At great risk, they helped The Post cover Iraq. Now, they’re remaking their lives in America.
Two hours into the celebration, after the children had finished scurrying about the garden, the adults had gossiped under the portico and everyone had indulged in a buffet of hummus and kebabs, Washington Post photographer Bill O’Leary clambered onto the roof of the villa serving as The Post’s bureau in Baghdad.
“Let’s take a group photo,” he beckoned.
And so they gathered. The interpreters, drivers and guards. Their wives. Their sons and daughters. Sixty-eight in all, standing between two palm trees under a gray autumn sky.
It was 2003. U.S. troops had entered Baghdad that April, and although Saddam Hussein was no longer in power, the Americans had not yet delivered upon grand promises to rebuild the nation. Most in O’Leary’s frame had no electricity at home. Looters roamed their streets. Many had not been to a party in years — they hadn’t had the means to entertain while Iraq’s economy was smothered by a trade embargo.
But as the shutter clicked, they smiled. Some thought back to their carefree childhoods, before years of war and suffocating sanctions. Others allowed their minds to wander ahead. The day’s gaiety seemed a harbinger of more joyous times.
After the photo session, the youngsters resumed playing table tennis and bouncing balloons into the air. “They are so lucky,” one of the drivers declared. “They will get to grow up in an Iraq free of war.”
My fellow Post correspondents and I would throw more parties for our Iraqi staffers and their families while I was The Post’s Baghdad bureau chief from 2003 to 2004. But never would there be as many attendees or as many grins.
The insurgency and civil war unleashed hell upon their lives. So did their work for an American news organization. Menacing letters were wedged under their doors at night. Thugs tailed them home. A bomb destroyed one interpreter’s house. The risks caught up with us in 2007, when reporter Salih Saif Aldin was fatally shot while interviewing residents of a Baghdad neighborhood about sectarian violence there.
Through it all, they kept working. They uncovered stories and arranged interviews. They drove us to Fallujah and Basra. They guarded our house and negotiated our way through checkpoints. And on the days when it was too perilous for Americans to roam the streets, they went out, notebooks and cameras in hand. Their knowledge opened our eyes; their instincts saved our lives.
Eventually, the danger grew too grave even for them. A few of the bureau’s three dozen staffers came to the United States as students and sought asylum. Many others applied to immigrate under a special visa program for Iraqis working for U.S. news organizations. Today, three-quarters of those in the party photograph live in America. They have been joined by almost a dozen others whom we hired in the years after the party.
I worried that their new lives here would be yet another calamitous spawn of the conflict. Many of them alighted with enormous expectations, limited English proficiency and skills that would not guarantee a well-paying job — at the very moment our economy was imploding and Americans were losing interest in Iraq. But they did not come calling for my help, and instead of checking on them and reaching for those who stumbled, my attention drifted to the war in Afghanistan.
This spring, on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, I thought again about my bureau-mates. Were they foundering? Thriving? My mind coursed with curiosity, responsibility, guilt. Had my fellow Americans and I failed them?
I set out to find them, to once again share a plate of kebabs, to swap tales of the old days, to see their homes and children — and to learn how their dreams no longer involved Americans building a new Iraq but Iraqis building new lives in America.
The security chief
Had a blood-pressure cuff been slapped around Muhanned al-Kusairy’s beefy left arm while he rode with me down the ambush-riddled road to Baghdad’s airport — his right arm always hoisted an AK-47 rifle — the gauge would barely have twitched. The bureau’s security chief remained unperturbed, even when the rest of us were hyperventilating.
That equanimity escaped him last month in Phoenix. As he ascended to the 19th floor of a downtown building on a Baghdad-hot afternoon, his hands trembled, his face flushed, and his stomach, he remarked, felt as if it were “filled with mice, not butterflies.” He was heading to see a man he had come to idolize since moving to Arizona three years ago, a man who he hoped would fulfill his American dream.
“Mr. Sheriff!” Muhanned exclaimed. “It’s a huge honor to meet you.”
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose hard-line approaches to illegal immigration have drawn nationwide attention, embraced the fawning Iraqi immigrant. “Tell me about yourself,” he said.
Instead of describing his 18 years in the Iraqi army, or the multiple times he steered us from danger, or the small militia he built to protect The Post’s bureau, Muhanned opted for the present tense.
“My dream is to be a deputy sheriff,” he told Arpaio. “I want to work for you.”
His quest was not born from desperation. In just three years, Muhanned, his wife and their four children have blossomed from raggedy refugees, hauling their life’s possessions on two luggage carts at Newark Liberty International Airport, to American suburbanites, ensconced in a spacious rambler with a pool out back, two Chevy Tahoes in the driveway and an enormous flat-screen television in the family room. After stints guarding foreclosed banks and patrolling construction sites along the border with Mexico, Muhanned landed a security supervisor job at a 266-bed hospital in Phoenix.
He noted to Arpaio that he is better compensated — and afforded more responsibility — than an entry-level deputy. “But I’m ready to give all of that up, put on a vest and get out on the street in July,” when high temperatures in Phoenix average 105 degrees, he said. “Ever since I arrived here, I’ve wanted to wear a uniform with the American flag on it.”
Save for artwork with Arabic calligraphy hanging on the living room wall and a prodigious bowl of Baghdad-style rice — yellow basmati mixed with toasted almonds and fried vermicelli — on the kitchen table, there is little about the Kusairy house that feels Iraqi. Bruce Willis thunders from the television. Muhanned’s youngest daughter, Maldaa, wears shorts and pink-striped, knee-high Converse sneakers, and speaks English untinged by her Baghdad roots. His drink of choice is Coors Light, in long-neck bottles, which are stocked in the fridge. He pours his morning coffee into a black mug emblazoned with a star and the words “Army Strong,” an homage to the six months he spent working for the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division before joining The Post.
He and his family must wait two more years to become citizens — “it feels like two centuries” — but that has not dissuaded him from trying to be what he deems American. He covers his bald pate with a black Stetson, sports a stars-and-stripes sticker on the tailgate of his Tahoe, listens to country star Alan Jackson’s greatest hits and spouts off on politics when wedged in traffic on I-17.
“We have too many illegals here,” he said soon after picking me up from the airport last month. It was three days before his meeting with Arpaio. He went on to rail about how many immigrants receive state-funded health care and food stamps. “And they don’t pay taxes,” he groused. “They’re stealing from both my pockets.”
But, I noted, aren’t you an immigrant who received free health care and food stamps when you arrived in Arizona?
“I came legally, and I pay my fair share in taxes,” he said. A few miles later, he returned to the topic. “I wish I was in charge of the Department of State. Anyone who doesn’t love the United States, I’d deport him to Mexico.”
Later that evening, Muhanned changed into dark cargo pants and a black T-shirt with the sheriff’s six-pointed-star emblem and drove to meet up with Arpaio’s posse. He joined the volunteer group this year, hoping it would enhance his chances of becoming a full-fledged deputy. Muhanned has spent more than 40 hours in evening classes, learning how to use a two-way radio, process detainees and conduct a traffic stop. He is moving on to intermediate-level instruction this summer — “They will teach me to use a Taser!” — and he hopes to earn his certification to carry a sidearm and a posse badge by the end of the year. Although his instructor told him to wait until then to purchase his uniform and other supplies, Muhanned bought everything the first week. A tan patrol shirt. A Kevlar vest. Boots and gloves. The bill came to more than $1,000.
He is unmoved by criticism that the squad of 3,500 civilians, some of whom are armed, has not been properly screened or trained. “Don’t believe everything you read in the media,” Muhanned said.
“We,” he told me, referring to the United States in the first person, “should have sent the sheriff to Iraq in 2003 instead of Paul Bremer,” the White House envoy who ran the initial U.S. occupation. “We needed someone tough like him.”
A few months after the party, my colleague Dan Williams headed into Baghdad’s Sadr City slum during a revolt by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. His driver took a wrong turn, and they soon found themselves at an intersection filled with young men toting AK-47s and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. Dan sunk into his seat. Once the gunmen inspected the car, he would almost certainly be blindfolded and bundled away. American journalists were preferred bargaining chips.
Before the men could approach, the car’s third occupant jumped out. It was Naseer Nouri, a former Iraqi Airways engineering director who was interpreting for The Post because his airline was grounded.
He pointed at the men in the street. “You, you and you,” he shouted, “come here.”
They gathered around him.
“Do you have enough ammunition?” he barked. “Do you have enough food and water?”
Yes, sir, they said.
“How is your morale?”
“We are ready to die for Moqtada!” several yelled.
“Excellent. Keep up the good work,” Naseer replied. “Oh, and can you tell me the best way out of here?”
“There are clashes that way,” one man said, pointing to the right. Then he gestured to the left. “But that way is clear.”
When Naseer returned to the car, Dan was incredulous.
“These are stupid boys used to taking orders,” Naseer said. “If I told them who we really are, they would have captured us. So I pretended I was a commander.”