wrapped. We expect kiss-the-tarmac gratitude, and marching hand in hand with joyous song.
That might make a novel, but it'd be a poor one because good fiction reflects real life.
Sometimes it happens that way. Then again, sometimes it's people saying what's expected and what they think we want to hear. But other times, it's immigrants struggling and feeling overwhelmed.
While immigrants might be grateful for refuge from a life that was surely worse, they still have to feed their family, perform work far below their accustomed station and learn a perplexing way of life on the fly.
Being frustrated and frightened by all of that does not make them an ingrate.
Ameer Astifo, 40, had a good job as a civil engineer. He worked for the city of Basra in southern Iraq. He was a Catholic, but that didn't seem to be a problem. He did his work and was left alone. That is, before the Americans came.
Good things don't seem to last in that part of the world.
Though Saddam Hussein was a despot, a torturer and mass murderer, he maintained stability in Iraq. Religion was not one of the things he was fanatical about. To Ameer, that meant being able to go home to his family each night. Not a small thing for a person of his faith in that Islamic tinderbox.
No doubt, Saddam had a nasty habit of wishing people dead or making them wish the same thing. However, he also allowed Ameer to be an engineer and to sit down for dinner with no fear of a loud knock on the door.
Operation Iraqi Freedom changed all that. George W. Bush thought it necessary to tear Iraq apart so he could save it. Whether he was right or wrong is another discussion. But to Ameer, it was all wrong.
Today, 30 months after immigrating to the U.S., he finds himself in a small two-bedroom apartment in El Cajon into which he has to shoehorn his wife and four children. One child is 7, another is 6, and then there are the 3-year-old twin girls whom I saw, cute enough to grace a cereal box.
"At my home, they speak English only," Ameer says of his children. "They are American. If you see them, you will say those American kids. I choose United States because I like United States."
Ameer's English can get lost in the syntax weeds, but he is understandable. Certainly enough to convey his angst.
He works at minimum wage as a cashier, and with that austere sum, plus $800 monthly welfare, he pays $1,350 rent for a place that - well, let's just say you wouldn't want to live there.
His wife, who was a teacher in Iraq, is starting a low-wage, part-time job of her own. But having four children limits what she can do.
Oh, one other thing re: the apartment - Due to a landlord change and because the family has six people, they have been told that they need to move to a three-bedroom for $1,800 per month.
Before the 2003 American-led invasion, Ameer was a man of respect in Basra, an "infidel," as he puts it, who interacted easily with Muslims. But then the conquering Americans decided to disband the Iraqi army. Ameer says that by so doing, the U.S. created hundreds of thousands of jobless, well-armed and disgruntled young men who started shooting at other Muslims. Sunni vs. Shiite, the old battle got new life (and death).
Many combatants eventually became easy recruits for the religious fanatics that became the Islamic State (ISIS), and probably other militia groups awaiting their stage entry.
Ameer says, "If you ask me about what's happened in my country, I think all the American dream for Iraq was lies. The situation is getting worse. It's become pieces of ethnic peoples. Many countries' fingers in my country. They are destroying Iraq, and they are separating people."
The Americans are?
"In my opinion, yes, the Americans. They didn't think like that will happen, but when you give freedom for some person, he didn't know what's the meaning of freedom, he will not use it for good things."
Of Saddam, he says, "He kept it together, one country. We didn't see there was Sunnis, Christians, Shiites. We were Iraqis first, and if you want to speak about your religions, you have your church. You can go there. You have your mosque. You can go there. The thing is, Saddam have good things and he have bad things.
"In my opinion, the bad things that he have, he didn't give his people freedom. But most of the people, they like him."
With the disintegration of the country into quarreling factions, the sharp edge of hate was soon pointed at Christians.
"After 2003, I was telling myself, year by year, the situation will become good. The next year will be better. The opposite thing happened.
"We were living in Basra for 20 years. I graduated from the college of engineering. I work as an engineer, and after that I quit because I threatened from many ethnics: ‘Because you are Christian you shouldn't get responsibility, and Muslim, they should get your position. You can't have that position because you are Christian.' They will make many problem to you to leave your position."
As ISIS filled the vacuum in that part of the Middle East, Ameer responded by moving to wherever safety seemed possible. He eventually went to Mosul in the north and then to a Christian village, but trouble was traveling the same road.
"You know, we got to go (to the U.S.) because there was no future. You were not safe on your life because ISIS was coming."
Ameer says a sizable majority of Muslims in Iraq want nothing to do with fanatics such as ISIS, but plenty do.
"Let me just give you an example for what I mean. I have friend. We like him and he's a civilized person. One day, he just came, he said, ‘I became a real Muslim for me and you can't speak with me no more.' I told him, ‘Why?'
"‘Because you are a Christian. You are dirty.' He was a friend! And suddenly turn around and become another person. Because he go to a mosque and some imam, they just threw it in his head.
"He said, ‘If you will not be Muslim, I can't speak with you. If you turn and be Muslim, I will speak with you.' Someone washed his mind.
"The civilized people say (b...s...). You see most who have a brain, they're leaving Iraq. (They say,) ‘Why should I kill that person because he's Christian? We are people living in the same ground. We have one name. We are Iraqis.'"
That's history to Ameer. He now has other problems as an American of 2½ years. He's working, he's going to English as a Second Language classes, but he's stymied in wanting to practice his engineering profession. He doesn't have the requisite license and can't afford the time or money to go back to school.
Frustration boils. However, he understands neither the American way of job-hunting nor the importance of networking.
His is the lament of the overqualified and desperate. "I'm civil engineer. I work with construction all my life. I deal with concrete like water. I (would) take (entry-level) job for months. If you see I have the ability to deal with your work, OK, just hire me. If you don't, thank you."
In his job search, he's been steered to bureaucratic "job fair" type events - what some have uncharitably termed a "cattle call." There, when he works his way to the front of the line, he says the attendant glances at his résumé and will likely say, "You're an engineer. Where's your certificate?"
Because he came from a government-centered society, he's unfamiliar with American business. He doesn't seem to have a grasp of the private sector and how to aggressively seek opportunity where a license would not be needed, but skills valued.
Ameer's a friendly, passionate guy. He should make that work for him. I suggest he start haunting waiting rooms of large construction firms until he gets to see the boss. He'll eventually find someone in leadership who will be taken by his life story and perhaps give him a chance. If not, then he eventually will hear those golden words: "We don't have anything, but let me make a couple of calls."
That's called networking, I tell him. Do the online thing, I suppose, but get yourself personally known. Seek out and shake the hand of the man or woman who can help you, and let them see your sincerity. Ring doorbells, as we say. Look in the mirror and tell yourself, "I've got skills that someone will be lucky to get."
I do some cheerleading: "With your qualifications and willingness to start for much less money? Ameer, you are made to order for capitalism."
"Believe me," he says, "I am not that guy who cried a lot. What I need now, I need suitable things for my abilities, suitable things in the minimum. Like I am not thinking to be the boss. I want to find some job that make me at least the sufficient fund for my life."
There's an old saying, Ameer: Go hat in hand. If someone thinks that's an undignified approach, that's a person who doesn't have four kids at home.
You're not searching for the American Dream right now. You just want to have a decent life for your family, and work at what you're good at. That's not all of the American Dream, but it's a start to grow on.
Oh, by the way, Ameer. This is the Fourth of July. Barbecue. Hamburgers. Hot dogs. Celebrate, but maybe no fireworks. Then tomorrow, get your plan together and go out and find that contractor who's wondering what took you so long.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at email@example.com.
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