A Minnesota Iraqi connection

Iraq photo.jpg

Photo courtesy Nesmi Brifki

I’ve known for a long while that hundreds of refugees from Iraq resettled in the Fargo-Moorhead area over the past 20 years.

I learned much more about them while reporting a story about families separated by war.

I had no idea the role some of them played during the war in Iraq. Men who lived through chemical attacks by Saddam Hussein and spent years in refugee camps in Turkey before coming to the United States and building a new life, volunteered to return to Iraq as translators and guides for the U.S. military when the war began more than a decade ago.

The translators include 42-year-old Nesmi Brifki (pictured above with Army Major Peter Colt) is a man of relatively few words who did not want to be interviewed “on the radio.” But his stories are illuminating.

He and other former refugees returned to Iraq to work with the military because “we had such high hopes” for freedom and democracy when the United States.S. invaded and deposed Saddam Hussein.

Brifki tells of traveling to Washington D.C. in 2003 with more than a dozen men who were to be vetted for military security clearance. While waiting in the Denver airport the men were suddenly surrounded by FBI agents with guns drawn.

It took some calls to Washington to clarify why these Middle Eastern men were traveling together.

When they returned to Iraq, many realized how much living in the United States had changed them. Ali Alkaabi, an Iraqi man who’s lived in Fargo, N.D., for 20 years, and spent four years working as a military interpreter, told me of a recent trip to Iraq to visit family in Baghdad.

“I realized,” he said, “people lived with fear so long they do not understand what freedom is. I can no longer even understand how my own brother thinks. It made me cry.”

Those high hopes for freedom and democracy in Iraq are now tempered by a new reality. He’s not sure when it will be safe to visit Iraq again.

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