The New Americans

Amjad Alsrya.

“My son will not be a refugee.”

My name is Amjad Alsrya.

How old are you?

I’m 25 years old.

What do you do?

I work at RMC Events. It’s kind of a security job. it’s also part of doing events and going to event, and I also go to community college and I study radiology tech.

When do you graduate?

One more year, hopefully.

So tell us how long you’ve lived in the United States.

Six years and a half, I came July 7, 2010.

Tell us where you’re from.

I was born in Iraq. My grandparents are originally from Palestine, and they lived in Palestine, and they went to Iraq. So my parents and me and my brothers were all born in Iraq.

Where in Iraq were you born?

I was born in Baghdad.

Tell us what your life was like in Baghdad. I know you left quite a long time ago, but tell me what a day was like in Baghdad, when you were little and around the time you left.

It was normal before the war in 2003. It was just like any other family who struggle every day to just live and make money and pay the rent. We really didn’t want to make any problems that the government wouldn’t like, because they took things really seriously, but it wasn’t really bad. If you don’t make problems, you’ll live fine.

The war started when I was 11 and the first two years after the war weren’t really bad until 2005 when militias started going to Iraq and started bombing and shooting. Things started really getting worse, and one day my mom got shot in the shoulder, and I was there with my father and brother. I didn’t know that my mom got shot—even she didn’t, she said, “Somebody hit me in the shoulder, I don’t know what it was.” And then when she got home, she saw the bleeding, because she was wearing a black dress so she didn’t notice that she was bleeding until she got home. The hospital was in a really dangerous area, so we took her to a doctor who’d turned his house into a clinic and so he just did what he could. The bullet went through the shoulder so it didn’t stay in the shoulder. It was a dangerous part of the body, and the doctor said if the bullet hit the bone, she might like not walk again, but she was lucky. And after six months I think we decided to leave Baghdad and we went to a refugee camp in a different city in Iraq.

Did she get shot just because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time and people were shooting, or were people shooting at her?

Not shooting at her. Terrorists were shooting at the Americans and she was in the middle of the shooting.

Were you already thinking about leaving Baghdad, and then your mom got shot? Or your mom got shot and then you were done?

There was a camp in Syria—we were thinking of going to Syria, and then I heard that the camp was not going to receive any more refugees. So after my mom got shot, we knew that there was another camp in the Iraqi territories, and so we went there. My uncle was in the camp before us, so after he heard my mom got shot, he said OK, you guys should come to the camp, it’s not safe there anymore.

How much time did you have to pack up everything and go to the camp?

We left a lot of stuff there. My father left his shop.

What did he do? What was his shop?

Charlie Powell

Grocery shop. We still don’t know anything about it. Some of his friends, they called him and said, they opened your store and they used it. Some people, he didn’t know who. So he said OK, I can’t go back there anymore so I don’t need the shop.

Tell me where the camp was.

It was in Iraq in Anbar city, near the border between Iraq and Syria, but it was in Iraqi territory.

And what year was that?

2007 or 6?

How long were you in the camp?

Three and a half years. It was really difficult, it was really hard. You know, scorpions, snakes. They gave us something to cook food in. I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s not really useful. Sometimes fire came out of it and just the tent caught on fire and some people were dead because of the fire that happened. My tent almost got caught with fire. But you know, I was the hero, I saved it. [Laughs.]

How many people in your family went from Baghdad?

It was only my uncle and his sons, and my family, too. Three brothers.

When you are in the camp, are you thinking, we want to go to the United States, or are you thinking, we want to go anywhere they’ll take us?

First we didn’t know which country we were going to. Sudan said, we’re going to take the Palestine refugees, and my father went there, and he saw the area they were going to take us to, and then after he came back from Sudan to the camp, we saw in the news that the United States was going to take refugees from the camp. And that’s why we gave them my uncle’s information, who lives in Virginia, and after—can’t remember, a year?—they called us and said, are you guys ready to come to the United States? And I was so happy.

And I was really happy and like, when I saw the airplane, I was like, oh my god, this is the only thing that’s standing between me and America. Please don’t do anything stupid. [Laughs.]

What did you do in the camp? Were you able to study?

Yeah, when we first went to the camp, there wasn’t school. My father said, I’m not going to stay here, my sons are not going to go school and the life there is really bad. So he and some other people decided to do an election to pick some people who are going to represent the camp. My father won, of course. He’s the president of the camp. So he started calling people from the outside: Please come and see the camp, it’s really in bad condition, we need help. So they really started responding, and they came and they said, we want to do a school here. There was an old building in the camp and the people said, we can use this building to turn it into a school, so they rebuilt the building, and they did half of it as a school and two, four rooms, they turned into a medical clinic.

It was a good start. Some people, actually, they started making the tents as a shop, selling stuff. And one of them repaired cars and the Iraqi people who live in the village, they can’t fix their cars. In the camp. Instead of going to the far city and taking the cars there, like people who have experience with everything. Doctors, mechanics. And people want to use their energy to do something. They’re not going to stay in the camp doing nothing. Even though it’s a really hard life, people were struggling to make things easier, even though we had bad days. Sometimes we didn’t have water, [there were] dust storms, but we were trying to survive, we didn’t want to stay for a really long time. We wanted the world to hear about us, because my father said the first day he saw the camp—he said, No, I’m not going to stay here forever.

But you stayed there for three years.

Yeah, three years and a half. I finished high school there.

What did you think about the United States before you came here? What were you expecting? Was it just from movies?

We had a TV in the tent, and I really liked American movies since I was a kid. And coming to the United States was one of my dreams when I was a kid, but I would never have thought that I would go there as a refugee. I was thinking that I would visit America and then go back to Iraq. But when I knew that we were going to America, I started watching American movies a lot.

What were you watching?

I watched a channel that showed American movies all the time, so, I would watch movies the whole day. They always had Arabic subtitles at the bottom of the screen, and when I knew we were going to America, I started not reading the Arabic titles so I just started hearing and trying to understand what they were saying and writing it down in a notebook. I really improved my English this way. Also I focused in school on English. So, in two years in the camp, I really improved my English. When American soldiers came to the camp, my brother said, Come practice your English with them! I said, Oh, I’m so nervous, I have never spoken English with somebody. He said, That’s OK, say anything, just try, say anything to them, say hi, how are you? And when I started talking to them, I really liked it, and I couldn’t wait until they came back. When I heard, They’re here, the Americans are here, I just went and talked to them.

Where did your flight land?

New York. They took us to the hotel, and we slept there in the night. And then in the morning we came to Charlottesville. My uncle was waiting for us there, and I hadn’t seen him for a long time, even my mom started crying. And my uncle, he really—like the way he turned the music on, “Listen to music, live your life, you know, it’s nice here, you’re going to love it, you are not going to feel you’re not at home anymore. This is your home now.” And I really feel this is home.

Did you feel like it was home from that first day, or it took a little while?

In the beginning, because I started seeing everything, the trees, traffic signs, the shop signs, it’s all in English, all the people speak English—there was the challenge in the beginning. You’re not going to use Arabic anymore, English is going to be the first language. It didn’t take us a really long time to fit into this life. Because people here helped us a lot. They showed us how to work, they helped in the IRC organization [International Rescue Committee], they found us a job. Some friends at work, they helped me to go to Piedmont [Community College], they said you have to study. I really appreciate all the people who helped us. Without them I might not feel not at home.

When did you decide you wanted to become a citizen?

After five years, we applied.

The whole family?

Yeah, and then they start calling, one by one. We didn’t get to go there at the same time. My mom was the first one, and then when she became a U.S. citizen, I said, Oh my God this American lives in my house!

And then my oldest brother, and then me, my father, and my youngest brother we got to go to the ceremony on the Fourth of July at Monticello and all of us became U.S. citizens that day. There’s only one more brother that’s waiting.

I met you that day at Monticello on the Fourth of July. What did it feel like being sworn in as a citizen?

I finally belong to a country. As I said, I’m Palestinian, I was born in Iraq. I don’t have documents or papers in either country. I traveled two weeks ago and went to Morocco, and somebody asked me, what’s your nationality, and I said I’m American, which feels different. I finally can say I belong to a country. My first time I got a passport in my life, I used it for the first time, everything is new to me. Twenty-four years without a citizenship and I just got one on July 4—it feels, there’s not enough words to express my feelings. I really, I don’t know it’s, I’m sorry …

It’s OK. What I’m hearing you say is that it wasn’t just being sworn in. It’s being a citizen of somewhere for the first time in your life?

Yeah. Even my father waited his whole life and he’s 55 years old. So I was born as a refugee, and my father was born as a refugee. My grandparents lived in Palestine and they were refugees, and finally, that thing has to stop. And July 4, I think that’s it. My son he will not be a refugee now.

Almost as soon as you’re sworn in, this country is having a conversation about refugees and Syria and who’s an American—does that hurt your heart?

Sometimes, when I think about it a lot. I will say that I’m a Muslim and I never hurt somebody. How could I do something to this country which has helped me and given me a new life, and made me feel safe? I would never want to see what I saw in Iraq. I don’t want to see that here. So I would never think of hurting people. It’s just sometimes, I didn’t want to say the media the focuses on these things a lot and makes it look bigger than it is. I know there are bad people who are killing people. But we can’t judge on one person’s acts and say all Muslims are terrorists, all Muslims are bad. It’s just one person. I don’t like to be saying Muslims or Christians, it’s not the way I was raised. I treat people as they are. I don’t care if they are Muslims or Christians or Jewish. But unfortunately the media, when a Muslim does something, they say, a Muslim man did that and that and that. Or they just say, he did that, without linking the religion to it. Some people did do stuff, not just because they are Muslims. “Oh yeah, we did that because Islam said that.” No. I’m Muslim. Islam doesn’t say you have to go and kill people or go and do bad things.

I feel like maybe this is why you’re doing radiology. Inside we look the same.

We all came to this life the same way as everybody. There’s no one who came to this life in different ways. We all came with nothing and we’re going to leave with nothing. It’s only the good reputation that you can leave in your life, that’s all.

If you could say what it is to be American, what it means to you to be American—I know that’s a ridiculously hard question—but what does it mean?

It’s not ridiculous. Of course when I became a U.S. citizen, it feels great because this country’s great. This thing about living in this country, feeling safe, feeling happy, you don’t have to worry about who’s going to knock on the door and go inside your house or kick in your house. This country has rules, and people should follow it. To live happy and I think, maybe some people say, oh yeah they’re just stupid rules, the government should change it. But I think if you follow the law here, you will live safe, you will be happy and I think that’s it. I’m not sure if I gave you a good answer.

I’m wondering if you had ended up going to Sudan, would you be saying the same things? Or is it they’re very different places?

Sudanese people are very nice and they are famous for being nice in the Middle East. Just, the way we felt, me and my family, we felt that this is home when we first came. Even my father keeps saying that. He said, America gave me a lot and I have to give to America back. That’s why I work really hard, I never take a day off or vacation. He said, America gave us what we dreamed of. All his life he’s a refugee, and then we were born, and we are also refugees, and one day all this has to end. So I think we will never forget what this country did for us. It is something we’ll talk about and I’ll tell my son about it and my sons will tell my grandsons. It’s a good memory that I will never forget. I always go to YouTube and watch the day, the ceremony day, on YouTube and I repeat it almost every day.

I remember your mother, you know that day, and how emotional she was because she was seeing her sons sworn in, and I don’t think I’m ever going to forget her face.

It’s something you have been waiting all your life, and in one day, everything changes. Life from refugee to citizen. We are a citizens to a great country—not like any other country. I’m not saying that to—“Oh, of course he’s going to say good things about America.” But no, seriously, people here are different. They’re really nice. Maybe people from different countries think Americans are crazy and they all support war, but people here have different opinions. There’s freedom of speech—you can say whatever you want without even being asked, “Why did you say that? You’re not supposed to say that.” It just feels different. Back in Iraq, before the war, you have to be careful what you say. As we say in Arabic—I’m not sure if I’m going to translate it—you have to walk against the wall. Like you have to stick with the wall so you don’t have to make problems.

How do you say that in Arabic?

It’s an Egyptian saying: [speaks Arabic]. Walk with the wall.

We’ve interviewed people who were from one place and then they’re from here. But you are from no place and you’re here. I wonder if you feel, “I’m Amjad, I’m a Palestinian/Iraqi/ American” or “I’m American.”

I will say I’m American. But people, when they hear my accent they say, No you’re not, tell us the story. So I have to say I am originally from Palestine, I was born in Iraq. It’s just a long answer, you know. Sometimes I don’t want to say that, I just like to say, OK I’m American. But I’m trying pretty hard to get rid of my accent so people can think I’m really American.