Ali Hamdani was a doctor in Iraq before becoming a translator for NPR. He now lives in North Carolina.
The last time I saw Ali Hamdani was in a compound protected by armed guards surrounded by Baghdad's dun-colored buildings. This time, the bright green of the North Carolina foliage encircles the quiet Raleigh development where Ali and his family now live.
While the setting has changed, some things stay the same: Iraqis will always overwhelm you with food when you visit.
The small living room coffee table is covered with food, but instead of the traditional Iraqi sweets there are doughnuts and poundcake. We laugh about the combination of Iraqi hospitality and American baked goods
Ali is a doctor who moonlighted as a translator in Iraq. He worked with me and my husband — who's also a reporter — from the very beginning of the war in 2003 until the day he left.
Among the many unsung heroes of Iraq's bloody war are people like Ali. They acted as interpreters, drivers, cooks or even cleaners for the U.S. government or private American companies. For that, they were often targeted by insurgents.
Sitting in the safety of North Carolina, we reminisce and the laughter quickly dies. Many of the memories are hard ones — the friends we lost, the horrible things we saw.
Ali tells me he knows how lucky he is to be in America.
"Since I am the one who had the chance to get this, I have to do it so well, and make everyone who knows me proud of me and to be proud of myself at the end," he says.
A Limited Resettlement Program
Ali arrived to the U.S. under a program launched in 2007 to resettle Iraqis who had been targeted because they worked for either U.S. companies or the U.S. mission in Iraq.
Hamdani stands beside the wreckage of NPR's armored BMW when it was blown up in 2008.
But it hasn't been easy. He arrived just as America slipped into deep recession.
Making matters more difficult, the refugee program here gives limited help to families who have left everything behind. Ali says he got some assistance for about three or four months, and then you are on your own.
"You are left with no medical insurance, no income," he says. "You are supposed to look for a job like any other American who has been living his whole entire life here and speaks the language and knows the culture. I struggled," he adds with a shrug.
Ali didn't even know how to apply for employment or write up a resume. But eventually, because he spoke fluent English and was good with computers, he managed to land a job as an emergency services interpreter.
His time in America has been filled with surprises but perhaps the biggest one, he says, is how little Americans know about Iraq despite their long war there.
"You'd think Americans are so concerned about Iraq. But then you come here." he says. "Nobody cares."
He was afraid he would be stereotyped as a terrorist. But instead, he says, people have been incredibly kind and helpful, smiling and polite.
"It's a completely different place. It's very peaceful, very quiet and very happy," he adds.
Bad News From Iraq
That is in marked contrast to the news he is getting from Iraq.
"Things are getting worse. People are starting to get new death threats, assassinations. People are talking about sectarian issues again," he says.
While America's military involvement in Iraq is over, the threat to those who worked for the U.S. is not, says Kirk Johnson, the founder and director of the List Project to resettle Iraqi allies.
"The programs we set up have been lamentable and by almost every metric a failure," Johnson says, noting that the program that sponsored Ali is set to expire. And thousands of Iraqis still haven't been processed by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
"The Iraqis that worked for us are still in great danger. They are being hunted, they are being killed," he says.
Back in North Carolina, Ali Hamdani opens his closet and brings out his oud, or lute. It's the only thing he brought with him when he left Iraq.
He strums softly and his voice floats over us, reminding us of the many warm Baghdad nights we shared together, talking and listening to him sing.
He's chosen a mournful song about his homeland. The lyrics say: "Peace be upon you Iraq, you are the cradle of civilization, I pray for you to wipe away the pain."
It brings tears to our eyes.
"We survived, it's an achievement, we survived Iraq," he says. "I don't believe in happy endings in stories. But this one did have a happy ending actually."