Marwan is originally from Mosul, Iraq. During the war he worked with the US Army to provide internet and phone service to US soldiers. He eventually began to receive threats from insurgents and had to leave as a result. He discusses what Iraq was like under Saddam, the US invasion, departing Iraq and eventually resettling in the United States.
Interview conducted on October 11, 2015 in El Cajon, California
Present: Richard Hayden and Marwan Oraha
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Marwan Oraha: Marwan Jameel Oraha.
RH: Where are you from?
MO: Iraq, Mosul city.
RH: When did you come to the United States?
MO: I came to the United States November 9, 2010.
RH: 2010? OK. Did you work with US forces while in Iraq?
MO: Yes. I used to work with the US Army after Saddam at the end of 2003. I used to work with a communication company and they make a contract with the US Army to bring some communication to the soldiers so the soldiers will have internet and phones to call their families here. So I used to be in charge. With the US Army, I used to sleep over there seven days a week. And after soldiers came from the work outside, they come ask me, “can I write my name to speak with my family?” “Yes.” So I used to work with them two years.
MO: It was the 101.
RH: The 101st Airborne?
MO: The 101st. Yes.
RH: Good to go. What was Mosul like when you were growing up?
MO: In Mosul the life was very easy. I was born in 1982 so when I opened my eyes until I left Iraq: war, war, war. I didn’t see nothing nice. When I saw some people here around twelve or thirteen years, we didn’t see that fun over there. We were all scared, scared, scared but it was good for security. We could go anywhere with nothing wrong, you know? So it just was regular adult school. We’d go to school, college, church – I am Christian, Catholic. I am also a deacon at the church so every Friday, Saturday, Sunday we’d go to the church and regular days to school. After school, my dad had a big fabric-making for leather bags for school. I used to work with my dad when I had holidays, after school or summer holidays. So life was good for us over there. Like normal.
RH: Good to go. You are Chaldean, is that correct?
MO: Yes. I am Chaldean Catholic.
RH: What was life like for Chaldean Catholics during Saddam’s time?
MO: I’m telling you everything before 2003. I am a deacon and very close to the church. I told you Friday, Saturday, especially Sunday, three or four masses and we have to have youth group and choir. We used to do our choir outside in the street. Nobody can say nothing. We used to have the bells for church before the masses start. Everything was normal. Nobody can talk, nobody can say, “oh, this is Chaldean. This is Christian.” No. It was everybody the same. We were happy, you know?
RH: What was life in general under Saddam like?
MO: You know, for guys when we were eighteen years old, we have to go the Army. We have to. You cannot go nowhere. We have to. Even if you are a student in college, they usually go three years. We have to do the three years and if there is war, you have to sign the papers and do more. But thank God, my age was close to, before Saddam, like two years and I was in college. So the life was normal but scary for the police, the military would show up in the street. It was good. Just go straight. Don’t talk about government, don’t talk about Saddam. Be careful because there was party over there – the party of Ba’ath. The Ba’ath was everybody. In the schools they tell you, “if you do not enjoy our party, we are not going to give you passing for high school.” You cannot, my friend. You cannot. You have to enjoy.
Even when I say I am Chaldean, they don’t let you say you are Chaldean. You have to say “Arabic.” I’m not Arabic. I’m not Muslim. For example, there are brothers – I have my culture, I am Chaldean. We have seven thousand year calendar for Chaldean. They don’t let you use boys names. For example, now I have my son. He is six months old. He was born in Las Vegas. I put his name Jason. There you cannot put Jason, my friend. You cannot. So those roles were very bad for us. We cannot use our names like John, Matthew. We cannot. We have to use our Arabic names.
RH: OK. What was the relationship between the Chaldeans and other groups in Iraq at the time?
MO: The relationship. I used to live in Mosul and Mosul is the second biggest state in Iraq. It’s all Sunni. It’s like most of them – ninety percent – Sunni. I used to live in an area, we had a church here, a mosque there and all Christians, Muslims, Christians together. So we used to eat together, play together. But they had something for our people over there. The Muslims always say, “you guys follow Jesus. You guys are wrong. You should follow our religion.” Every Friday they have prayer at the mosque and they always talk about us but with Saddam, nobody can talk something bad. Everyone was talking, “take care of your neighbors. We are all brothers. We all believe in one God.”
But after the war, after Saddam, we knew how everything went. Do you know what happened after Saddam? Your neighbor would come to kill you. My neighbor will come to kill me and maybe you will ask me, “why you left Iraq?” I will tell you. So…
RH: We’re going to get to that definitely.
MO: You asked me, the relationship before war was regular like life, like me and you. Just like that. But when I walk the street, they know you are Christian. When I say Christian, I mean belong to Jesus. It was different so they know who you are. So the life was normal but after that, I will tell you.
RH: Perfect. Where were you on September 11th?
MO: Mosul, Iraq.
RH: How did you find out about the twin towers?
MO: Good question. When Saddam was in charge in Iraq, the president, there was no internet. We cannot. There was nothing. All was tracked. We cannot. We don’t know nothing but my cousin, she lives in Detroit – she’s American – and she told us when we called her but we can’t talk nothing because everything was scary, man. We can’t say nothing. She said something happened there with Osama. And also, we have two channels only. We don’t have the dish when Saddam was there. No dish, no cell phones. Nothing, my friend. Nothing. Only the regular phone was trackable and, also, we don’t have the dish satellite. No news, no channels, nothing. No internet, no e-mail.
So we heard, they just read the news like nothing outside. So I heard about September 11th, 9/11, from news in Iraq and also from my cousin. She was crying. She said, “oh, it’s very bad now what happened. A lot of people got killed. Osama bin Laden.” We knew who Osama bin Laden was – the terrorist guy. We know. We know Osama, we know Zarqawi. We know what they do. So I was there. I heard from news.
RH: What was the official reaction from the government like?
MO: Nothing but let me tell you, our church priest, we always remember. And the church – also there was our, how do you call it, CIA?
RH: The CIA.
MO: They are Christian but they tell to Saddam whatever we talk in the church.
RH: So like spies?
MO: Yes! Exactly. We don’t know what they call them.
RH: Yes. Perfect. Spies.
MO: So our priests and bishops, I remember, they always said, “guys, let’s pray for those people, our brothers in America who died.” You know? But everyone else, they don’t say much. I’m telling you. But the church, yes.
RH: Between September 11th and March of 2003 when the war started, what was the mood in Iraq like?
MO: Just normal, my friend. Just normal. Let me tell you about this, Iraq is ninety, ninety-five percent Muslims – Shia and Sunni, Kurdish is Sunni. I remember something. When they heard the news, the Muslim people, “oh, somebody killed one American,” they get happy. Yeah man. They feel happy on something. Why? “He’s a man like you.” Why?
About the war, before the United States, the US Army, came over there do you know what our friends tell me? “Oh! Wait, wait. Soon your uncles will come here.” The US Army or Americans. Because we are Christian, they told us, “oh, you guys will be OK because your uncles, your cousins, they will come take over, just like that.” And most of the translators when the US Army came were Christian because they speak English very good and they hire them to translate and they pay good money. In Iraq we never get eight dollars per hour or ten dollars. Never. Two hundred dollars or three hundred dollars a month. So when we see a job like this, we go. I got three friends of mine, Chaldean, that were killed because they helped the US Army as translators. They put them on the internet when they cut their head. One of those people was my friend. He used to work with me.
RH: In March 2003 when the invasion started, where were you? In Mosul?
MO: Mosul. Yes. All Mosul.
RH: Mosul? OK. What was it like the night that the Americans came in?
MO: Actually, before that the government knows what was going on. Because we always say, “Saddam should listen to the US.” They told him, “we will control and you stay your army.” Because this was very wrong when they broke the military, do you know? [searches for word]
RH: The airspace?
MO: No. If the US government did something wrong with our country, they are supposed to keep the military. You know what happened.
RH: Oh! After the invasion they were supposed to keep the military intact and they broke it up?
MO: Yes! Saddam said, “no, no.” So this was wrong. But before, for three weeks or four weeks, the party of Ba’ath they did, for example, every hundred feet one point. What do they call it in English?
RH: Like a checkpoint.
MO: A checkpoint. Exactly. They let people, even if you are not soldiers, you have to come take two hours. You have to take a Kalashnikov. They say, “here,” just like that, and all around Iraq. Before one day, we wake up in the morning. Something’s wrong with our neighbor. People were walking. My dad said – I have only one brother and five sisters – “nobody goes out.” I said, “dad, what’s going on?” He said, “listen. People they go to the bank, they take money, stealing money, stealing furniture from the government buildings.” OK. I told him, “just let me go outside and see.” I go outside and I saw our neighbors – Muslim but I didn’t see Christians because our families, they teach us everything correctly – when I go outside I saw my neighbors. I know their name. They took a lot of money here like this, “oh Marwan! Do you need money?” “No, no, no my friend. I don’t need money.”
I go a little bit down the street and I see all the banks on fire. I see one guy has a gun like this [makes a hand motion to demonstrate a rifle]. Somebody goes and steals money because they open the doors for all people – the Kurdish Army. I don’t know who did that. When you steal money you go out of the bank, “give me the money.” So we lost a lot of people over there because of stealing stuff, everything. This was the same day and my dad told us, “you guys come over.” He closed the door and said, “nobody go out until ten days.”
After I worked with US Army, when they know I worked with them, after they killed my friend, they sent me a paper like this [makes a square shape with his hands] I-4 size to the church because they know I’m deacon at the church. They said, “warning to Marwan. If you don’t stop helping the United States Army, US Army, we will kill you and kill all your family. All that belong to your last name, we will cut your head.” My dad was scared. This is after one year and a half I worked for the Army, for the 101st, my dad said, “Marwan, they are very dangerous.” He told me, “you have to leave now.”
RH: We’re going to get there. I got it all figured out. How did life in Iraq change after the US invasion?
MO: OK. Our people think that when the US Army come, we will have the freedom but they don’t understand what the freedom means. They think the freedom, “oh, just to have cell phones. Oh, just to have this, watching six movies.” You know what I mean, right? To go outside with no t-shirt, they think this is the freedom but this is not. They were excited but everything changed. Everything had gone wrong. Each group got one party – this is Sunni, this is Kurdish, this is Christian, this is this. And each one fighting with another one altogether. They were excited for freedom but they don’t know what freedom means and they got trouble.
RH: How did you end up working with the Army?
MO: I used to work with the Al Hilal Communication Company. It’s a very big company. The owner did a contract with the US Army to have service for internet and phones. He told me, “Marwan, your English is a little bit good so we will send you.” I told him, “oh, I was very excited.” I just was, you know? “OK, I’m ready.” “You will be in charge of this place and you’ll hire three people like you who know how to talk to the US soldiers to help them.” I hired four people – I know them. Two of them are still in Alqosh. Alqosh, it’s like before Duhok, Kurdistan, like one hundred kilometers. It’s a very nice place. It’s Chaldean – all Christian. I hired three people from there. Two are still there, one’s in Michigan.
So I heard about that job with the US Army because I worked with the company and I was very happy when I worked with them because soldiers have their own bathroom to take showers and their own buffet. There was, like, ten or fifteen people – translator people – they all buy their food. Only us, me and my group, they let us use their bath to take a shower and also they give us a card to have food with the soldiers. Thanksgiving with the soldiers – oh my God! They bring boxes for gifts. Here! It made me happy. The job with them was very good but when they sent me the paper, I wasn’t sure to pass Mosul alive, you know?
RH: Did you ever find out who sent this paper exactly?
RH: Who was it?
MO: Our neighbor. Muslims. Yes sir.
RH: And they were very serious?
MO: Yes. Very serious. This guy, he killed not just my friend but he cut a lot of heads of Christians off. Yes.
RH: What do you remember about some of the soldiers that you worked with?
MO: So you know what happened to me before I talk about this? I used to have Yahoo Messenger. I had a lot of soldiers as my friends, you know? After they sent me the paper I told you and I had to leave there, I went to Syria to just change, a vacation, because I was scared. I went to Syria – Syria is Bashar Al Assad and you know it’s the same – and I opened my e-mail over there and I used to talk to my friend soldiers. I have Captain Wherly, Captain Harvey. All of those are my friends. I had Michael and a lot of friends. One Mexican guy. He is Mexican but American. Anyways, when I was chatting with them, next day I went to open my Yahoo Messenger and it was hacked. I can’t access it. And here – if you want a recovery or you want to return your password because you have a cell phone, they’ll send you a password. There we didn’t have nothing. So I lost my Yahoo Messenger. I didn’t know what’s going on.
About the story with the soldiers, they were fun. After one guy went outside to do his job and some terrorist they…
RH: They shot a rocket?
MO: They shot RPGs and he lost his foot. And when he came after the hospital and everything, he came and hugged me like this [holds his arm around chest to show embrace] and said, “Marwan, see your people, what they did for me?” I told him, “I’m sorry about them but this is not my people. Now I’m here with you. I’m here like you. If they drop some bombs here, I will die like you here because I am serving you.” He said, “don’t worry.” He just hugged me like this. He was crying and I cried too when I told him about that, “I’m sorry about that, my friend.” But this is terrorists, you know?
Another thing. Somebody came, it was a black soldier. He did himself like drunk but he wasn’t drunk, you know? Like, “Marwan! I want to talk to my girlfriend. Please don’t mention this.” It was funny. But after he finished I had a timer with how many minutes and I charged him how many minutes times twenty cents and it was six dollars. He just gave me twenty and said, “keep the change.” [RH laughs] It was fun and the translator people, when they finished work sometimes they used to call me to help people with something. If the US Army wanted to buy some wood to make a cabinet, like rooms, I used to help the Captain – the guy who brings the stuff. So it was fun. It was good.
RH: Good. Were you ever on the base when it was attacked? Did you receive any attacks?
MO: Yes. We received three times, three bombs. It was the same place and the bombing was, “woo, woo, woo,” like this. And the Captain came to us right away and was like, “please don’t be afraid. Everything is OK, under our control. Don’t worry.” Somebody shot a – what do you call it? – not RPG but bigger?
RH: Like a mortar?
MO: Yeah, something like that. The building moved. Everybody, they have a bell for the soldiers and everybody come. It was like an emergency. Yeah. That time I called my mom and my family and I told them, “don’t worry.” Because right away, the US came and everybody has a dish – satellite. They watch Arab news and they know what’s going on. Even the bombs. I told my dad, “don’t worry, we are OK.” So yeah, we received two times.
RH: How was your family dealing with all of this?
MO: I was making good money but they still, after they heard that anyone who worked with the US Army will die. And I will tell you about my family, what will happen to them. When you ask, they were scared. The life was out of control. You don’t know who will kill you, who will love you. Even your neighbor.
RH: Can you talk a little bit about the different ethnic groups in Iraq and how that affected the war the time that you were working with US soldiers?
RH: I guess, were there a lot of Shias in Mosul? Was it all Sunni? How did that dynamic kind of affect the war, the different groups?
MO: OK. Let me tell you something. When the day the US Army came, I told you they broke all Saddam’s houses. You know, Saddam, he used to have in every city three houses. Big, huge houses like a villa. The banks and everything, hotels belonged to the government. So when the US came, the US Army, they contracted Iraqis to rebuild those buildings. People were happy because they worked eight dollars per hour. Even the Muslims. But there were a lot of Muslims who would go inside the area to work just to see what was going on. Even if we are Christian, they know where we live and they work like us over there but outside they write, “Marwan, works with Army.” A lot of times they work with people because Muslim people work with the US Army too but they are not trustable.
RH: Not trustworthy?
MO: Yeah. If you work it’s OK but they watch what’s going on and they want to report to their top. For example they told me maybe they come take me, they call my family, “you have to pay a hundred thousand dollars and we give you Marwan. If not, we will kill him.” For both options, right away they kill him, even if they took money. It was normal but some people were just taking information.
RH: What was it like the night that Saddam was captured?
MO: When? When they saw Saddam inside the hole?
RH: When they pulled him out of the hole. In Iraq, what was the reaction like?
MO: Actually, I was in Zakho, the one that’s on the border between Turkey. My city – my dad’s city. A lot of people, they cried.
RH: Cried for joy or cried for sadness?
MO: Sadness because they saw what was going on before 2003. Between those few years, the Iraqi people saw a bad situation . Killing, taking people from the house, calling the family, “give me the money to return him,” and they don’t let us as Christians to do our culture and prayers outside. You know, a lot of stuff. But some people were crying but some people were, “ahh!,” because they are happy. They do the fireworks. Some. Some of them were happy.
RH: OK. So you worked with the US for two years you said?
RH: Why did you eventually leave?
MO: OK. This is a very good question and that’s why I left Iraq and I don’t want to go back any more. They sent me this paper I told you and my dad said, “just go. Go away from the city of Mosul.” After two weeks, our Bishop got killed too, Father Rahho. He was the Bishop of Mosul. He told me it was Father Rahho, the Bishop of Mosul Chaldeans. He told me, “Deacon Marwan, come,” because we used to have a job in the church, like building and construction. “Come work with us. Don’t worry. Nobody can hurt you.” And I listened to him.
I went to the church to work and I got money, and I was on the payroll every day. When I go to the church to work construction, I felt somebody tracking me. Me and this guy – I told you I hired him from Alqosh, now he is in Sydney, Australia. Anyway, he said, “Marwan, this guy is always tracking us.” One guy two times, three times, four times. We ask about this guy. He was from the terrorist group. He was tracking me and maybe he was trying to shoot us, just kill us or something, but we didn’t let him. I told the Bishop, “listen, these people are tracking us. I’m sorry. I want to leave.”
I went to Syria just for vacation. I went to Syria after two weeks and a group of those people, five of them, they covered their heads with RPG and Kalashnikov and went to my house with weapons. They knocked on the door [makes a knocking sound on the table]. Our houses there, they were all small houses, one next to each other. We don’t have a back yard, just like old cities. My mom was washing the clothes, the clothes were behind the main door. They kicked the door, “where is Marwan?,” in Arabic. “Where is Marwan?” My mom, she said, “Marwan moved. Marwan moved now. He got a letter from the group and he left Iraq. He’s not here.” She was right, I wasn’t there. These people, they said, “open the door!” She said, “Marwan is not here.” What they did? They opened fire on the door. My mom got injured, three shots here [motions to his right hip] in the right side in the stomach but, thank God, my sister was a medical assistant and saved her. So they told me about this situation and I was just crying. They opened the door and they saw my mom with all the blood and everything and my dad was sleeping on the roof. When they saw that Marwan is not home, they just left right away because there is no police. The US Army was very far from us. We don’t have communication to call somebody.
Anyway, they took my mom, the neighbors who were Christian, to the hospital right away and thank God she is good now. And after I heard, like crazy I came back to Mosul just to see my mom, to see if she’s alive and if they are alright or not. I came there and, the same day, I took my mom and my family. We left everything. My dad, I told you he used to have a fabric to make leather. They opened fire on the place and we lost a lot of money. My house, they broke the house.
I took my family and we went to Zakho, the original city, my dad’s city. It belongs to the Kurdistan area. So thank God my mom was OK. We stayed in Zakho from 2006 to the end of 2007. I speak Chaldean, which is my mother language, and Arabic, Iraqi Arabic, and I went to Zakho. You can’t work with the Kurdish if you don’t speak Kurdish. I learned the Turkish language for one month – reading, writing, speaking – and I found a job over there. I rented a house for my family and it was everything OK.
I got one opportunity because I finished my degree, my college degree, in computer science – communication and networking. I told my dad, “let’s open a coffee net here.” In Iraq before, we don’t have internet for each house. If you want to use the internet, especially in Kurdistan because there was freedom from 1990 – I told my dad, “there is a business and they will sell it. Could you just borrow some money for me to buy this business?” I got the business and I paid back the money. It was successful and everything was ok and still, I was afraid to leave. I told my dad, “dad, please go. Let’s go to Turkey. Let’s go outside Turkey and stay in Canada, Europe, anywhere. Just leave because this is not my country anymore. They don’t like us so we don’t have to live here.” So after this situation, my dad didn’t want to borrow one penny from nobody. He didn’t like that. He was scared to go to Turkey to live over there. Maybe it will take one year, two years, three years to do the paperwork for some countries need money. He said, “we don’t have anybody to send us money to help us. Son, if you want, leave this business for your brother and if you want to go, go.”
Why I left Iraq? Because I was scared and I loved my wife. She was my friend in Iraq. We had a love story from a long time ago. I heard she was in Turkey and I went to Turkey and I asked her dad to be engaged to her. Do you know, in that situation in our culture I had to tell my dad to call her dad to do this, you know? So I went to Turkey and I called my dad, “dad, I am working here. Don’t worry.” I used to work in a gold shop over there and also I worked two years volunteer work with the church helping refugees. After two years I got my paperwork and everything and I came to the United States.
RH: Nice. So you came from Turkey then?
RH: OK. Wonderful. Where do you come when you came to the US?
MO: San Diego, El Cajon. The same city right now that we are talking in right now. My dad’s second cousin, he made a reference, something like that? He said, “I will take care of Marwan.” My first cousin he lives here and I came right away to his house, apartment as a roommate. As a refugee, when we came here, the government helped us eight months only to give you food stamps and two hundred dollars. They give you a welcome when you come to the United States, one thousand dollars, to begin your stay for eight months. For those eight months I went to the adult school to learn more English – ESL program, English as a Second Language. And also I went to church here and I found a job in the Hilton hotel. And I saved money and I got married in this hotel. The first two months, I got my employee “Associate of the Month.”
RH: Oh nice!
MO: In 2011 I got my “Employee of the Year” in the Hilton hotel in San Diego. After that I got married, I have kids now – two kids – and I have opportunity now in Las Vegas to take care of business, thank God.
RH: And what year did you come to the US? 2011?
MO: 2010. November.
RH: Were your parents able to come too?
MO: It was very hard, even now. I wish. Now my dream is to bring my family here. Even now in Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani – he is the President of Kurdistan – especially now these days, there is a bigger problem. In Kurdistan there are two or three parties and there is a problem for those people – big problem. Maybe they will kill each other over there. I’m not sure. I’m scared for my family and always I tell my dad, “dad, just come over. I will help you. I will do my best to send you some money to stay in Turkey until your paperwork is finished.” He still is scared to come to Turkey and nobody help him. I said, “dad, you are my dad! You are my family. I will take care of you.” So I wish. I tried when I came here, from five years ago, every single call when I call and facebook him, “dad, please come.” He says, “OK, OK, OK.” Now he promised me to leave Iraq soon but I’m not sure when.
RH: So your adjustment to the US sounded pretty good. What was your adjustment to the US like?
MO: When I came?
MO: Let me tell you something. I used to watch movies back home. My dream was to come to the United States first. My dream was to see Hollywood. I swear. And thank God I came here. I see the rules, man. I see how people respect people, how you feel you are a man. Thank God when I came here nothing was something different for me. I used to read what’s going on in the US, what’s the rules, culture, everything. The thing I like here is nobody tells you, “you are Christian or black or white.” No. Everybody goes by the law. I was not surprised because I told you I used to watch movies and my dream was to come here. And thank God, in the next two weeks I will have my interview for citizenship so I hope everything will be OK.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Do you still keep in touch with any of the soldiers that you knew in Iraq?
MO: I told you what happened to me when I went to Syria. Somebody hacked me. I lost it. But now if I see the faces I know them, maybe from far away. I have some pictures with me but maybe I will attach some pictures if I find the pictures.
RH: Please do.
MO: I have. Let me tell you, when I go to that place I work with the US Army, every single time when I go, different clothing because maybe sometimes they track you, you know? So sometimes I wear this uniform I had and they don’t know where I’m going. Sometimes I let my… [rubs his chin]
RH: The beard grow?
MO: Yeah. So if I find them in the future, I will for sure send you.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before we move on to the current state of Iraq, is there any other stories or anything else that we left out that you would like to address?
MO: No but, for example, those liquor stores in Iraq, all the people that own those stores, it’s all Christian. The Muslim people say that it’s haram. Haram means that you cannot drink because of their religion. Even in Kurdistan, do you know what they did? A group of Islamists, they opened fire on liquor stores. Even the haircut. If they see you like this [points to his chin], they don’t leave you like this.
RH: Just to note for future historians, Marwan has a little goatee and that was what he was referring to. [MO laughs]
MO: Yeah. So they don’t let you live like you want. You have to listen, you have to do it. I can’t. I’m not going to be that. I think that somebody who lives there, it’s dreary, man. I feel like that so they tell me, “no. You have to.”
RH: OK. How do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
MO: Very bad. Let me tell you something. My friend, I used to have Muslim friends on my facebook and when I saw this group and I was the newest and I had facebook, they post the pictures now. I know they are not all the same but now me, I’m Marwan talking, I cannot trust no Muslim people. Even on facebook. I don’t know after ISIS. Not like after Saddam, no. After ISIS. I feel crazy. When I watch those news, I just fret. That’s why now at work, I always turn the channel for the kids, the child movies, because I don’t want to feel bad. When they go to the mosque, when they pray, they teach them something wrong, my friend. They don’t say, “this is your neighbor. Love your neighbor like yourself,” like Jesus said. They don’t do that. They say, “kill him.”
And do you know what ISIS did? I will tell you about ISIS and what happened to my grandma. I used to live here when ISIS came to Mosul. It was August or something like that, I’m not sure which day. My grandma, my mother’s mom, she was born in 1927. She is old. And she was good. ISIS gave the Christian people in Mosul twenty-four hours to, first, you have to be Muslim or, the second option, you stay and you pay taxes for your religion or leave your house just like that. Take nothing. My grandma, she was very old and she was very fat. My uncle was living with her. She can’t move fast so the last two hours they came to her house and “dah, dah, dah.” [motions as if he was knocking on a door] She was scared. “Leave right now!” And they took all her gold, watch, everything. She was travelling to Kurdistan like a refugee and because there was a lot of checkpoints for ISIS to see who took the money from them, my grandma passed away. I swear. We did the service here. The people, they come to my house and say, “I’m sorry.” So this is, I lost my grandma because ISIS took them from the house to live in another state.
So I don’t want to hear about them anymore. I swear. That’s why I told my dad, “please, dad.” Even the Kurdish people, there is a Kurdish party, the Islamic party, this one they don’t like nobody – only them. I’m sure they are ISIS too. I swear. If the control from Barzani goes out or something, those people will take over and they will kill our people. So ISIS is bad people. It’s bad. They are not good. No.
RH: Alright. What is the greatest challenge that Iraq faces today, in your opinion?
MO: [laughs] Nothing.
MO: No. They go back maybe twenty, thirty years back. Nothing. The thing that’s changed is that the dictatorship. We’d like every four years to have another government. Our people when they stay, they don’t want to go. They want to stay forever. This is wrong. I understand that freedom is freedom when you like someone to be president, you vote for him. Not him saying, “I am your President.” So the challenge is going back, back, back, back. I didn’t see from 2003 until now nothing good in Iraq. Nothing. Even the government, they stole the money, man. For example, you are a construction company. The government asks you to do a street. You say, “one million dollars.” They give you one million dollars. The one that works with the government, he will write five million dollars and you are the construction guy and you got one million dollars and you will give it to somebody else for two hundred thousand. They will do the street bad, bad, bad. In six months it will be bad again. And the payroll for the government’s people is too much – like fifteen, twenty million dollars. Come on. So it’s still stealing, stealing, stealing and they leave the poor to kill each other. Nothing good changed.
I’m telling you – not because I will be an American soon and I’m very excited and I’m very happy – not because I’m here in America but let me tell you something. This is not America, our people. They don’t understand what freedom means. If they understood what the US did for them, they’d have to cry every single day for the US. They have to cry. They have to say, “we are cross at America for this thing.” But they are not. They don’t understand what the freedom means and what the United States is for. This is the bad thing.
RH: Since the start of the war in 2003, how has your relationship with God grown?
MO: The relationship with my God was the same because never did the relationship with God or the church change. All was changed for better and better and better but when we see those situations we pray more. We ask God to help us more to be like to stop dying and killing each other. We pray for that. And even now when we go, we pray for everybody. We pray for America, we pray for our country, “God please bring peace to our country. No more dying, no more killing each other.” You know? The relationship is going better and better.
RH: OK. Good to go. Has the war changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
MO: Yes because, I told you, after 2003 when you walk through the street you see people dying in front of you. It’s scary when we go out from the house. For example, my mom, “Marwan, go out and bring me some fruit,” or something. When I go, I’m not sure I will be back. So death was always in front of me. Even now. It is our belief that we have to put dying always – every second, every single second – in front of us any time. Because in the two minutes we don’t know what will happen, right? So when we saw those people at my house feeling strong, you know, come on. I see heads, I see bodies, it was very bad.
Because we are Christian we pray before we sleep. We don’t think, we don’t dream but that time we did because we saw dying people outside. You feel like one day you will be like them. And, like I told you, when you go outside to bring something to your home, you don’t know if you will be back or not. This won’t happen to us. When you drive, you don’t know. Like a stop sign. We don’t have stop signs over there or traffic lights. When you stop here you don’t know the next car, left or right, what they are or if they are tracking you or they will kill you like this and the car will go “BOOM!” in front of you. You don’t know. Even the church. When we would go we used to put two guys to volunteer outside to check.
RH: How has living the US shaped your faith?
MO: After I came here?
MO: You know, I told you it’s something different. Thank God. I came here when I was twenty-nine years old and thank God because I was thinking to come here before. Everything is beautiful. I didn’t see nothing wrong. Even sometimes now, I work at the store and I have bad customers. They do drugs and everything. I always talk to them. “You guys are still young.” I swear. “You guys do this, do this. Go find a job.” You know? Sometimes they ask me for help and I told them, “I would help you but I am not because if I support you will stay with [gestures as if smoking],” you know? So I like to live life here. Let me tell you, in San Diego when I used to live here, I got my license for USPS – United States Postal Service – and I used to work with the Postal Service, customer service too. I feel when American people, all people, they come to me to ask me the rules for shipping packages I feel like when I go home, “this is me!” Because when I got my license I felt wonderful and happy. Oh my God! Because, myself, I always do more, more, more. I’m very hard working. So the life here is beautiful and I don’t want to leave from here. I just stay here forever. [both laugh]
RH: Alright. Good to go. What is the happiest memory of the entire time that you worked with the US Army?
MO: The happiest times? I told you when. I didn’t know what Thanksgiving means. In Iraq we only have Christmas and Easter. We don’t have it. When they had this party, they had these things. Oh my God, man. The soldier when he came to sit at the computer to open his chat, AOL, “Marwan, come on over! This is my wife. Talk to her.” [makes waving motion] “Hi!” [RH laughs] Over there, our people and culture, if somebody tells you, “come see my wife,” this is a big problem. Not gonna happen! [RH laughs] For me, a Christian, it’s OK. No problem. We never cover our ladies’ hair. Nothing, no. But it was good for me and something happened. One day a soldier’s wife, she asked me, “take care of him.” [RH laughs] I’m like, “don’t worry, I’m like him. If something happens to me, it’ll happen to him!” So this is the good thing. “Oh Marwan, please talk to my girlfriend. Come talk to my mom.” It was like, man, that was very good.
During nighttime, around three or four AM, I used to close and nobody would come and I would open at six. I opened the lines and the computers every morning. Sometimes at five-thirty, the soldiers – they gave me a bed, a to-go bed and I was sleeping on it – some soldiers would come jump to me, “ahhh!,” like brothers, you know? [RH laughs] “Marwan, wake up! I need to talk to my wife.” So this was a very nice memory.
Always, I told you, some of the wives and families would send cookies and everything to the soldiers and they would always share with me. They would always give me something and take it to home. My family teach us that we never request from other people if they were over there. Whatever they see from the soldiers, even if it was sunglasses, “can I have this, can I have this, can I have this?” We never do this. But always the soldiers, they were bringing stuff for us. I wish I could see somebody now, those soldiers, to hug them, you know? I remember a lot of people over there.
RH: Nice. What, if anything, do you miss about Iraq?
MO: Only church. But, thank God, this is a big thing. Now, I told you, in El Cajon there is like seventy thousand Chaldeans. Seventy thousand people. In Las Vegas – I live in Las Vegas – we have around two hundred families so we have a community over there. We have a Catholic church, Chaldean. I serve over there. I swear, after all those things happened – nothing. Nothing. Only I pray every single day to bring my family here. This is my goal and that’s it. Now I am happy and I always think about them. If something happens, I right away call them, “oh. Are you guys OK?” “Yes.” My mom and two sisters – my three sisters are married, one in Australia, one in a different country – so my mom now and two sisters want to come but my dad is, “yes, no.” But now he promised me. I miss my family but nothing at all.
RH: Nothing else?
MO: Before, I used to miss my country. Not like back home but that’s it. I will say something, whoever takes care of you, that place it’s your country, it’s your home, it’s your life. That’s what I tell my dad. “Come see here what’s going on, how are the rules, how nice the rules here, how they respect the men, the people. Wherever you go – hospitals everywhere.” So this is my home, this is my country. And I will take care of this country if they need me for anything. I am ready. I always say, “if they need me for volunteering or anything, I am ready right away.” I swear. Not because I’m here because they are taking care of me and I’m hard working. I told you, I want to be more, more, more. I want to be a businessman here. I want to be a lot, a lot. So this is my home. That’s it.
RH: Alright. Good to go.
MO: I’m sorry again for my English. [laughs]
RH: No, it’s absolutely fine. It’s great. No problem at all.
RH: No problem at all. I always ask a question about the food.
RH: What was the food like with the Army? Was it good?
MO: The American food?
MO: Let me tell you, we eat the pork. The Muslims, no way. No, no, no. You can’t. If you are eating pork then maybe they will kill you. So I used to eat with them pork, burgers. The thing I love with the US Army there, fries and ketchup.
RH: OK, yeah. [laughs]
MO: And also, we have communication, internet, phones, my stuff. Other Iraqis, they open a restaurant for Americans. They told them what they like. The most selling was fries. Fries and ketchup. And from the US Army I used to eat the food that comes from here, in the package.
RH: The MRE?
RH: What was the best MRE?
MO: I don’t what the name was exactly. The brown bag, the strong bag. There was a lot of cookies, candies and there was soups inside. And also there was something just to put chicken. It will give you an oven to put your food in. It was amazing. The chicken. The wings, too, that come with this.
RH: Do you miss the food in Iraq at all?
MO: No. [RH laughs] Why? I’ll say why. Because I told you, now, after we finish from here, I will invite you to eat kebab. Our people when they came from there, they opened their own businesses so they have available everything. You don’t miss Iraq. You feel you are in Iraq for the food and the stores. We will go if you want to go. In Las Vegas we only have two. They make the same food. My wife, she is very smart for cooking so whenever I’m at work, “Marwan, what do you want to eat today?” For example, dolma. The on with the paper and grape.
RH: The wrapper?
MO: Yes. Or Kebab. She will do it for me. She cooks and everything. Thank God because I feel like I’m not outside my country. In the United States you can do it. Anything you want. Even if you are old, you still can go to the school. So you have a lot of opportunities here and if you have opportunity like me, I just live here and it was just a regular life. I got this opportunity and right away [snaps his fingers] I got a house in the United States. This is my big dream, man. I paid down payment and I paid my mortgage right now. Thank God, something changed. So change is always good, opportunity is good in the United States.
RH: OK. If you could communicate something to the average American – not the soldiers but the people who are watching it on TV – about what Iraqis went through, what would it be?
MO: Like the news?
RH: I guess, if an average person who’s never been to Iraq in America, what are some of the things that you could let them know? Somebody who didn’t know about what was going on, maybe one of the things that you would like them to know in general. Anything.
MO: OK. I would like to – American people, all over America – they are good and they think all people like them. This is a very big problem. Be careful. I know, believe me. I have a lot of customers and I know how they feel when they see ISIS kill someone. I know. Always they will cry because American people, they are good and their heart is clean. They are OK. I want to tell them don’t believe or don’t trust before you have some information. Some people, they never been in Iraq. Don’t trust because when you go, you see something different. So I don’t want them to right away trust people. They make themselves good, good, good. After that they will make something different.
For example now, you see what happened to Europe, those people crossing borders, maybe I heard from the news twenty percent of them are ISIS. They are crossing the border to go to Europe or Germany or whatever. Maybe here. I don’t know. But they have to know that Muslims are a little bit dangerous, even if they are good. I swear, my friend. I used to go to high school, it was six hundred people Muslim and we are only six Christians. So I don’t know. I want to tell them, those people that don’t know, think before. Think, know who before.
RH: OK. If you could communicate something to soldiers that will be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
MO: Don’t trust nobody in that area. Do whatever you have to and don’t be – I know you are nice and good but don’t trust. Just be careful, do your job and God bless. Because I told you, don’t trust. Not because I’m Christian but Christian people, they never do something wrong like that. You can’t trust those people but if they like you here, they hit you in the back by the way. So just be careful and, before you do something, read or know about them then do something.
RH: If you could communicate something to all the Iraqis who are still in Iraq – be they Chaldean or not – what would you say?
MO: I would say, “guys, stop. Enough. This is horrible. Twelve years after Saddam you guys are getting bad, bad, bad. Enough. Stand up, wake up guys. Stand up and take care of your country. Go to school, study, make more future for your kids.” This is my thing I want to say to all Iraqis. Live like brothers. Don’t say, “this is Muslim, this is Christian.” Live like only one God. So leave the religion to the side and go with your country. Do something good. Watch the news and see, for example, the United States where they are. So I want to tell them, “just wake up. Enough. Enough fighting. Enough killing each other.” This is my thing to them. I always pray. I told you, I request from God to give peace to my country over there back home to protect a lot of people. Even Muslims. I don’t care because we are all brothers. So I want to say, “you guys wake up.” That’s it.
RH: So the last two questions, before I get to that, one personal question I had to ask you. Have you ever been to Fallujah and, if so, what was your experience there like?
MO: No. I’ve never been. I never passed Baghdad, only Baghdad to visit my family but Mosul, yes, I did. But Fallujah, no. I heard about Fallujah when the US…
RH: The big battle?
MO: Yes. I was there but not in Fallujah.
RH: OK. Is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
MO: Let me think. I don’t think so. No.
RH: OK. My last question. Since 2003, what specific accomplishment have you done that you are most proud of?
MO: After 2003?
MO: The working with US Army. [laughs]
RH: OK. Why? [laughs]
MO: I told you, I see something different. Nice people. Even if they are soldiers and even if they are coming to take over or something, I got a lot of experience from them. Even if they don’t know you, they smile and have a smile on their face, “hi! How are you doing? Good morning!” In our country, nobody says that. It’s like this [makes a frown]. So I’m proud to work with them those two years.
RH: Nice. Anything else?
MO: Let’s go eat kebab!
RH: Alright! Chukran.