Aram Putrus was working as a server in one of the castles of Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, when the news broke: The United States had been attacked, planes had crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
Later, as the world learned it was a terrorist attack, Putrus and some fellow Iraqis feared their country was involved.
“We thought that [the United States] was going to come invade us,” said Putrus, who later worked as a translator with the U.S. military and came to Chattanooga with a special immigrant visa three years ago.
Nihad Samawi, an Iraqi who resettled as a refugee in Chattanooga in 2008, said what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, is a dividing line between the past and the future.
“I can say it is the day that separates between the past and the new era we are living in,” said the 51-year old engineer, who fled his country after terrorists attacked his home and threatened him and his family for working for American companies inside military bases.
Since 2007, close to 60,000 Iraqis have resettled in the United States, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, although the flow has slowed because of tougher security checks.
Going to War
Although the attacks took place 6,000 miles away, the effects of Sept. 11 would reshape Iraq.
Soon after 19 hijackers crashed planes into the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and in a field in Pennsylvania, the United States declared war on terror.
Alleging that Saddam had ties to al-Qaida and was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found.
Some media reports since have stated the war with Iraq was planned just days after the 9/11 attacks.
Also, according to news reports, al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden cited U.S. support of Israel, the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and sanctions against Iraq as motive for the deadly attacks.
The public’s perception of Iraq’s involvement in 9/11 also changed after the war.
IRAQI ADMISSIONS TO U.S.
• FY 2007: 1,608
• FY 2008: 13,823
• FY 2009: 18,838
• FY 2010: 18,016
• FY 2011: 6,526*
• Total: 58,811
• Note: As of May 25, 2011
Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
In July 2003, 29 percent of people asked said “Iraq was directly involved in carrying out the September 11 attacks,” according to a poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes. The group researches public attitudes on international issues by conducting nationwide polls, focus groups and interviews.
Based on evidence available, a few members of al-Qaida visited Iraq or had contact with Iraqi officials, but Iraq did not provide substantial support to the organization, said Clay Ramsey, research director with the Program on International Policy Attitudes.
Richard Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said the events of 9/11 were so traumatic, “it’s not surprising that many people would lash out at somebody who may have caused a problem and, in that circumstance, they may lash out in the wrong way or against the wrong people.”
For many, the word “Iraqi” is still an automatic link to terrorism.
In May, two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky were charged with participating in an alleged plot to send cash, explosives and Stinger missiles to Iraq for use against Americans, according to news reports, which prompted the tougher security checks for the resettlement of displaced Iraqis.
Although neither Samawi nor Putrus has experienced any hostility in the United States, telling people where they came from often brings a reaction.
“Some people hear I’m from Iraq, and they are in shock; they tell me that I’m the first Iraqi they’ve met,” said Samawi.
Most people are very kind, he added. Rather than looking at homelands or religion, “they look at people as a human being.”
Beyond public impressions associating Iraqis and terrorism, the war in Iraq has had a huge impact on its people, said Charity Tooze, senior communications officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Washington, D.C.
Eight years after the U.S. invasion, millions of Iraqis are displaced, she said.
The country no longer is under a dictatorship but suicide bombers — once almost unheard of — are almost an everyday occurrence.
Both Samawi and Putrus, 29, had to leave their families, their homes and their jobs behind to save their lives. They were seen as traitors for working with Americans.
Both are trying to reunite with the families they left behind. Samawi’s wife and a daughter who just finished high school have lived in neighboring Jordan since 2005.
But because of tougher security checks in the U.S., he doesn’t know when they will come; he is just waiting.
The biggest concern for the United Nations’ refugee agency is the security change, said Tooze.
“In January of this year, there were 964 Iraqis set for departure, meaning to arrive in the U.S.,” she said. “In June of this year, only 352.”
The situation for Iraqi refugees is very difficult in Jordan and Syria, where they have limited rights, she said. Many cannot work. They can’t return to Iraq, where there’s still no infrastructure, no power and no security.
Putrus understands the greater scrutiny, even when it meant losing his place on a flight from Canada to the United States when he was returning from visiting Iraq earlier this year.
He was detained and interrogated at the airport. Customs officers wanted to know what he was doing in Iraq, whom he was visiting, how he had arrived in the United States. They searched every piece of his luggage.
But he understands, he said.
“I agree with that; I’m OK with it,” he said. “It’s for us, it’s for me, for other people.”
But both men said the war also changed their lives for the better.
Samawi had been trying to leave Iraq since the 1990s, tired of the oppression, of the lack of freedom. But Saddam Hussein forbade engineers, doctors and university professors from leaving the country.
If the U.S. hadn’t removed Saddam, Samawi probably still would be there, he said.
Putrus said he was happy when he learned Americans were headed to Iraq.
“But we were also in fear. We don’t know what’s going to happen. How is it going to be?” he said. “In the war in the early ’90s [the Gulf War] it was bad, [there was] no electricity, no water; we used to get water from the rain and wells.”
In the U.S., his life is much better, he said.
He got a degree in business in Iraq, but in the U.S. he started at the bottom, working at a restaurant, then a chicken processing plant. Now he is planning to be a truck driver for several years so he can save money.
“I really appreciate my life here; it’s pretty good,” he said. “People are really nice. That’s what has helped me actually to stay here, people are always willing to help.”
And both men hope one day their country will be a place where people are safe.
“I hope the people in the whole world will start to understand what the terrorists and extremists believe in,” said Samawi.
“All that has happened now since 9/11, [the terrorist attacks] in Afghanistan, Iraq and all of the countries, getting people killed, there’s no reason to kill any innocent people.”
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...