Illustration by Levente SzaboTold live at a Moth show at the Miramar Theatre in Milwaukee, WI
I grew up in Baghdad, where car bombs were an everyday occurrence after 2003. At that time, it was considered the most dangerous city in the world. My 25-minute ride to school took two hours because of the many checkpoints in the city.
My mom would hug and kiss us every day before we left for school because she knew it might be her last hug or kiss.
I always told myself I should focus on school, get my degree, and tomorrow will be better than today, always hoping for an end to the Sunni and Shia civil war and to see a strong Iraqi military defeat Al Qaeda.
I graduated and got a job, but to get there I had to cross town. After news of sectarian killings and kidnappings, one morning my mom said the salary the job paid wasn’t worth the risk making the journey posed. So my only choice was to leave Baghdad.
On Thursday, November 23, 2006, I kissed my mom and siblings goodbye. My mom hugged me tight, and her eyes started to tear. I wiped her tears and told her, “I’ll be OK, and I’ll come visit.”
She said, “Don’t. I’m OK with you being away and alive. It’s better than you being close and always in danger.”
I arrived in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, and managed to get a job working for the U.S. military as a translator. I would translate documents, paperwork, and meetings between Iraqi military, Iraqi police, local mayors, and top U.S. military commanders. Other times, between soldiers and local Iraqi labor.
After a year of being away from home, I really missed my family, so I asked to go on vacation during Christmas and New Year’s break and was able to go to Baghdad to visit my family and spend time with my mom.
One evening, I went to a restaurant, and after I ate, I was feeling a bit lazy and full, so I decided to take the bus. In Baghdad, most buses are these ten-passenger vans, and one pulled over to pick me up. The van was empty, so I sat in the front passenger seat.
Once we got to my stop, the driver didn’t stop. I told him, “Hey, you missed my stop!”
He said, “I’m sorry. I’ll turn around for you.”
I said, “It’s OK. I can walk back,” but he insisted on turning around.
At the end of the street, he turned left and then took the highway ramp. I told him, “You did not turn around. Where are we going?”
And that’s when he gave me the evil face and said, “You’ll know once we get there.”
He was driving at least 100 miles per hour, and I didn’t know what to do. I looked at him and saw a gun in his hand and calmly asked, “What do you want from me?”
I was afraid. If he knew I worked for the U.S. military, then I would be beheaded. He said, “You’ll know once you meet my group.”
His answer made me even more scared.
Living in Baghdad, I would hear about kidnappings almost every day in the news but never what to do if it happened to you.
I thought of hitting him, like what Tom Cruise or Jack Bauer would do. In the movies, the lead actor always survives, but in reality, a terrorist would just put a bullet in my head or simply crash the van and kill both of us.
The sun had set, and all I could think was: Will I see another day? Will I see my family again? My mom?
He exited the highway, and all of a sudden I saw an Iraqi military checkpoint on my right.
A voice inside of me said, If you don’t survive this now, you might not survive it at all.
Without thinking, I opened the door. I screamed, “Help me!” Again, that voice said the pain of the jump is nothing compared to the pain of being terrified until they behead you.
The next thing I knew, I was on the ground, and all I can remember is getting up and running. I don’t remember if I rolled. I don’t remember feeling any pain. I just ran. I ran for my life.
I made it to the checkpoint and fell to the ground. Two soldiers rushed to help me, asking what happened, and all I could do was point to the street. I couldn’t catch my breath to even speak. But I made it. I survived.
I left Baghdad early the next morning, knowing it would be years before I could ever return.
Courtesy Renee RosensteelIn July 2009, I got my special immigrant visa. It’s a program that was set up for translators and their families to go to America, because once you worked for the U.S. military, you will forever be an Al Qaeda target. So my family and I were able to come here and become citizens. My mom was the most excited because, as she said, “Now we can finally live, all of us, in one country, in peace.”
I was excited about living my American dream. I enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to get my master’s degree, and life was going well for me. But I felt something was missing. And every time I saw a post on Facebook from one of my soldier friends that I worked with in Iraq, I felt like I should be with them. And I was afraid of losing my new, safe home, America.
In Baghdad, I was weak. But in America, I am strong. Now I am a sergeant in the Army National Guard and belong to an organization that can prepare me to defend my adopted country and do my part as a citizen. Because I know how it feels living under terrorism, and I don’t want to ever experience that again.
Abbas Mousa, 32, is an economist at the Bureau of Economic Analysis for the Department of Commerce and a sergeant in the Army National Guard. He is writing a memoir.