‘Now I can really breathe:’ Iraqi interpreter finally becomes an American citizen
"I want to be here," he said. "I want to live here. Die here."
The man who called himself Eagle labored over his answers.
Becoming an American citizen requires a lot of questions. There's the basic: employment, spouse, family. Then there are the ones that get down to the nitty gritty.
Have you ever been a member of or associated with a terrorist organization? Were you ever involved with genocide? Were you ever a member of, serve in, help or participate in a military unit?
As a young man, Eagle had spent 17 months in mandatory service with the Iraqi Army. But it was his service with the U.S. Army and Marines that led him here, to Virginia in late 2013 and now, to this moment in August 2018.
As he approached his five-year anniversary in America, he was finally eligible to apply for citizenship.
He bought a $10 pen for the occasion and carefully began filling out the 20-page application, a form called an N-400, to send to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Eagle was the call sign of F. Salih, a now 44-year-old Iraqi immigrant who spent several years working as an interpreter for American and coalition forces in his home country.
The Virginian-Pilot spent eight months following Eagle as he waited to become a naturalized citizen. The newspaper is referring to him by his call sign because he still fears for the safety of his family who remain in Iraq.
Over there, the battle had been against insurgents and Eagle had ridden with the Americans on patrols, interpreting not only words but his culture.
Over here, in an America deeply divided over immigration, the foe was any barrier that could keep his dream beyond reach.
“I want to be here,” he said. “I want to live here. Die here.”
In the living room of Eagle's sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment near Virginia Beach Town Center, Marty Raiss waited to help proofread.
Her son, retired Marine Lt. Col. Chris Watson, had been the catalyst that brought Eagle to America. Eagle had spent eight months working for Watson's Virginia Beach-based Alpha Company, a unit of the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion.
Since coming here, Eagle had became a second son to Marty. His dreams had become hers.
That morning, before arriving at Eagle's apartment, she had asked her church group to pray for him. This step could change his life, she said.
“No mistakes,” Marty said. “He doesn't want it to get held up because of that.”
From the moment Eagle landed in the U.S., he was careful to follow all the government's rules, and even set some extra ones for himself. He chose not to drive, fearing an accident or ticket could mar his chances, and because of the expense. He worked hard to provide for his family — his wife, Hafida Errati, a Moroccan immigrant, and their American-born toddler, Taha.
He banked on becoming an American to unlock opportunity and did his best to remain optimistic. But the process was stressful, and Eagle is a cautious man. He sent Hafida and Taha for a two-month visit to Morocco so he could focus, but his thoughts turned often to his mother, in Baghdad, who prayed daily for the son she hadn't seen in years.
Now, Eagle was listing every job he'd had since his arrival. The N-400 form only had room for three. So he hunched over his laptop on the floor of his bedroom and typed up a separate page to include them all, from washing dishes at a Norfolk restaurant to helping manage a thrift store, then a sporting goods store and, finally, his current jobs at a big box retailer and at a Food Lion.
“OK,” he said to Marty as he stepped out into the hallway with a draft. “I'm going to send it to print and we're going to review it again.”
They sat next to each other on the couch, poring over every page, dissecting the questions and debating the best answers.
“You could probably quote this entire thing, couldn't you?,” Marty asked as he disappeared back to his room for a final inspection.
After declaring everything done, Eagle slid it all into protective plastic sheets — including copies of his marriage license and green card along with a cashier's check for $725 — then climbed into Marty's Subaru Outback.
At the post office, he chose an envelope from a wall of supplies and began addressing the package in careful strokes with his special pen as Marty watched.
“Don't worry, they're not going to judge you on how it looks on there,” she said. “I promise.”
He sealed the package and ran the pen over the address a final time.
“It's ooooookay,” Marty said.
At the counter, Eagle paid $24.70 for guaranteed delivery by noon the next day.
“That is a valuable package,” Marty told the clerk as she took a photo with her iPhone. “Please take care of it.”
With mom's permission, Eagle becomes interpreter
As the wars in the Middle East stretched into and then beyond the first decade of the 2000s, Congress enacted programs to help those who risked their lives working with the U.S. become permanent residents here. Eagle is one of nearly 80,000 Iraqis and Afghans, including spouses and children, who received a special immigrant visa under those programs, according to State Department data. Many worked as interpreters.
While the Iraqi special immigrant program stopped accepting applications in September 2014, it is still processing them, and other avenues remain.
But immigration advocates say stricter screening measures added by the Trump administration have slowed the number of arrivals to a trickle. In fiscal 2017, for example, at least 9,400 Iraqis arrived in the U.S. on refugee or special immigrant visas, according to the State Department. Those numbers dropped to about 750 last year.
That's led to a backlog of as many as 100,000 Iraqis waiting for a visa, said Adam Bates, policy council for the International Refugee Assistance Project. While not all of those people may have worked with the U.S., the consequence of not following through with those who did may resonate in future conflicts.
“We did promise these people something in exchange for their help and we're not doing it,” Bates said.
Becoming an interpreter wasn't something Eagle had planned. He learned some English in school, but he made sense of the language's nuances by watching American movies. As a child, he translated the films “Gone with the Wind” and “Rain Man” for his mother.
He was a teenager in the early 1990s during the Gulf War, but the conflict didn't go as far as he'd hoped, failing to liberate his country from its own harsh dictator. Things got worse. He earned a degree in psychology from a university in Baghdad but couldn't use it. Jobs were scarce.
In spring 2003, a few months after Americans invaded the country and toppled Saddam Hussein, Eagle was working for a friend on a reconstruction project when an American soldier in need of an interpreter pointed him out and yelled: “You speak English!”
No, he responded. He wasn't confident in his English skills.
But the soldier refused to accept that answer. The Americans offered $50 a week, about what Eagle had been making in an entire month.
He told the soldier that he wanted his mother's approval first. He returned the next day with his answer.
“No problem,” he remembered telling him.
“I became interpreter.”
In the beginning, it was relatively easy. When the day's mission was over, the interpreters could spend their money on base and unwind by playing soccer games on Playstation 2.
But as sectarian fighting intensified so did Eagle's worries. Interpreters were being killed on the job or targeted as traitors. One he knew was only 19, he said.
“They killed him just because he was doing the right thing to his country,” Eagle said.
In 2006, Eagle said, he became a target.
The call came shortly after he'd left his house to do some shopping. It was his sister. Men had come and forced his mother and two siblings outside at gunpoint, pushing them to the ground with pistols to their heads. They searched the house and issued a threat: Tell your brother to quit working for the Americans or they would be hung from electric poles outside the next day.
Run, his sister told him.
He never did learn who the men were or how they found his family, who fled the home that day. But he couldn't quit. He was contributing. He had valuable experience. He decided to cut ties with nearly everyone he knew and, after a period of hiding, started over in a new region of the country.
He needed a new identity. That's when he chose the name Eagle. The bird represented strength and power. It also symbolized America.
“No one going to hunt me again,” he said.
Eagle was waiting for Chris Watson in the back of an armored vehicle when the Marine arrived in Al Anbar province, west of Baghdad, in early 2008. He'd served as the interpreter for the outgoing commander of the unit Watson and his team were replacing.
He knew “everything and everyone,” Watson said. He was respected and trusted, critical qualities in a challenging environment.
“He was introduced to me as the unofficial mayor of our little section,” Watson said.
The unit Watson commanded spent much of its time focused on counterinsurgency efforts — working with tribal leaders, local police and civilians, helping with reconstruction efforts.
Eagle helped put Watson at ease, serving as part interpreter, part cultural attache. He assisted with details on the sorts of things coalition forces hoped would have a lasting effect, like the reopening of a school, an event that included a feast, local VIPs and children.
He was “instrumental in any success we had,” Watson said.
Watson hardly even knew Eagle's real name until about mid-way through the deployment. That's around the time Eagle asked for help with paperwork to start the visa application process to come to the U.S.
Before Watson rotated out, he made an open-ended pledge to help Eagle get on his feet in America.
All he had to do was get there.
Eagle makes his way to Hampton Roads
“i have good news,” Eagle wrote in the subject line of the email he sent to Watson in December 2011.
After several years of silence, he'd received an email from the National Visa Center asking if he still wanted to go to the U.S.
He was surprised to hear anything. He'd almost given up.
He'd stopped working as an interpreter in 2009. The U.S. was drawing down its troops, and Eagle felt his job was complete.
While waiting for his visa, he tried to move on. He taught special education, then went to work as a manager for a home appliances company. The job sent him to China, Dubai and Lebanon.
He was no longer comfortable at home. When he was there, he kept his head down.
“It's just like walking on fire,” he said.
His visa finally came through in September 2013. About two months later, Eagle stepped off a plane at Dulles International Airport and into Watson's car. Watson had offered to let him stay with him at his place in the Washington suburbs.
America can be tough for newcomers. Resettlement agencies can help, but that's limited, said Keith Saddler of No One Left Behind, a national organization working to keep the promise made to Iraqis and Afghans who helped the U.S. during those conflicts.
Saddler's Washington chapter has helped more than 3,000 people and their families. Once here, they need apartments, furniture, social security cards, health care, jobs — and they have to acquire them in an unfamiliar and expensive place.
“We have a guy that was a surgeon,” Saddler said. “He is driving for Uber because he cannot get a job in his profession, as is true with accountants and other professionals that have come over that have degrees, many from the university in Kabul, but these are not accepted in the U.S.”
As much as possible, Eagle wanted to do it on his own. He wanted to prove his self-sufficiency to the Marine he'd come to look up to.
He found a part-time job as a security guard for $10.50 an hour working at a variety of businesses across D.C., but it wasn't enough. An apartment of his own remained out of reach.
Watson and Eagle decided he should try Norfolk. An arrangement to stay with Watson's mother, Marty, and his step-dad, George Raiss, was supposed to be for only a few weeks. It lasted about two years.
It never occurred to Marty not to help. She's a former English teacher who later retired from the city of Norfolk as an outreach coordinator. She's also spent decades volunteering with her church and civic organizations.
Helping the man who helped her son fit her sense of justice.
“I feel like we're not put on Earth just to take care of ourselves,” she said.
Eagle settled into a second-floor bedroom in the Raiss' brick colonial in Norfolk's Lafayette Shores. In the kitchen, he had a cupboard and a small refrigerator to himself. He worked odd jobs for the couple's friends and neighbors, and washed dishes part-time at a restaurant. He learned to ride a bike so he could get to work, later upgrading to a scooter.
But Eagle seemed frustrated that he wasn't finding more meaningful work, Marty said. He had gone to a military recruiting station, hoping to be able to assist in some way, but found he was too old to enlist.
A conversation between Watson and a childhood friend who co-owned a thrift store turned things around. Soon, Eagle was working at Best Thrift, off Military Highway, where he was promoted to manager.
He was putting in 50 hours a week when Hafida walked in, looking for a job.
She was an Arab but wore no hijab. She was college educated and had arrived in the U.S. in 2015 after receiving her visa through a lottery program.
Here was a woman who could understand what it was like to straddle two cultures. A free spirit, he said.
“He was really smitten,” Marty said.
In late March 2016, Eagle took a job at Legends, a local sporting goods chain that had a store in Pembroke Mall. He made $14 an hour plus overtime. Legends' owner, Glenn Ferraro, is a Raiss family friend and a Vietnam War veteran. Eagle had impressed him with his work in Iraq and his people skills. He learned the business fast.
“He knew what was important in the product, but also he did a good job of managing the people,” Ferraro said.
Eagle found an apartment for $900, less than a mile's walk from work. He and Hafida married in February 2017 and were soon expecting a son.
Just as life seemed on track, Legends closed, leaving him unemployed with a baby on the way. Eagle applied for dozens of jobs but was rejected from most.
Was not being a citizen holding him back? If only an employer would see him for his experience and not his status.
The only offers he got were working customer service at a big box retailer and in the produce section at Food Lion.
From the battlefield to the supermarket
Two weeks after Eagle and Marty mailed off the N-400 form, a letter arrived. It directed him to an appointment at the U.S. immigration service's Norfolk field office on September 28, 2018, for fingerprinting.
Eagle was waiting outside his apartment at 7 a.m. when Marty pulled up. They headed out along Virginia Beach Boulevard — a blur of strip malls, car dealerships, fast food joints and grocery stores.
A grocery store was the first thing to surprise Eagle after he arrived in America. He'd never seen such variety. Never imagined that there were kinds of apples other than just green, yellow and red.
Now, as his appointment neared, he took a few days off from Food Lion because he worried about nicking his hands cutting produce. Having tiny cuts show up in his fingerprints might look bad.
It seemed like such a small detail, Eagle said, but “I'm a details person.”
Being fingerprinted felt like progress. Eagle removed his belt and went through security before entering a small waiting room off the lobby. A clerk handed him a clipboard with a form attached. In block letters, Eagle filled in his name and country of birth, hesitating when he got to his country of citizenship.
As he wrote down “Iraq,” he thought about the day he could write “America.”
Fall turned to winter. Hafida returned from Morocco with Taha and took a job at the same big box store as her husband. While one parent was working, the other watched the baby. Eagle often split his days, working shifts at both jobs and napping for a few hours in between.
He applied for other jobs. He had once worked alongside warriors. Now, his life didn't feel interesting, he said.
“I think he's become realistic about what this country can and can't provide,” Marty said.
Eagle knew he could have moved to a place like Dearborn, Mich., which boasts a large and well-known Muslim community.
But he didn't want to conform to a Muslim community and its expectations.
“I escaped from the Arab culture and I don't want to go back again,” he said.
Anti-immigrant rhetoric seeped into his workplace. He said a coworker told him she disliked people from other countries. He chose not to let it bother him, and feared retaliation if he reported the comments. He needed the paycheck.
By Christmas, all of the applications Eagle had filed online had been rejected.
Marty continued to believe.
“There is something out there for you,” she told him. “It will help — I believe firmly — when you can say you are an American citizen.”
One chilly night in early January, after walking the half-mile home from a Food Lion shift, Eagle reached into his mailbox and there it was.
He was shaking as he sat down on the couch with the letter. Hafida read it for him.
“You are hereby notified to appear for an interview on your Application for Naturalization at the date, time, and place indicated above,” it began.
February 11, 2019, 11:30 a.m., at the Norfolk field office.
“I was waiting, every day.”
One final test
He dressed in a maroon sweater and khakis on the morning of his citizenship exam.
According to a study released in February by The Woodrow Wilson Foundation, only four out of 10 Americans can pass a 20-question sample citizenship test. After months of practice, Eagle had mastered the 100 sample questions he'd been given.
On top of answering correctly, Eagle believed that a good first impression was key.
“The interview, the officer, is really important … he is the one who can give the final decision,” Eagle said.
Marty arrived early for one final quiz. She asked about the Founding Fathers, the original colonies and the wars that the U.S. had been entangled in during its history. She paused at the event that drew the Americans to Iraq and eventually, Eagle to America.
“I bet you know this one by heart,” Marty said. “What happened on Sept. 11, 2001?”
“Terrorists attacked the United States,” Eagle responded.
On the car ride, he sat in the back, reading through a civics guide as Marty drove. She looked out at all the stores along the highway and could imagine Eagle managing any one of them. She thought about the opportunities some had by virtue of merely being born here.
“The nice thing is,” she said over her shoulder, “you want to be an American citizen for all the reasons that we want someone to be an American citizen.”
Marty dropped him off in front of the brick office building around 11 a.m. and went shopping, awaiting his call.
A little while later, Odette Causey-Batchelor, a senior immigration services officer, called Eagle back to her corner office.
She motioned him toward a chair. Her office was cheery and comfortable, a contrast to his nerves. A huge candy dish sat on a side table.
After he handed over his documents, she asked in a friendly tone: “So, you ready for your test?”
“Yes, ma'am,” Eagle answered eagerly, hands clasped in his lap.
“Can you tell me, what is the name of our National Anthem?”
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” he said.
“Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States.”
“Mississippi,” he said.
Eagle sailed through the basic test, including a writing and reading portion. Causey-Batchelor moved on to his application, re-asking the same questions he'd painstakingly answered months earlier.
Had he ever been affiliated with or a member of a totalitarian party?
“A terrorist organization?”
He explained his time in the Iraqi Army. He'd been a typist, he said, “the lowest rank.”
She seemed satisfied. They moved on, finally reaching the questions Eagle was waiting for.
“Do you understand the full Oath of Allegiance?,” Causey-Batchelor asked.
“Are you willing to take this Oath of Allegiance?”
She asked him to read the oath from a tablet.
Eagle leaned over, quietly speaking the words, denouncing any foreign allegiance.
But the stylus was tricky, and when he tried to sign his name, the lines came out sloppy. Could she clear the signature box so he could rewrite it?
“It's the pad,” Causey-Batchelor said, and laughed as she cleared the tablet. “It's not you.”
He tried again.
“This one is perfect,” he told her.
By noon, Eagle was outside waiting for Marty. He called Hafida, and then his mother — 6,000 miles away and eight hours ahead — to tell her he'd passed.
Two months later, Eagle would stand with nearly 100 other immigrants — he was the only Iraqi — who came here for different reasons but with similar dreams. Together, in an auditorium at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, they would once again swear their allegiance to the U.S.
But as he rode home from the interview, he told Marty how he felt like his mind went blank as soon as he sat down at the immigration officer's desk, and how he felt his face turn red. He could barely remember the questions he'd been asked.
“Now I can really breathe,” Eagle told her.
At a stoplight, Marty let go of the wheel and clapped. Her eyes welled with tears.
Which was scarier, she asked:
Facing gunfire in Iraq or the interviewer just now?
“Oh,” Eagle said. “Now.”
©2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.