At Mount Vernon citizenship ceremony, an Iraqi becomes a new American


Marwan Sadiq, from Baghdad Iraq, is congratulated by his former boss and current friend Brian Bennett, previously bureau chief for TIME. (Jabin Botsford/For The Washington Post)
July 4, 2012

On April 4, 2004, with Baghdad plunged into wartime chaos and armed militiamen threatening to kill him, Marwan Sadiq fled his native Iraq carrying only a duffel bag stuffed with clothes. Because he was a high-profile local interpreter and reporter for Time magazine and other Western news media, he said, anti-Western militants “thought I was a traitor who deserved to die.”

On Wednesday, after an eight-year odyssey that radically changed his life and his view of the world, Sadiq was sworn in as a U.S. citizen— along with 99 other immigrants from 45 countries — in a star-spangled ceremony at historic Mount Vernon, with his new American wife and his old boss from Time’s Baghdad bureau there to congratulate him.

“Iraq will always be my country, but I am a different person now,” Sadiq, 31, said in an interview before the ceremony. “After all these years in America, my culture and principles are totally changed. My mind is open now. I live in a society where nobody cares about my color or race or religion. I believe in this country, and I don’t think I can live in Iraq ever again.”

Every immigrant who took the Oath of Allegiance on the lawn of George Washington’s iconic mansion Wednesday had a story to tell: The Vietnamese grandmother who waited years to join her children after the Communist takeover; the scarred but dignified war refu­gee from Ethi­o­pia; the Guatemalan man who cleaned offices for 20 years and now has a wife, three children and his own cleaning company in Manassas.

“I love this country, and I feel God has blessed me,” said Pedro Lopez, 43, the business owner from Guatemala, who grinned broadly as he held up his citizenship certificate. His wife, Siomara, received hers at the same ceremony while their 16-month-old daughter slept in her pram.

“It has been a long time and a lot of work, but now I know my kids will have a good future,” he said.

Sadiq’s journey was unusually turbulent and uniquely intertwined with the U.S. military intervention in Iraq. Nearly a decade ago, he was one of hundreds of young and ambitious Iraqis who went to work for the army of Western journalists who followed U.S. troops into war. There were countless high-risk assignments; countless bombs that exploded too close; countless bodies in the streets.

In the spring of 2004, he recounted, the danger took a sharp and personal turn. Anti-Western militias began targeting anyone who worked for U.S. agencies, often accusing them of being spies. One of Sadiq’s Iraqi colleagues at Time was fatally shot a few feet outside its Baghdad bureau. A hurried decision was made to move the office and foreign correspondents to a hotel. Two days later, a BMW sedan tailed Sadiq while he was driving home from work.

“They followed all my turns. When I reached home, they jumped out with their faces covered, fired at the house and threw a grenade into the yard,” he said. “They yelled that I was a traitor. I was 23 years old. My family was terrified.”

Sadiq’s editors at Time sent armed guards in a Humvee to pick him up. The next day, they sent him to Jordan for safety and then on to Egypt for three months. The magazine offered to send his parents, too, but he said they refused to leave Iraq. Instead, they kept a low profile and avoided telling neighbors or friends where their son had gone.

Meanwhile, Sadiq landed in the United States with no money, no plans and no idea what to expect. He had been raised in a Muslim country where women covered their heads and dressed modestly, under an Arab dictatorship that blamed Israel and American Jews for all the evils of the world. Suddenly he found himself in Manhattan, surrounded by women in skimpy fashions and taken under the generous wing of colleagues and new friends who often turned out to be Jewish.

“Marwan went through a lot of cultural adjustment,” said Howard Chua, the news director at Time in New York, who met and worked with him then. “There were some hilarious incidents, but he was a great guy who approached everything with humor and wonderful naivete. We were all worried about him, but he managed to make it work.”

Sadiq worked at various journalism positions in New York and Washington, including an internship with the Scripps Howard chain. He thought several times of returning home but changed his mind after he was offered a staff position with the International Center for Journalists, which sponsored him for a work visa. Then he met his future wife, Erica, and after they married, he became a permanent U.S. resident. He now lives in Woodbridge and works for the Middle East Broadcasting Network, a U.S. government-funded operation.

Although he has not been back to Iraq, Sadiq did arrange a family reunion last year in Turkey, where his parents and brother flew to meet him for the first time in seven years and his bride. “They are safe now, and they have never been a target, thank God,” he said. “But for three years, they never told a soul I was in the United States. That’s how dangerous it was.”

The Fourth of July citizenship ceremony was full of patriotic symbolism, held on the lawn of Washington’s mansion as actors in Colonial garb roamed the grounds and fife and drum corps practiced their drills. A towering man dressed in a revolutionary uniform was introduced as Gen. Washington and gave the new citizens a rousing welcome speech, asking them to “stay engaged in our democracy” and to help make the United States a “model for mankind.”

Erica Sadiq, who works as an administrator at Mount Vernon, said she requested that her husband be sworn in at this particular event. Immigration officials said about 4,000 immigrants are being formally naturalized this week at special Fourth of July celebrations across the country, including one in the White House for U.S. military veterans, several in national parks and others on historic U.S. warships.

Brian Bennett, now a reporter in Washington for the Los Angeles Times, was Time’s Baghdad bureau chief when Sadiq was threatened and spirited out of the country. While waiting for the citizenship ceremony Wednesday, Bennett recalled Sadiq as a bright and eager young aide who had mastered English by watching reruns of “Friends” on TV in Iraq.

“It’s a loss for Iraq that he is staying here, and it’s sad that such an in­cred­ibly bright man can’t feel safe in his own country,” Bennett said. In America, he added, Sadiq “found a tolerant society that was totally different from the way he was raised, and he fell in love with it.”

After the ceremony, while other immigrants were eagerly showing friends and relative their citizenship certificates, Sadiq proudly held up an old, torn and faded document that he had carefully saved for the past eight years. It was his exit permit from Iraq, authorized by the interim U.S. administration there, and stamped with a tiny U.S. visa.

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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