From Idealist to Refugee "If Death Comes, So Be It"

Firas wanted nothing more than to work for the Americans when they arrived in Iraq. But his job soon became life threatening. The problem was that his employers didn't seem to care.

By in Alvesta, Sweden

Firas was a believer. Even before the Americans came to Iraq -- when everyone knew the invasion was on its way -- he had decided he would do everything he could to help. And he had a lot that the Americans wanted: He spoke fluent English; he had a degree in political science; and he believed in the American dream.

"America came wanting to transform Iraq into a model for the Middle East. I knew Iraq had potential and that the country was full of good people," says the 36 year old. "And America is America. They would come to Iraq with a plan, I thought, and they would surely make this thing work."

That was then. Now, Firas, a former European history teacher, lives in the tiny town of Alvesta, Sweden, some 175 kilometers north of Malmö. He's only been here for six months. After the invasion in the spring of 2003, he spent years doing what he could to make the US experiment work -- as an interpreter for the army; as an author of political reports for Washington; as a liaison between the American Embassy and the Iraqi parliament. But in the end, America didn't want him.

Flagging Down Humvees

Although he didn't know it at the time, Firas's trip to Sweden got its start during the chaotic, hopeful days right after US tanks appeared on the streets of Baghdad. The mood, he recalls, was electric and optimistic. Iraqis welcomed the US troops and the soldiers had few qualms about being approached by Iraqis. Firas's first clumsy attempts to get a job with the Americans involved little more than flagging down Humvees and asking if they needed an interpreter.

Before long, he hit pay dirt. After knocking on the door of the Hotel Palestine in central Baghdad, where the Americans had set up an early headquarters, he was sent to the US base out by the airport. There, having proven his language skills, he was taken up by a captain as his personal interpreter. Soon, he moved to military intelligence. Eentually he got a post with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), even rising to the point where he would sometimes interpret for Paul Bremer, then head of the CPA.

"This is something I never understood," he says now. "Why was I treated with such trust at the beginning to work in very high level intelligence and with high level Americans, only to be treated as a potential terrorist later? I don't understand."

The heady days at the start of the war didn't last. Now, Firas shakes his head as he recalls telling everybody about his first interpreting job with the US military. He even allowed himself to be driven home from work sometimes. "Imagine. A whole convoy of Humvees parked outside my house. People knew what I was doing," he said.

'If Death Comes So Be It'

Even then, though, he was concerned about his security. He told friends and acquaintances it was just a temporary job. As sectarian violence began to mount, Firas, a Shiite, began to conceal the true nature of his work.

"I tried to keep a low profile and not get into conversations where people would ask me about my work," he says. "The thing is in Baghdad, you see things getting worse, but sometimes you ignore it. You shove the bad things away from you and you simply don't want to see it. I tried to convince myself that things would get better.

"Imagine not getting in touch and not answering the calls of your high school and university friends. After awhile, I never kept in touch with anyone anymore. Because of my work, I stayed friends with maybe three people."

As sectarian violence mounted, particularly following the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra in Feb. 2006, so too did the dangers of working for the occupiers. Not only were Shiites targeted by Sunnis and Sunnis by Shiites, but those working together with the US were in danger from both.

"Until the very last moment, I was totally dependent on my luck," Firas says. "I was very fatalistic. I thought, 'If death comes, so be it.'"

Commendation from the White House

Firas's American employers weren't making things any easier. Early in his tenure as a US employee, Firas says, he was "lucky," a word that peppers the Baghdad native's speech. Not only was he working for people he liked, he says, but he was paired with Americans who had complete faith in him. Indeed, one of his first supervisors spoke Arabic and treated Firas more as a political officer than as an interpreter. Firas once even received an e-mail from the White House commending him for a report he had written.

But the political situation in Iraq was changing quickly. In late June 2004, the Firas's first employer, the CPA, was disbanded. The US established an embassy. Then, in Jan. 2005, the country went to the polls paving the way for a parliament and a government, which, along with the embassy, found its home in the Green Zone, the heavily protected area in central Baghdad that is off limits to all except those on official business.

Getting into the Green Zone isn't easy. While embassy and diplomatic personnel could freely cross in and out with the help of their official badges, Firas and his colleagues, despite years of service to the American military and diplomatic leadership, were given no such privileges. Instead, they had to wait each morning for up to two hours just to get to work.

The blazing hot sun was the least of their problems. The occupation became so unpopular that death awaited anyone who collaborated with Americans. Some of Firas' colleagues didn't even tell friends and families who their employers were. And waiting outside the Green Zone for hours on end, in downtown Baghdad, wasn't the best way to maintain anonymity.

In fact, the crowd of Iraqis that gathered each morning made an excellent car-bomb target. One morning Firas was on hand to help cart away dead bodies after an explosion at the so-called Assassins' Gate killed 25 people.

More Afraid of the Americans than the Iraqis

Firas and his Foreign Service National (FSN) colleagues asked the Americans for badges to speed up their entry into the Green Zone. They also asked for housing inside the Green Zone for those days when it was simply too dangerous to go home. And they had complaints about the Regional Security Office, which started treating Firas and his colleagues with suspicion as soon as the embassy opened. Some had even been arrested by the RSO on the thinnest of pretexts, and turned over to the Iraqi police.

It was a laundry list of complaints, and in the meantime, Firas says, some improvements have been made. The FSNs still in Iraq have been given badges, but lodging within the Green Zone is still under discussion. And at the end of 2006, Firas ran up against a stone wall with his requests.

"The Americans were treating the FSNs so badly," Firas says, "that I was more afraid of the Americans than the Iraqis."

Now, he lives in a small asylum camp on the outskirts of tiny Alvesta, located in the forests of south-central Sweden. Soon he plans to move -- to another town in Sweden. Maybe, he says, he'll go back to school. "I have to start my life over again from scratch," he says pragmatically. For now he's doing little other than attending Swedish classes -- and planning to stay.

"I came to Sweden," he says, "to be a Swede."


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