‘We came for a better life,’ says FHS junior from Iraq

Few students at Fairmont can say they have seen war first hand. Fewer still can say they’ve run a Taliban checkpoint. Fadi Afram can.

Afram, a junior, came to the United States after escaping from Iraq, where the United States has been engaged in a war for nearly seven years. Last year, he made the 12-hour journey across the Atlantic Ocean to, of all places, Kettering, Ohio.

Afram has lived in a world that many Americans can barely understand, despite a constant flow of news from the battlefront. He has seen the Taliban first hand, lost friends to terrorism and lived to tell the tale. Chilling though his stories may be, his experiences give an up-close look at life in Iraq that no movie laden with special effects can portray.

Waking up in a war zone

Like several other Middle Eastern students at Fairmont, Afram migrated to the United States because of the situation in his home country. 

“It’s not safe; there are no jobs. We came for a better life,” said Afram, who lived in Baghdad during some of the worst years of Saddam Hussein’s reign and the U.S. occupation. After Saddam’s fall in 2003, Afram’s home became a war zone. Bustling city streets turned into a 21st century Wild West, especially after sundown.  “After 5 o’clock, it wasn’t safe anymore.”

Gangs of men, often drunk, would drive through the streets, terrorizing whomever was unlucky enough to cross their path. “I couldn’t sleep. They would shoot into the house,” Afram said. One night, he went to the door to investigate gunshots from the street. Two masked men ordered him to stay inside as they returned to a gunfight.

Under Saddam’s rule, the situation was far from better. “You couldn’t say crap about Saddam. To this day, I can’t say his name. I’m too scared to,” said Afram. Saddam was executed in 2006 after being convicted of crimes against humanity, specifically the killing of 148 people in the mainly Shia town of Dujail after an assassination attempt against him in 1982. But now, according to Afram, the people in the new government are the same.

The United States’ invasion of Iraq hit Afram directly. “At first, we felt bad. People were getting killed; many were leaving. I couldn’t go to school,” he said. The U.S. troops, Afram said, were very nice in the beginning. “We would have soccer games with them,” he said. “But as the violence got worse and they started losing their friends, the mood turned to fear and they stopped trusting us, which is understandable.”

The highest price of violence

For Afram, the price of violence was unimaginable. His father served in the Iraqi military, which men were required to join. He disappeared forever after one of their missions when Afram was only a year old. “If you don’t join the army, they could kill you. You can’t say no,” he said.  

Seven of Afram’s friends were senselessly murdered in terror bombings. His face grew expressionless as he explained how several of them died: “It was after a soccer game. My friends walked to a gazebo to get a drink. There was a car in the parking lot, sitting there. When they got close to it, it exploded. They were there one minute and gone the next.” Three more of Afram’s friends were killed in the bombing of a Baghdad arcade.

His mother died before he was old enough to know her … of what, he doesn’t know. Since then, he has been raised by his grandmother, Nimo Safar, who he lives with today. She comes from the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, where Saddam’s brutality was unleashed when the Iraqi army used chemical weapons to kill thousands of people. Though she speaks mostly Kurdish and Arabic and almost no English, Afram says, “she has taken care of me for 18 years.”

Afram’s exodus

There came a point when Afram’s family could no longer handle the violence. Their tale of escape to Syria in 2004 is hair-raising. He and his grandmother, aunt, uncle and sister crossed the border in a van, taking what meager resources they had. They were stopped at a Taliban checkpoint. Afram hurriedly stuffed their scarce cash supply in his socks and waited. “We weren’t sure if they were going to kill us or let us go,” said Afram. “I nearly died of fright.”

With weapons drawn, a group of 20 or so guards approached the car. The tense moment was broken when out of nowhere came the sound of blazing guns and shouts. Afram was caught in the middle of a battle between U.S. forces and the Taliban. The refugees sped away and, despite a near-fatal crash, crossed the border into Syria.

Afram and his family stayed in Syria for a year. In Syria, it seemed just as hard to earn a living. “The people in Syria were not very welcoming to Iraqis,” he said. “Many of the bombers who attacked my country were trained there.”

When Afram and the others returned to Iraq after a year in Syria, they found it in abysmal condition. “I wished I would have stayed in Syria,” he said. After a year, they left for the last time, returning to Syria. From there, a Catholic Services branch of the United Nations funded their flight to America and helped them get visas. Afram’s aunt, whose husband works at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, helped them settle in Kettering.

Coming to a new world

“I miss some things about Iraq. I had a big group of friends. We all worked together at the same job, and we would play soccer together. I would have parties and play card games, domino games. I was having fun,” he said. But his description of his first sight of America brings a smile to his face.

“When I first came … oh, man, it was awesome. The school was amazing to me. I like pretty much everything about it.”

The Iraqi refugee has found support through the English Speaker of Other Languages program (ESOL), which helps introduce students from other cultures into the English language and the American school system. Dolly Wehbeh, who works with Afram on a daily basis, says the students who come here are very brave despite their past and they have the will to struggle on.

Valerie Hough, the ESOL coordinator, also interacts with Afram every day. “He is outstanding,” she said. “Since he came, he has worked unbelievably hard. It’s amazing the progress he makes, and I get to see it every day.”

Afram’s home in the Middle East is a stark contrast to Kettering, where he appears to be building a new life for himself. The same kid who played soccer with U.S. soldiers on the streets of Baghdad now plays varsity soccer at Fairmont. The young man who looked the Taliban in the eye now sets his eyes on higher hopes and, as he says, there is no looking back.

“I keep going,” he said. “I’m not stopping. I have to keep trying.”

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