The first American movie Hatim watched was Mission Impossible. He liked the accents, and vowed to learn English as a teenager in Iraq. That decision changed the rest of his life.
In 2003, he overheard his parents talking about then-President George W. Bush’s decision to put American troops in Iraq. “They could not wait for the U.S. Army to come in,” says Hatim. He finished secondary school and learned English military terms from a catalogue a friend gave him. His next step was clear: he would become an interpreter for the U.S. Army.
Hatim’s first assignment was in Mosul in 2008. Then he took a job in Rabia, a city that borders Syria. It was closer to his family in Shingal (Sinjar), a region in the northeast that thousands of Yezidis, an ethno-religious minority, call home. Hatim would spend three weeks with the army and then one week with his family. Like other Yezidi interpreters, he would be driven to the base in civilian clothes and then change into a uniform so that outsiders wouldn’t know he was working for the Americans.
It was stressful to meet Iraqis who didn’t share his family’s faith in U.S. soldiers. “We were calling all of them Al Qaeda but they were not Al Qaeda. They were just people from villages. They don’t like America, they come to the road, they see you, they shoot you,” he says. “There was no ISIS at that time, but there was ISIS ideology. It was just a different name.”
One day there was an explosion at the port of entry in Rabia. The major Hatim had been walking with dropped to the floor and picked up the radio to call the base. Hatim froze in place. Units arrived, and before they inspected everyone and took biometrics, the major gave Hatim a pistol. He had never before held a weapon, and the trust the major had for him meant a lot.
Hatim worked with the U.S. Army for some three and a half years, until then-President Barack Obama pulled American troops out of Iraq. Bush’s agreement mandated that troops exit the country by December 31, 2011. “If it was Yezidis’ decision, [we] would never let the Americans get out of Iraq,” says Hatim. “We think that Americans are the only ones who can protect religious minorities.”
Hatim left Iraq about a year later. Before he left, he gave his brother, Khidir, his tambor—an instrument he had learned to play in secret years before when his father wasn’t home. He was relocated to Chicago before settling into Nebraska where Yezidis were concentrated in its capital, Lincoln. Hatim marveled at the space between the buildings and the green grass. One flat and spacious park became so beloved to him and his fellow Yezidis that they nicknamed it “Yezidi Park.” It became his secret way of imagining that he were back in Shingal.
Today, he thinks he can hold onto his Yezidi identity while adapting to American culture. But it might be different for his children. “Sometimes I think about our kids, who will probably lose their identity or the biggest part of it,” he says. Yazda, the Yezidi cultural center where he volunteers once a week, will help his kids learn Kurmanji, the language spoken by Yezidis in Iraq. He hopes that someday he will be able to show his children their homeland, which was overrun by ISIS between 2014 and 2015.
“Sometimes,” says Hatim, “I say to myself, safety was not my main point in coming to the U.S. Probably freedom or something else; persecution—they pushed us from there.”
On the wall of his home, next to family photographs and a certificate of his acceptance into a cardiac and vascular sonography program in Nebraska, hangs another framed certificate. It commemorates his work as a BTT 4251 Gatekeeper—his service as an interpreter in Rabia during Operation Iraqi Freedom.