Leaving Baghdad Transcript

A note about this transcript: The Moth is true stories told live. We provide transcripts to make all of our stories keyword searchable and accessible to the hearing impaired, but highly recommend listening to the audio to hear the full breadth of the story. This transcript was computer-generated and subsequently corrected through The Moth StoryScribe.

Back to this story.

Click here to download the transcript from Leaving Baghdad.

I was in a van on my way to school, driving through the center of Baghdad. It's one of these vans that has a row of seats behind the driver where you sit backward with your back to the driver, looking out the back of the van. I remember I was sitting behind the driver, and in front of me was my friend. She used to study English literature, so she and I were speaking in English to practice.

As we passed the children’s hospital, all of a sudden I felt a wave of heat, followed by an incredible explosion. The force of the explosion sent people flying from their seats. My friend jumped on me, and hugged me. I put my arms around her as she cried, but my eyes were just fixed on the explosion, the fire, and the smoke behind us. I remember seeing a girl coming out from behind the smoke trying to run away. Our driver sped away trying to get to safety, not knowing if another explosion is coming.

We were just five minutes away from school. And I was in a shock. I couldn't believe that someone just drove a car bomb into the children's hospital. I mean, how evil can you be to do something like that?

I grew up in Baghdad, Iraq and car bombs were an everyday occurrence after 2003. My 25 minutes ride to school took two hours because of the many, many checkpoints in the city. We kind of got used to it, but we weren't happy.

My mom would hug us and kiss us every day before we left for school because she knew this might be her last hug or kiss. I always told myself that I should focus on school and get my degree, and tomorrow's going to be better than today, hoping to see an end to the Sunni and Shia civil war and to see a strong Iraqi military defeat al-Qaeda.

Once I graduated, I got a job and I had to cross town to get to this job, but after all the news of the sectarian killings and kidnappings, one morning my mom said the salary that this job paid wasn't worth the cost of the risk making that journey posed. So, my only choice was to leave Baghdad.

On Thursday, November 23rd of 2006, I kissed my mom and siblings goodbye. I didn't cry because I almost never cry, but my mom was asking me to be careful and take care of myself. And she hugged me tight and her eyes start tearing. I wiped her tears and I told her, "I'll be ok, I'll be fine, and I'll come visit."

But she said, "Don't. I'm okay with you being away and alive, better than you be close and always in danger."

Then my dad takes me to Baghdad Airport and as I was trying to drag my heavy suitcase, I was wondering, why was it so heavy? And that's when it hit me. My mom knew I'm not coming back to Baghdad, so she stuffed it with everything I owned.

I arrived in Kurdistan state in northern Iraq, and I managed to get a job. And every day after work I would go and sit by the square and just watch people walking after sunset. Cars driving after sunset. I remember watching the colors of the traffic light because they were actually working. In Baghdad we had 6:00 p.m. curfew. No one was out at sunset. I never sat out at sunset. People here live normally without the fear of an IED or a car bomb that would take their lives in a second. I would just sit and enjoy the peace.

But I wasn't very happy because I kept thinking about my family back home and their safety. Later, I got a job offer to work for the U.S. military as translator. And my first challenge as translator was the American accent.

In Iraq, we study English from elementary school, but we study the British, the Queen’s British English. So there were so many words that I couldn't understand because Americans, when they speak, they swallow letters.

One time a soldier asked me, "Do you want the wahdder bahddle?" I was like, "What?" And he was like, " Wahdder bahddle." I was like, "What? What is wahdder bahddler?" Because I couldn't hear the

T's, just the R's and things like this, I was like, "Oh, a bottle of water?" [British accent]

Or the time when I worked for a unit from Mississippi, after working for four units from the North and Midwest, and I'm like, "Oh my God, that's like a whole new language!" I don't remember I ever said the word, "come again," "say again," as much I said it to them.

Being translator I would be translating paperwork, documents and meeting with Iraqi police, Iraqi military, local mayors, leaders, with top U.S. military commanders, and other times between a soldier and Iraqi local labor.

And it helped me. I learned a lot about the soldiers I worked with. It also kind of made me feel like I was living like a soldier without a weapon. Those soldiers I worked with, they were my new family on base, even though it was dangerous, but for me it was safe because I was surrounded by many armed soldiers. So, if someone would shoot at us, they would shoot back. I felt protected.

So after a year of being gone, I really missed my family and I asked to go on vacation to see them during Christmas and New Year.

So I go down to Baghdad, and I spend a great time with my mother, with my siblings, my dad. One evening, I took a two-mile walk to a nearby restaurant. After I ate, I was feeling a bit lazy, and full and the sun was setting, so I decided to take the bus. In Baghdad, most buses are those 10-passenger vans, and one pulled over to pick me up. The van was empty, so I sat in the front passenger seat. The driver was listening to really loud music. I didn't care for that. I told him where I needed to get off. And when we got to my stop, he didn't stop.

So I told him, "Hey, you missed my stop, but you can drop me off here. I'll walk back."

He said, "Oh, I'm sorry, I was distracted by the loud music. I'll turn around." And I was like, "It's okay, you can drop me off here. I'll walk." And he said, "No, no." He insisted on turning it around. So I was like, "OK."

At the end of the street, he turned left instead of turning around and then he took the highway ramp. And I'm like, "Where - you did not turn around! Where are we going?"

And that's when he gave me the evil face and said, "You'll know once we get there." With no speed limits on the highway, he was driving at least 100 miles per hour or even more.

My heartbeat starts to increase to the point I felt I can hear it, I can feel it shaking. And, you know, I have no idea what to do or what's going to happen. Living in Baghdad, you probably would hear about a kidnapping almost every day in the news, but they never tell you what happened or what to do if this happened to you. So, I had no idea what to do.

I looked at him and I saw his gun in his hand and I was like, "Oh my god!" I was so afraid that he knew about me working for the U.S. military, because then I'll be beheaded no matter what. I thought of hitting him, like what Tom Cruise or Jack Bauer would do. But in the movie, the lead actors always survive, because it's a movie. In reality, a terrorist would just put a bullet in my head or simply crash the van and kill both of us.

By that time the sun was set, and all I can think of is, "Am I going to see another day? Am I going to see my family again? Am I going to see my mom?" And at that point I just wished I just had stayed home and spent more time with them.

Soon he exits the highway and his speed goes down. He was still driving faster than he should, but slower than he was on the freeway. All of a sudden, I see a nearby checkpoint on my right and a voice inside of me said, "If you don't survive this now, you might not survive it at all."

It was now or never. And without thinking, I opened the door and I screamed the words, "Help me!" But I wasn't able to know if they heard or saw me.

And again, that voice said, "The pain of the jump is nothing compared to the pain of being terrified until they behead you."

And without thinking, the next thing I knew I was on the ground. And all I can remember is me getting up and running. I don't remember if I rolled. I don't remember feeling any pain. I just ran. I ran for my life.

I make it to the checkpoint, and that's when I felt all the pain from the jump. And thank God I didn't break any bones. And I fell toon the ground, and the two soldiers rushed to help me, asking, "What happened? What happened?"

All I could do is point to the street. I couldn't even - I couldn't take my breath to even speak. But I have made it. I have survived.

Later, the police escorts me home. My mom was crying, but at the same time she was happy that I was alive. But we knew I couldn't stay. I left Baghdad early the next morning going back to the army base, knowing it will be years before I ever return.

In July of 2009, I got my special immigrant visa. It's a program that was set for Iraqi translators and their families to come to America because once you work for the U.S. military you will forever be an al-Qaeda target. I was able to come here, and my family followed me. And my mom was the most excited, because now we can all live in one country in peace.

I got my citizenship. I was very happy, and excited to live my American dream. I enrolled in a state university to get my master's degree and life was going well for me.

But even though I was happy with my life, I felt something was missing. Every time I’d see a post on Facebook from one of my soldier friends that I worked with in Iraq, I’d feel that I should be with them.

I was afraid of losing my new safe home, America, like I’d lost Baghdad.

In Baghdad I was weak and I couldn't belong to an organization or an entity to help me stay and defend my city. But in America, I'm strong. And today I'm a sergeant in the Army National Guard because I can belong to an organization that can prepare me to defend my adopted country and do my part as a citizen. Because I know how it feels living under terrorism. And I don't want to ever experience that again.

Thank you.