People and Places that Inspired

Surviving Dreamland – Escape from Terror

f8fd7-dreamlandfrontcoverfinalThe story regarding the cover is an interesting one. The background picture was taken when I worked with the Marines at their forward operating base near Fallujah in June 2009. It is one of many pictures of Uday’s palatial lake compound, Baharia, that I took when I was there. The eyes are provided by Sama. She’s one of the young ladies (formerly little girls) whom I helped, along with their family, by facilitating their immigration to the U.S. in 2011 as refugees from Babil province, Iraq. Sama and her family have become part of our family. The picture makes her look older, but she is only 13. The original cover design was provided by a professional graphic designer. It was good but he’s from New York state so the background picture he had was of a New York lake and the young woman’s eyes were probably provided by a very American looking person. I wanted the book to reflect the Iraq story so the pictures on the cover are all Iraqi. My daughter, Natalie, took the original design and in collaboration with the professional designer, helped craft the cover that is now on the book.

If you like the cover and the book, please write a review on Facebook, send it to me by e-mail, and/or enter it onto the review section of your kindle. Thanks for your support!

Lara: The heroine of the story: Prior to my time in Fallujah, I worked with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Ramadi, where I met a young lady (probably only 18 or 19 years old) who was the daughter of an Arab-American. She and her father were both working with the Military as interpreters and advisers. She was the youngest civilian member of the PRT and impressed me by her cool commitment to the U.S. war effort. She inspired the leading character and heroine in the book.

U.S. Special Forces: I became more aware of the U.S. Special Operations and imagined the role that Special Operators may have had prior to and during Operation Iraqi Freedom prior to the war from 2002 – 2004 when I became the USAID adviser for the Regional Threat Team, Strategic Operations Directorate under the U.S. Forces Command HQ near Baghdad and at the PRTs when I saw Special Operators, who kept to themselves, at the same military dining facilities where I frequented at the various Forward Operating Bases where I was also an adviser; and by reading publicly available information. I have no idea whether or not my fictional story about a Special Operations team in the book has any semblance to reality, but it makes a good story.

Iraqi-American and Iraqi national assistance during the Iraq war: The character of Hakim (which according to Wikipedia means wise in Arabic) was derived from many colleagues with whom I worked while in Iraq. These colleagues were from many parts of the U.S. from the Los Angeles area to Michigan, Texas, and parts of the East Coast. They were also from Babil, Anbar, and Erbil provinces in Iraq. These men and women were our most valuable colleagues and probably the folks that had the most to lose if they or, in the case of Iraqi nationals – or their families had the most to lose if the wrong people learned of their alliances and contributions. When ISIS had their terror domain over much of Anbar and much of the Northern Iraqi provinces, I wondered and worried about what may have happened to some of the folks that I had worked became friends with when I was there in 2009-2010. These were the people who brought their expertise and credentials to the U.S. based upon their life experiences and contacts which none of the rest of us could hope to learn in a short period of time.

Unfortunately, because of politics, bureaucracy, and perhaps bad luck, some of the Iraqi colleagues I knew then are still unable to escape possible retribution because their applications for immigration visas are still in limbo.

Pre-Post Saddam Hussein Cultural Norms:  Although the many women described in the book were conservative compared to American and European sensibilities, they were far more progressive prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom than they are today.  Women had more freedom of movement and were more able to enjoy the freedom of dress (within limits) and social activities similar to their Western sisters under the Saddam Hussein regime.  That’s why it was possible for Lara and her friends to go to night clubs in Baghdad at that time.  Although the smaller towns and villages were still very conservative, the larger cities were culturally more western and progressive regarding women.

There were many reasons why the Iraqis celebrated when the U.S. ushered in regime change with Iraqi Freedom in 2003.  However, in hindsight, many Iraqi women have been coerced by the more conservative and oppressive standards that were always there, but suppressed by Saddam’s regime.  When I was in Iraq, in 2009 – 2010, our Iraqi women colleagues were roughly evenly divided between those wearing modest Western attire, and those wearing the more traditional attire including long skirts, long sleeve blouses and the hijab/scarf.  Iraqi-Americans who communicate regularly with their relatives that are still in Iraq tell me that now, most women are wearing the traditional conservative garb and are restricted much like they were many years ago.  Sometimes regime change has unexpected consequences.

I’ve received comments that the social settings and attitudes in the book were far more progressive than some readers imagined them to be.  In fact, the book describes how things actually were at the time in the larger cities.

The Iraqi-American family: This is a true story, copied from my book On The Road with a Foreign Service Officer. This took place when I was working at Camp Kalsu from August – October 2010. It was a U.S. Army forward operating base where the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), with whom I was the USAID adviser, was located near the Babil Provincial town of Hilla.

On one particular morning like any other, I was at my desk getting ready for a trip into the local town of Hilla with our U.S. Army convoy when my USAID-Iraqi colleague came in and sat down. She was a small woman, dressed all in black, including her head scarf, the traditional hijab. Although other Iraqi woman would wear conservative clothes when we left the base on missions to meet and work with businessmen and local leaders, these same women were very comfortable in western clothes when they were in the safe confines of Camp Kalsu; this was not true of my colleague she was always wearing black. She was excellent in her duties as an advisor to me on the local business environment and the projects that our USAID contractors were working on in the region. Frequently she was cheerful, very bright, and articulate. Among all the Iraqis I had worked with during my time in the country, she was one of the best.

That morning as she sat in the chair across my desk, it was clear that she was upset. Tears were coming to her eyes and I handed her a tissue. “What’s wrong?” I asked as she sat silently for a moment, collecting herself before speaking. “Six months ago today, my brother was killed.” She paused for a moment. “I want to take my family and leave this country.”

“Why don’t you?” I asked. At that time, I didn’t know much about this woman sitting across from me other than the fact that she was a valuable employee and asset to USAID. I also knew that if she had been working for USAID or another USG organization for more than one year, she and her family were entitled to apply for emigration to the U.S. as an incentive for risking her life to work with the Americans.

“I want to, but there’s a problem. When my brother died, he was also working for one of the USAID contractors assisting with community development. My brother and I began working for U.S. contractors, and later with USAID, since 2004. We both dreamed of taking our families from here and starting over in America, where it’s safe. The problem is that, now that my brother is dead, no one is advocating for his wife and her three young daughters. My husband and I are the sole providers for my sister-in-law, her three kids, and my mom. If my husband and I leave now for the U.S., there is no one to take care of the rest of the family.”

“Well, it sounds to me like all of your family qualifies for emigration to the States,” I observed.

“Yes. But now that my brother is not here to deal with the bureaucracy at the Embassy to ensure all of our applications for immigration are approved, we can’t leave them behind.”

I didn’t have a clue at the time whether or not I could help, but it seemed like I should offer some encouragement. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said, thinking that my chances of helping her and her extended family in their quest for a new life would probably be slim to none.

Trying to move away from the sadness of the moment, I asked her, “So, if you’ve been told by the International Organization for Migration and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that your family can move to the States, where did they say they planned to send you?”

“Rochester, New York”

I smiled a bit and shook my head. “I can think of several reasons why that is not a good location for you and your family. First, the winters are like nothing you have ever experienced here in Iraq. They are very cold. Second, the only major business in Rochester is Kodak, the camera and film company, and they seem to be going out of business. Third, to the best of my knowledge, there’s not a large Arab or any other community of recent émigrés that you will be able to count on to help you during the very tough transition that people have when they move to America.”

“We need a sponsor to emigrate, and that’s all IOM could find for us. They told me there was someone in Rochester who volunteered to sponsor us.”

What to do? I didn’t think that her young family¸ and certainly her sister-in-law and the rest of the extended family, would have a very good chance of surviving for long before their savings ran out. I also speculated that they would not be getting the substantial help they would certainly need anywhere in America, including Rochester. Caught up in a moment of compassion for my struggling colleague, I offered a suggestion. “My wife and I will sponsor you and the family in Virginia. Washington, DC, is nearby and there are more opportunities for people with your sort of skills there.” As I was saying this, I felt a bit of a knot in my stomach. How was I going to explain this to my wife, if it ever came to pass that my colleague and her extended family, which included five young children and three other adults, actually did get their visas to come to the U.S.? Thank goodness I have a very caring (and forgiving) wife, I thought. “Let’s see what we can do.” I decided that I would worry about trying to explain and convince my wife, Sandi and daughter, Natalie, that we should open our home to a bunch of Iraqi strangers when the time came, if it happened at all.

She looked at me with her big brown eyes and wiped a tear away. “Bill, you don’t have to do this. We’re a big family…”

“It’s ok. We’ll make this work.” Despite my lack of confidence in my ability to actually make it happen, I managed a smile. “It will be all right. Let me see what we can do.”

After our discussion, she pulled herself together and we got on with our small part in helping rebuild Iraq as best we could. The Muslim observance of the month of Ramadan soon began and three weeks later, she asked for some vacation time during the end of Ramadan for the Eid holiday to take all of the family to Syria for a break from Iraq. At the time, for Iraqis and other Arabs, Syria was a stable, relatively prosperous, and enjoyable vacation destination. Except for the regular siren warnings of incoming mortar and rocket fire directed at Kalsu, and the three explosions that usually followed, it was a relatively quiet time for me and my other colleagues at Kalsu also.

The day that she was expected back from vacation came and went, and I began to panic. What happened? It was a long drive from Babil Province to where they were going in Syria, with a lot of potential for bad things to happen along the way. The next day also came and went and despite unsuccessful attempts to call her cell phone there was not much I could do. On day three, my other USAID-Iraqi colleague was scheduled to come into the office from his work in the field.   “Have you heard from her?” I asked. “We expected her back two days ago.”

“She called me last night. They had some trouble when the family returned home, but everyone is ok. She’ll be in the office tomorrow.”

I sighed in relief. “Good news!” All was right with the office again. The following day, my two colleagues were back from their Eid holiday and we could get back to work on the activities that were put on semi-hold during the month of Ramadan. That morning, I learned the reason for her delayed return. When she came into my office, she was visibly agitated. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “How come you didn’t call me when you knew you were going to come back late?”

“I’m so sorry. I couldn’t. When we returned to my mom’s house, where my sister-in-law and daughters are living, it had been broken into. The pictures and other things that helped us remember my brother were damaged or destroyed. They left a knife on the kitchen table. This is what Iraqis do when they want to leave a death threat. They leave a knife on the table.”

My level of commitment to help the family went from a non-hurried desire to help to a sense of urgency to get all of them out of harm’s way. By then it was mid-September and I was due to depart Iraq for good in three weeks. Since this threat directly affected my colleague, an employee of USAID, the management at our Baghdad Mission also asserted their support for helping the family through the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. My colleague with OFDA had a good working relationship with IOM, which helped to get the paperwork moving again for the entire family.

The PRT had a farewell party for me and a few others at Kalsu when my tour of duty ended. The Iraqi staff was all there and it was a pleasant, bittersweet time of saying goodbye to brave colleagues and friends whom I worked with. At the same time, I held back the long-awaited anticipation of returning home to Virginia and planning the next stage of my life with my family. Near the end of the reception, my colleague took me aside. “Bill, thank you for what you and the folks at USAID/Baghdad are trying to do for my family. We don’t know how this will all turn out, but at least we have hope.” At that moment, she reminded me of my two daughters since she was also about their age: strong, determined, yet vulnerable at the same time.

“If this wasn’t Iraq, and if we were in America, I would give you a big hug right now. I’ll miss you and Yousef. Both of you have been great colleagues. Thanks for all of your work, and your friendship.”

She smiled. “I hope we see each other again someday.”

“Enshallah, we will see you at the airport in Washington. Take care of your family and stay safe,” I said as the party drew to a close.

I returned to the U.S. in October 2010. I didn’t mention this to my wife and daughter when I returned home because I didn’t want to stir the pot if the pot would remain empty. I figured that if the Iraqi family didn’t come to America, at least my family wouldn’t be worried and upset about what may or may not happen.

Then it happened in May 2011. I received a call from the Arlington Refugee Services Office, “Sir, we have a family including a widowed mother and three young daughters who will be arriving soon from Iraq. They say that you would sponsor them. Is this correct?”

There was a long pause on my end of the phone. “Yes. My family and I are their sponsors.” I said this as the knot in the pit of my stomach returned again from when I had the earlier conversation with my colleague in Iraq. Fortunately for me, the family was not due to arrive for at least one or more months. I had time to explain the commitment that I had made to my wife and daughter, beg forgiveness, and prepare all of us for our new arrivals.

This was not the first time that I had made such commitments to help others. That’s another story. The good news was, after the initial shock, both wife and daughter were on board with the plan and expectation that we would provide them with a month or two of housing before helping them on their way to living on their own.

The family arrived in late September 2011. Mom was a 36 year old widow and her three young daughters, aged three, seven, and eight. None of them understood the English language. My colleague arrived in May 2012 with her husband and two young children. Her mom, all of the kid’s grandmother, arrived in June. The initial expectation that the first family would move on from our place for only a few months was unrealistic because of their total unpreparedness to survive in America. My family had a big enough house and we immediately began to care for the family as our own. They stayed with us until their relatives arrived nine months later. All nine of them lived with us for another six weeks until they found a small but suitable house they could rent near us. My colleague and her husband had both worked in support of the U.S. in Iraq and were able to save enough to enable them to start the long, hard struggle to become self-sustaining and successful American citizens.

Fast forward to December 2017. Both families are now renting their own places. The husband has a full time job as a road construction quality control engineer and a part time job to help make ends meet. His wife, my former colleague, has continued her education to become certified as a Project Management Professional. She has the skills and promise of a good job as professional project manager. Based on my experience working with her in Iraq, I’m sure she will do well. The widowed mom has been employed as a child care provider at a well-known and respected private school in the area. All five kids that arrived here as young children would now be mistaken for very well-mannered American kids. Probably because their parents, grandmother, and my wife work hard to help these kids stay focused in school, all of them are at or near the top of their respective classes and two of them have already been identified by the school system as gifted and are being steered toward the advanced magnet schools in the county.

That’s their story. Their challenges, struggles, and successes are similar to most immigrant stories. It is the story of America. My novel has tried to incorporate some of the essence of these immigration challenges. Some of the proceeds from this book will go toward a fund for the Iraqi kids that we’ve come to know so well.