A composer and musician living in Baghdad, Ibadi was one of many Iraqis forced to perform for Saddam Hussein. “I didn’t sing to my government, I sang to my country,” he says, sitting on the couch in his apartment in Virginia.

He was born in Wasit, a governorate in eastern Iraq. His family moved to the capital in the 1970s and he graduated from the College of Fine Arts of Baghdad as, he says, the valedictorian of his class. His compositions were performed by dozens of Iraqis and aired on television. He says one of his most famous pieces was “Paradise, Paradise,” composed in the 1980s and still revered today.

When Saddam asked composers to make music for him—be it a song for a family member’s birthday or a battle—they had little choice but to comply. “Iraqi musicians have been suffering for decades from this so-called affection… All Iraq’s composers have songs in the drawer, ready for the moment when they are needed,” an oud-musician told The Independent in 2003. Ibadi remembers that one of his colleagues turned down Saddam’s request. She spent six months in prison before being executed.

In January 2004, one month after U.S. forces captured Saddam in a “spider hole,” Ibadi found a note folded into the mirror of his car. A Shiite militia-political party with ties to Iran, Badr, had written him a message: you have one week to live if you stay in Baghdad. Ibadi would spend the next seven years in Syria, waiting to immigrate to the United States.

He had been swept up in a massive effort to wipe out Iraq’s intelligentsia—more than 500 university professors alone were killed by unknown groups between 2003 and 2013. In Damascus, Ibadi says he moved frequently out of fear of that the Badr brigade would find him.

Ibadi entered the United States in 2011, and he is the only member of his family in the country today. Those first few nights were sleepless. Part of it was the unknown. And the other part was not knowing the English word for “decaf” at Starbucks. (So began a friendship with a retired man who sat there and taught him English.)

“My best friend is my oud,” Ibadi says. “It is happy with me, sad with me.” In April, his 22-year-old nephew who had hoped to be a musician was killed in the streets of Iraq.