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Iraqi Dreams and Afghan Nightmares

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

By Naomi Serviss

Mudhafer with his daughters Wifa, 9 and Mariam, 7

The horror in Afghanistan parallels

Vietnam’s last gasp.

Shocking images of desperate allies

begging for escape on a copter.

Too many friends left in the dust.

Again and again, ad nauseum.

What will happen to stranded Afghani

interpreters, assistants, confidantes and

service personnel?

The Taliban will flaunt and taunt

with barbaric domination over women

and any free or educated thinkers.

Another war ago in Iraq,

the danger was also from within.

I thank my lucky stars our Iraqi son is safe.

His name is Mudhafer AL-Husseini

born and raised in Baghdad.

He graduated with a B.A. degree from Baghdad University

in the summer of 2007, after majoring in English literature.

He was well-versed.

In July, 2007, two weeks shy of his 18th birthday,

Mudhafer received a life-changing call.

The New York Times’ Baghdad Bureau had an opening

for a local, English-fluent interpreter.

Mudhafer is a gifted linguist and journalist.

He covered the unimaginable, alongside Times reporters.

Mudhafer worked with U.S. Army troops

for nearly three years.

“I started going to the city to cover car bombs

and suicide bombers,” he said in a recent email.

“I witnessed the death of several of my colleagues.

“My sister had constant fear whenever her cell phone rang, especially at night.

“This was a nightmare,” he wrote in an email.

Fortuitously, Mudhafer learned

there was a recently vacated position

in the New York Times Baghdad Bureau.

He landed an interview with

the Bureau’s lead reporter.

“We met in one of Baghdad’s fancy hotels,

which happened to be next to the Times Bureau.”

He wowed the interviewer with

his easygoing command of English idioms,

history and current events.

His charisma drew anyone within range into his orbit.

Mudhafer impressed with his intelligence and

vast knowledge of the many neighborhoods.

The second interviewer did not seem as agog.

Despite a bad feeling about the outcome,

Fortune smiled and Mudhafer got the gig.

He was over the moon!

Until gravity’s tug yanked him to terra firma.

On his first day, he found out why there was an opening.

His predecessor had been killed on the way to work.

“This didn’t change anything with me,”

Mudhafer wrote.

“I’ve already gotten used to death,

as a linguist for the U.S. Army

and living in a city torn by a civil war,

ignited by sectarianism,” he said.

Mudhafer had many close calls.

He was given the nickname Moody, because he

always looked serious.

And it was easier to say.

Mudhafer blogged his grueling stories for the Times.

But it became more apparent daily

that Americans and their allies

were in mortal danger.

A resettlement plan was hatched by the U.S. government in coordination with the International Organization of Migration.

After months of preparation and bureaucratic

red tape,

Mudhafer’s lifelong dream of coming to America

was about to be realized.

He would be settled in Tucson, whose arid climate

was similar to Baghdad’s.

In 2009 Lew and I lived in Tucson.

When we learned of Mudhafer’s resettlement,

We leaped at the chance to welcome him.

We were grateful to offer our good intentions

and friendship.

Plus, it was exciting!

We’d show him the stark beauty of Southwest.

And introduce him to delicious Mexican food.

There was much to see through the eyes of a

Stranger in a strange land.

We had fun!

He was easily amused.

And laughed at our corny puns and jokes.

Our heartfelt conversations brought us closer together.

From day one, we became Mudhafer’s

surrogate family.

Now, he calls us mom and dad.

“I didn’t realize the trauma I had.

A past filled with horror and death,” Mudhafer continued.

“Tucson was similar to Baghdad with its climate and flat setting.

All I could think of is, ‘I’m in the U.S. now!’

“I was super excited to be here,

but I was worried about my family

who were still in Iraq.

“They were processing to come.

“I needed some peace and tranquility

and Tucson was just the place for that.”

Slowly the bureaucratic wheels creaked forward.

Mudhafer’s family, including his parents, three brothers and a sister,

at long last resettled in the States.

“One brother now lives in Sweden. The rest are here.

My father went back to Baghdad in 2011.”

We spent a lot of time with Mudhafer,

And helped him with an ornery mess of

red tape.

He picked up slang and the important curse words.

His warm laugh sometimes dissolved into giggles.

That happened when he was overwhelmed with joy.

He wasn’t thrilled about meeting Maggie,

our beautiful brown rescue dog.

In Iraq, dogs are considered nuisances,

and never allowed inside.

Lew and Mudhafer took a road trip to California,

And he saw the ocean for the first time.

He giggled nonstop when he heard and saw the restless surf

for the first time in his life.

Lew took him to the movies, another first.

They saw Star Trek.

He’s met our California relatives.

In the summer of 2014, Mudhafer become a U.S. citizen,

And he’s proud of his service and his work with the New York Times.

“I served this country for years when I wasn’t

even a citizen yet.”

“I consider myself lucky to be alive right now.”

“I can only imagine what those Afghanis

who worked with the U.S. feel like now.”


Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including

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