The New Americans

Nawal Alshamaa.

“I want the kids to know we are in our country.”

My name is Nawal Alshamaa.

How old are you?


What do you do?

I work as a Walmart support manager.

Where were you born?

I was born in Iraq in 1971.

Where was your family from before that?

Actually, I’m mixed. My mother from Ukraine, and my father from Iraq. My father, he’s an eye doctor, he finished his studies in Ukraine, and then he went back to Iraq and he took my mom, and I was born there.

When did you come to the United States?


Talk a little bit about what your life was like before you came to the US.

It’s this long story. My life, it was different steps. When I was a kid, it was very nice. Iraq before ’91 was a nice country to live in, actually. And my father, like I told you, he’s a doctor, he made good money, and every year we went to Ukraine, had a nice time. I saw many countries because every year we go somewhere to have a vacation. I saw Germany, France, Italy, many places. But after ’91, lives changed.

It was a war, and you know what it means: war. But the difficulty started not just because of the war. The embargo started after ’91. The embargo affected people and the level of money came down. Before, Iraqi people were so educated, it was a shame if you don’t finish university because it was all free. You have a high level of study and you don’t pay anything. But after ’91, people started leaving because the money is not enough. The economy went down and people start not looking for education. People start looking for a living. Before, you were hard to buy any person from Iraq to do something bad. But after the embargo? It was easy. For 10 years, embargo—just imagine how it is.

And of course, the president he was—I’m not going to say he’s good or bad, because it’s a long story to talk about, but after war and after embargo, because I’m half-Iraqi, half-Russian, if I needed to apply for a job, especially for government, I cannot get it, because I’m not pure Iraqi. I didn’t have my rights, like any person in Iraq. Many people like me didn’t have rights, and it’s supposed to be my country, where I was born. But that’s the reason always I feel I’m not supposed to be there.

Charlie Powell

After 2003, that is another story. But you see many limits for our lives. It changes a lot. From good then to bad then to worse, until 2005 when the terrorists attacked my husband with my kid. It was a very sad day. But thank God, he survived, and my kid survived too, but that day changed our lives. It was 2005, February.

So do you mind telling us about that day? I know it’s hard.

Yeah, it is very hard. It was a normal day. He was going to his job and he had taken our kid—she was 4 years old—to her kindergarten. And in front of her kindergarten, it happened at 8 in the morning—it was my mother’s birthday, 28 February, 2005. Two cars with eight terrorists attacked them, and they shoot them, and he got shot in his hand, and he did seven operations. Different operations just to keep his hand. It takes us three months to just fix his hand, and after that, we cannot stay because they were looking for him, to kill him because he was working at an American company. And we felt we weren’t safe at all. That’s the reason we left Iraq. Our story’s hard from that day.

Tell me a little bit about your daughter and what it was like, what her experience of that day was.

Oh, it was horrible, it was horrible. She was 4. And they attacked them, eight people with guns. It was no joke. And the kids in the garden, they saw her. The teacher called me at school, but before, I know something happened. It was not far from the house, I heard the shooting. I knew that it’s them. For her, she couldn’t speak for three days. She was completely—don’t talk. Many years, we cannot stay without lights, we cannot lock doors, we cannot return the car by ourselves, until now, she’s almost 18. Until now, she doesn’t like to walk by herself, somebody behind her. She doesn’t remember exactly, she remembers a little bit but something inside her, she doesn’t feel comfortable with people. She likes to be by herself. She likes to be by herself always.

Talk about how you came to the United States after that. It sounds like it took years.

We left in 2005. I was pregnant when the accident happened. Then he went to Dubai because he was working at an American company and they had offices there in Dubai. And it was so hard to take me to Dubai because it’s expensive and he cannot afford it, but we decided to meet in Jordan. We went to Jordan, we stayed for almost a year, and it was very hard, because when you go there they give you a visa sometimes for three days. Three days, I need to leave the country. Sometimes, three months. Every three months, or every three days, we’d just go to Syria. We’d just cross the border, take our new visa, and come back. And that, of course, cost money. And for me, a mother, with two kids, one just born and then another, it was hard. Plus, it’s expensive and they don’t give you permission to work because you are a visiting tourist. The life, it’s not easy at all.

Once, when I was in Jordan, I went to my daughter’s school, and we were paying a thousand dollars in a year for her school, and I was without work. When I went to school one day to pick her up, I saw her in the corner by herself. She didn’t talk with anybody. I went to her and she was in first grade. I still remember that day. I went to her and asked her, Why are you not with the kids? She said, They don’t like me because I am Iraqi.

So it’s time to go.

After that, we decided to go to Syria because it’s cheaper and supposedly with a visa, easier. You know, especially in 2006, it was the worst year in Iraq for a lot of people, and they went to Syria. For that reason It was so expensive. Imagine like, the rent there—I’m not going compare here, because it’s different completely, but it was $600 a month when a person can get barely $100 a month if you’re working all the month. But we got help from his parents, family, and then he worked. Under the table, he can work. I was sewing at home, and he was working in a restaurant. I heard that we can apply for another country like United States, or England, or France. I went at 5 in the morning, it was a little bit far. I stayed in lines, I apply papers, I write my story.

I even write one day to Oprah. Believe me, I was in Syria and I found her email, I wrote her an email. I said, Oprah, hi, I wish you can help me to come to the United States. I just want to live life, I have kids. But of course, I never heard back. Three times we applied for papers, and we almost forget about it because it’s a hope. It’s a hope that we leave this country one day. And then they call us, and they say, Your file is taken and you guys can interview to live in the United States. It was the happiest day in my life.

What year was that?

It was 2010. It took us almost a year to come, all of the papers, all of the interviews.

But when you thought about what the United States was going to be, never having been here before, what did you imagine this country was?

In the beginning, we just wanted to leave. Then, when they called us and we did all the interviews and then we were waiting for the visa. And before the visa, they call us and say, You’re going to leave in 10 days. What? Ten days? That’s impossible. In 10 days, you need to be ready to leave. But they put us in school to prepare us to come to United States. We go from 8 in the morning until 5 p.m.

American school.

American school. And the same day, we need to give all our stuff away, because I have a whole home with stuff. But just imagine, five days in school and all this—we didn’t sleep for three days at all. We go to school, then we come back, pack. It was very difficult. But there was this excitement. But in the school, they were preparing us emotionally and physically and how the life is different in the United States. They say that life’s hard, you guys are going to go there, you’re going start from the bottom. Maybe you’re going to work in a restaurant. I’m an engineer, I have an engineering degree. I work in the Ukrainian embassy in Iraq. I work in a TV channel—the reason why I’m talking now, because I did that before many times.

Then you come to me and you say, Hey maybe you’re going to work at maybe McDonalds, maybe Walmart, where I’m working—it was difficult for me to handle it. I never thought that I could stand as a cashier and make a sale, because this is not me. But they were talking how you’re going to need money, how you’re going to start paying for airfare, because tickets called us almost $6,000 coming here. But the Catholic church paid it for us when we came, but then we need to work and pay them those money. I said OK: Money to pay rent, food, electricity … One day, we go back from the school and say, What do you think? Change our minds? Especially, Arab people they talk about Americans bad, Americans not good—the same exactly how you guys talk here about Arabic. You say Arabic are terrorists—the same exactly what they think about you. That’s the reason we decided to change our mind. Then we said, You know what? We are here, nothing. Let’s go try, at least for the kids. We fly; it was 19 January, 2011.

I have a cousin here, she met us. And she kept us with her for three days, until the Catholic church took care of us. They rented the house for us and they did all the papers, take us to do the shots, everything is scheduled, it was perfect. We went first day to the Walmart to buy some stuff … and people said hi. I’m shocked. They don’t know us. Smiling, saying hi, hi. It was weird. In the Quran, they say you have to say hi to the people because if you don’t say that to the person, you say to god. But Muslim people, I never see them say hi if they don’t know you. They don’t say it.

Life started and we were looking for a job. We found jobs, thanks to God. We got TANF [Temporary Assistance to Needy Families], the food stamps, it was very good help. Because when we came into the United States, we had just $2,000 in our pocket. Here, you need like $4,000 a month, can barely cover you. We started working. Of course, when you work, they cut a little from the TANF, from the stamps. One day, we decided we cannot depend on that, because we had a very nice life before. My father is a doctor, his father is an ambassador. We had a very good life before, but we need to show our kids a good life. I don’t want my kids to depend on that.

They told me that hey, there’s housing from government. I said no, I didn’t come for that. I came to find peace, a place where my kids can find a future, to build themselves, to be successful people. That’s what I came looking for. I didn’t come to live without paying money or working. I went to work two jobs. I was part-time, I took a full-time. Trying to survive here, it’s not easy, but I bought house in 2013. I started looking for a house within one year, but you have to be in one job, two years at least to get a loan. But I said, OK, I’m going to wait, then by two years and one day, I will be in my house. I want a home. I want the kids to know that we are in our country, and we have a home. And we did it. I’m not going to tell you it was easy, and still it’s very hard, but I did my dream.

I met you when you got sworn in at Monticello. I wonder if you would tell us about your decision to become a citizen and how it felt that day to become a citizen in the rain.

In the rain. But actually, it was a very nice day. I cannot forget it at all. It’s going to be a very nice memory for us. You know, it was a dream for us to get papers which made us normal people. Because you know, an Iraqi passport is something that showed you are a terrorist, which we are not. I swear. [Laughs.] I need a paper that when I show my document they don’t feel scared of me. I want a paper and everything legal for me, for my kids, and for my grandkids—so when they come in, they don’t have a problem, or need to leave and come, the visas … I don’t want them to see that. Because we did suffer a lot because of that. It was very important for me to be a citizen here.

And did you feel different on July 5 that you were a citizen? Did you feel like a different person?

Yes. I put it in Facebook. [Laughs.]

What was different? Just that you had that paper and you’re an American?

No. You know, I tried when I came—I am looking for a better job for better opportunities. I speak three languages. For me, maybe it’s easier to be a translator in the government or a company, but you cannot be there because you are not a citizen. Everything, when I go to apply, are you an American citizen, no. It was, I want to be an American citizen, that I can go anywhere, apply anywhere. I graduated with an engineering degree and agriculture, and the best places to work in Iraq is government. And when I applied, always I get refused because “your mother, a Ukrainian, she’s not Iraqi.” But here, you know, I wanted to be a citizen. If I go to apply any work, I can easily go. And not just that. I told you, I want to be a normal person. Don’t ask who I am, from where I am, which my mother, who my father. I’m an American, that’s it.

I have to ask you this question because you’ve mentioned it: the way we think about Arabs, the way people look at you think and you’re a terrorist. You just got to America, you just become a citizen, and then we have this election where we’re talking about immigrants and we’re talking about refugees, we’re talking about what it is to be a real American, and it’s such a yucky welcome for you.

Yes. When I hear that, I said, Oh my God, that’s my luck. When I go, it starts. [Laughs.] I started saying, Is that what I’m supposed to suffer? It’s sad, especially this year, when I hear the talk about refugees, about religions, about colors, it’s very painful. I feel it and I know what the bad results are going to be. Because we get it.

My mother is Christian, my father is Muslim. They don’t practice. One day, I was in first year in university, somebody asked me, Nawal, are you Muslim or Christian? I said, I suppose like my father I’m Muslim. He said, Are you Shiite or Sunni? I said, I don’t know, what is that? To be honest, I don’t know what is that. This was in 1990. I said, What’s that mean? He said, Oh, the Muslim is in two parts … I’d never heard that. I went back home and I asked my dad. I’ll never forget that day. I asked Dad, are you Muslim Shiite or Sunni. He looked at me weird, and he said, “Why are you asking this question? Who asked you that?” I said somebody in university. “Just tell them that you’re Muslim, that’s it. Just tell them you’re Muslim.” And I never knew what I am.

But after the war, after all what’s happened, now people just talking about Shiite and Sunni—not talking, killing Shiite and Sunni. Here, it’s going to be the same. Here, it’s going to be black and white. Here, it’s going to be refugee or not refugee. The people here, all of them, they’re coming from somewhere. There’s no pure people from the beginning here—it’s maybe 1 percent. But there are many points which can destroy this country and that’s the biggest point which can make the country fall down. It’s the refugee, it’s the black and white, it’s what makes the difference between the people. What built this country is that all people came from everywhere—they are not terrorists. They are good people. They studied, they work, their kids are born, they try, because, everyone feels for himself that here is home. Nobody is going to destroy his home.

What does it mean to be American to you? What does the word American mean?

I’m going to tell you what America means to all people outside of America. Outside of America, the people are like, if you’re American, you are the giant. You are the person who has the power. For me, I don’t look at it like that. The country is an opportunity to find yourself and to improve yourself. I wish I had more chance here to do something. I work at a Walmart, yeah, I’m doing something, but I wish I could build women’s rights, or a school to educate people how to understand different cultures and different religions. I wish I could do something. And when I feel I’m an American, I think I maybe one day, there’s a point I can do that. It gives you a power.

It’s not power the way we think of world power.

Yes. It’s your power, that’s what I wanted to say. Americans—for everything, you need to pay; nothing is easy. But you can get what you want. Just have your goal. For me, that is American. Because in Iraq, I had many dreams. I had the money, but I could not do it for many reasons. First of all, because I am a woman. Second of all, because we had a president which not allowed a lot of stuff. There’s many things which can stop you to do what you want to do, but here, to be an American, you have power, you have a dream, go ahead and do it. This is America for me. Go behind your dreams and you know, the country can encourage you.