A physics teacher in Iraq, stereotyped ‘al-Qaeda’ as a refugee in Chicago

May 16, 2023

Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Othman Al Ani, a former refugee.

“I came from Baghdad three years ago. I applied at the end of 2008 to come to United States as a refugee, and after that, I had to wait for four years and a half. Sometimes they give me a call, I have a hope they will say, ‘Your flight will be next week,’ and instead they say, ‘We missed some documents. You should return to our office.’ 

“For my security check, I had three interviews. They asked me, ‘Do you feel you are in dangerous situation in Iraq?’ It’s the easiest question ever. The person asking me is working in a building inside a building inside a building inside a very secure building. I’m thinking, ‘If we are in a good situation in Iraq, why are you sitting in here? You can come do the interview in my home.’ 

“I always remember my second day in United States. I love movies a lot, but I hadn’t been in a movie theater before. So I went to movie theater in Evanston. I took the bus. Somebody—I don’t even know his name—he took my hand and said, ‘Wait here.’ He wasn’t waiting for the bus; he just helped me.

“At the theater, I don’t know where to go, I don’t know how to pay, I don’t even know how to use money. I told the cashier, ‘This is my second day in United States, and I haven’t been in a movie theater before.’ She was very excited to help me. When I told her I’m from Iraq, she wanted to hear about how I came. It was a great experience.

“After one month I had a job interview. I don’t know what’s job interview because in Iraq it’s totally different. Here I worked helping the chefs in a restaurant. Some of the employees, they were always saying, ‘You are al-Qaeda’ or ‘Are you related to Osama bin Laden?’ It was annoying. I was like, ‘OK, it’s just the first job. This is not who you are.’ That was something I had to repeat to myself every day, because in Iraq I’m physics teacher.

“I started to search for something to give me hope to change my situation. First thing was, I volunteer at Iraqi Mutual Aid Society. After working six months there as a volunteer, I get a job. It was out of 55 candidates. The person who managed the organization, he believed in my opinions and my skills from the first day.

“The main thing I am doing here, I am answering questions for people who are new to United States. I answer questions about health insurance, helping them fill out application for benefits, any queries about green card, legal documentation. I guide them to obtain an ID or driver’s license, help them to build their credit history.

“We have only five employees. We are working so hard, and the number of refugees is increasing day by day. I am seeing every day seven to ten clients. But the spirit of helping people, this is what encourage me. I keep reminding myself, those people need help, and we can’t just say, ‘I’m tired.’ Always we should smile, deal with them with very high quality. I am always telling Americans, “Just close your eyes. Put yourself in the same situation. Be a refugee.”


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A physics teacher in Iraq, stereotyped ‘al-Qaeda’ as a refugee in Chicago

1 comment

Samer Hussein

Your story is inspiring, all what you mentioned is true and I had been through as well, when I saw you the first time, I remembered that only looking to your smile on your face and feel how warm and good heart you have I felt relief. you helped me to the best of what you can. Thank you so much for your contribution with refugees from different backgrounds.

July 26, 2023

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