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Translator Flees Iraq, Becomes American Pastry Chef

New America Media, News feature, Melanie Reynard Posted: Sep 25, 2008

Editor's note: Ghazwan Al-sharif is a former translator for the U.S. military who finally made it to America after years as a refugee in Jordan, and now works in a factory making pastries. He talks to NAM contributing writer Melanie Reynard.

BERKELEY, Calif. --"Americans like a happy ending," says a beaming Ghazwan Al-sharif, a former translator for the U.S. military in Iraq. The lanky and exuberant 36-year-old stands in front of the Berkeley factory where he now works making pastries. "The happy ending is that I'm here."

Al-sharif paid a huge price for serving as a translator for the American government in Iraq. "My life was destroyed because I worked for the U.S. Army," he says. But he is also grateful that his contacts in the U.S. military enabled him to emigrate.

Since arriving three months ago, Al-sharif has let go of his painful past. "Right now, I'm two months old, with a new life, new hope and new job." He commutes from Oakland for the night shift.

chefAl-sharif is invigorated by the freedom that he finds here. While mindful of the homeless people in the streets of San Francisco (a sight, he points out, that is not as common in Iraq), he also sees a land of possibility, where he can pursue his dream of opening his own restaurant.

Al-sharif was born in Baghdad to a wealthy and well-known family. His father was a diplomat, so Al- sharif grew up in the Czech Republic and London. When his family moved back to Iraq, the free-spirited 15-year-old had culture shock.

Photo from Alsharif's album

His family moved to Tikrit, a "backward" town, he says, where "you can't wear shorts, you can't listen to music. Males go to the army, and females become teachers." Through nepotistic connections, he did his army service in an officer's club and went on to graduate from university with a degree in office management. He ran a successful business selling gifts and doing interior design and had a son through an arranged marriage with a blonde Iraqi woman.

chefWhen the United States invaded in 2003, his business which was located next door to an Iraqi army base was bombed. Then another blow came. His wife's family forced them to divorce. His in-laws no longer approved of him because of his Sunni lineage, which is the same as Saddam Hussein's.

"It was frightening," Al-sharif recalls. He was taken aback by their bigotry. "I had never thought about that before. Why not this prejudice from the beginning? Why now?" Al-sharif doesn't see himself as an extremist of culture or religion. "Religion is for one thing," he says, "you pray to God."

When U.S. forces invaded, Al-sharif says he had hope at the start. "They smiled and waved from the tanks. The kids waved back," says Al-sharif. "It was a relief -- for a few weeks."

At the time, the Tikritis turned to Al-sharif to mediate with the Americans because they knew he spoke English. At first he resisted, but with more requests for help, he gradually became more involved. "I went to the U.S. base to help my people. I didn't need the money."

By the second month, however, his high spirits were gone. Walking in the street, Al-sharif was appalled to pick up a document with his name, which decreed in Arabic, "Destroy the traitor!"

"It was from the same people who had come to ask me for help," he shrugs, "but now they don't want me to help the U.S. Army. There were nine attempts to assassinate me. Grenades, bullets, they shot at me," he recounts.

Being a target is not unusual for Iraqi translators. There is an "ongoing serious threat to Iraqi translators, employees, and other contractors because of their affiliation with the United States government," according to Elissa Mittman, the national immigration director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

As the threats intensified, Al-shari's family begged him to stop working for the Americans. Then came a terrifying night in October 2003. Three bombs tore through his home. Al-sharif vividly remembers his 11-year-old sister Zena running out of the white smoke holding her shocked face in her hands. He made her remove her hands only to see that her face had been torn open along the jaw line.

Still, Al-sharif remained committed to his American employers. "I believed in the message of the U.S. Army engineer brigade to rebuild and see change with small steps." He knew the Americans counted on him because he was a local. "I had the knowledge in the area and the people. I could look in another man's eyes and know if he's lying or not."

Al-sharif's family disowned him for their own safety and he moved to the U.S. Army base. Then, in December 2003, four days after Saddam Hussein was captured, Al-sharif's story took a shocking twist. He was handcuffed, blindfolded and jailed by the Americans. He was tortured, separated from the insurgents who were also in jail, but confined half-naked in a box of less than three-square feet.

Why did the U.S. Army turn on him? Al-sharif only gives a brief reply. He was a casualty of army politics, he says, with officers higher up becoming suspicious of his expertise. Rather than dwelling on the betrayal, he asserts, "A person can forgive, but cannot forget. I forgive. I'm thankful. There were U.S. Army police bad guys who put boots on my face, but then there were also the good guys who brought me cold buckets of water for [showering]."

After 75 days, Al-sharif was released with an apology from the Americans and given certificates and medals of appreciation. He accepted the apology, but under the condition that they must let him "keep working for them, because I'm a target."

Al-sharif continued to work as a translator for the U.S. Army First Infantry Division until the threats to his family intensified, even though they had disowned him. His mother called him to beg him to stop working.

In April 2005, exhausted by his work and concern for his family, Al-sharif quit, with almost $250,000 in his pocket. He had to decide where to live. Iran was out of the question as he was both a Tikriti and a Sunni, which would have made him a target. He could not go to Syria because "the regime is extreme." He decided to go to Jordan, "a more developed country."

Al-sharif was living in Jordan illegally. Al-sharif found that as an Iraqi, he was not welcome there. Illegal immigrants were fined $2 per day (1.5 dinar). Tension between Jordanians and Iraqis mounted as Jordan's economy suffered from the influx of immigrants.

Moreover, he was under intense financial strain. In August 2005, he lost all his money, deceived by a friend with a fraudulent investment. He turned to his passion for cooking, relying on connections from his affluent past. He worked illegally for a few of the wealthy families as a caterer for special parties. He earned $20 per week, enough for one meal a day and to barely cover rent. "This is how I managed my life; very slow and very low."

He also started to make calls for help.

He called his former bosses from the U.S. Army. Robert Nicholson, a retired colonel from the Fourth Infantry Division, and Bill Haight, a colonel from the First Infantry Division. Haight encouraged him, wrote recommendations and made calls to Washington, D.C. His boss from the Coalition Provisional Authority, Bill Stewart, referred him to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the leading inter-governmental agency for migrants.

chefHe waited two years. In 2007, he won approval to immigrate to the United States through the Special Immigrant Program. This allowed Al-sharif, as a former U.S. government employee, to simply go to the U.S. embassy in Jordan, show his documents and get his visa. He desperately wanted to but could not afford it. He also found out from his former boss that he could not get a travel loan.

As a special immigrant, he would have to pay travel expenses from his own pocket upfront. This has since changed for special immigrants. According to Elissa Mittman, the national immigration director for the International Rescue Committee, Senator Ted Kennedy's Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act passed in January 2008, made Iraqi special immigrants and refugees eligible for travel and resettlement loans.
Al-sarif in front of the baking factory in Berkeley

One year after his first approval as a special immigrant, Al-sharif obtained a second approval through the IOM as a refugee. With a government loan for his flight and initial housing costs, he emigrated with refugee status. Upon his arrival in the United States, the IOM handed him over to the International Rescue Committee, which found him his entry-level job in the food industry. Al-sharif will be eligible for a green card after a year in America.

Even when he is not in the pastry factory, Al-sharif loves talking about food, and experimenting with it. He improvises both his food and his identity with new, American ingredients, catering to many tastes with his creative epicurean concoctions, from avocado cheesecake to a prosciutto pizza with moist potato dough. He says, "Give me whatever you've got in the pantry and I'll make it something."

Photo Credit: Melanie Reynard

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