“It was like living in a dark room and a door opens to you,” Faisal says. “It was a chain, connecting our life under Saddam Hussein and his dictatorship to the life we are living now, which is much better.”

The U.S. military came to Iraq in 2003, the year he began to work as a policeman in his Yezidi town of Shiba Sheikh. That’s when he saw his opening to the outside world. In 2005, he joined the U.S. military forces as an interpreter, embracing the chance to earn a decent living, learn a new language, and interact with Americans. Because working with U.S. troops put his life in danger, he operated under a code name—choosing the name of an American president. 

For six years, he worked in some of the most dangerous places in northern Iraq. The Forward Operating Bases saw frequent combat. At the border crossing in Rabia, he came face-to-face with insurgents and smugglers armed with car bombs and explosives. 

Despite the risks, Faisal liked perks of the job—barbecuing in the desert and getting to know American soldiers. He became close friends with a captain who was fascinated by Arabic and Yezidi music. The man asked Faisal to translate song lyrics and teach him to sing. In return, the captain played Faisal rock-and-roll and country music. 

It was the first time he hoped to leave Iraq. And he arrived in the United States in 2012 on a translator visa. Not two years later, ISIS invaded Shingal (Sinjar), one of Iraq’s Yezidi enclaves. “It’s unbelievable, the things that happened to our people,” he says, searching for words to describe the loss. Among the thousands of Yezidis enslaved or killed were members of his own family.

Today, Faisal works as a Kurdish and Arabic interpreter in a medical clinic in Nebraska. And though his town, Shiba Sheikh, was liberated from ISIS less than a week before Music in Exile met him in June 2017, he felt no joy or relief.

He misses the wedding celebrations in Shiba Sheikh where everyone would dress up and come to dance. But says he’ll never go back to Shingal. “What makes us sure that this place will be safe again?”