Hind Rahman never thought she would long for the days when Saddam Hussein reigned over Iraq with an iron fist.
Now, she remembers the Iraqi dictator with nostalgia.
Rahman, who was born and raised in Baghdad but who has lived in Miami for more than two decades, can only describe her home in absolutes. Baghdad was once “heavenly,” the city of intellectuals and tolerance, she said.
“It’s hell,” she said. “It was hellish under Saddam, but now, after the invasion of Iraq, every Iraqi will tell you — Shiites or Sunnis — it’s hell.”
Within Miami-Dade’s Arab community, which numbers in the tens of thousands, Iraqis are a minority. Many are refugees. Most live in Broward County — 50 to 120 families, by their own estimates. In 2013, Iraqis were the third-largest refugee population in the state.
For them, the past month’s whirlwind of headlines from Iraq — Sunni insurgents fighting Shiite government forces; President Barack Obama authorizing 200 additional troops to protect the American Embassy in Iraq and Baghdad’s airport on Monday; and the declaration of an independent Islamic state by extremist group ISIS — is intensely personal.
The everyday reality in Iraq now is so far removed from the country they knew that, although the chaos has existed for years, many Iraqi Americans still seem baffled. Khalid Fakhri, an Iraqi refugee who came to Miami in 2008, punctuates his words with “I can’t believe it.”
“Who can live there like that? There’s no life, no safety, no education, nothing,” Fakhri said. “Nobody can live there.”
Even the media portrayal of the conflict doesn’t make sense to many Iraqi Americans. They say the rift between Shiite and Sunni factions is not religious but political. Fakhri says religion is being used “as a reason to kill each other.”
For Rahman, a retired teacher who was born in Iraq and has lived in Miami with her husband for two decades, the Shiite-Sunni infighting was far from inevitable.
“My sister was married to a Shiite. I have many friends, very dear life-long friends, who are Shiites,” Rahman said. “Some friends of mine, I didn’t even know they were Shiites.”
But much has changed in the city she called home.
Baghdad today is an “absolute mess,” she says. Inflation runs rampant — over 1,000 dinar to the U.S. dollar — and electricity shuts off frequently .
As for the future of Iraq, Rahman said Obama is on the right track by forcing an internal solution to the problem.
Fakhri is less optimistic. He says that only those with an education can build a country’s infrastructure, and most of the educated Iraqis — such as Fakhri himself, an engineer — have fled. That, or they’ve been killed, he says — like his cousin, an architect and professor who was found dead in the streets.
Though Rahman does have some family left in Iraq — some cousins who live a few hours from Baghdad — much of her family has left. She and other local Iraqis said that those making news in Iraq are not representative of them.
“These extremists — I don’t know where they’re coming from. These people who come to Iraq fighting — I don’t know who they are or what their agenda is. We want a government that represents all the people of Iraq,” Rahman said.
Seeing her country — once known for having an educated population and world-class universities — first under Hussein’s rule and now in the throes of civil war, has been “crazy” for Rahman. Saddam was a “horrible criminal,” but conditions are much worse for Iraqis now, she said.
Many of those with the ability to leave Iraq are those with political or social connections. Rahman’s father was a prominent writer and businessman who fled Iraq during Hussein’s regime, though he returned after the war with Iran on the condition that he wouldn’t write or express his opinions. Fakhri is the son of an officer in the Iraqi army who then became the country’s minister of transportation.
Each year in Miami-Dade and Broward since 2010, between 14 and 27 total Iraqi refugees either arrived or first became eligible for services from the Florida Department of Children and Families, according to the department.
The small number of Iraqis means that the larger Arab community can be a source of support, said Rahman, who lives in Brickell. But there’s one place the political talk doesn’t infiltrate: the mosque.
“Syria’s in a problem, Iraq’s in a problem. We are all very sad people when we think of our countries,” Rahman said. “So we just meet to pray for our countries, that things will improve.”
Ahmed, an Iraqi refugee who declined to give his first name because of concern for the safety of family members in Iraq, says that despite his tragic family history, he “absolutely” has hope for his country. Ahmed’s father and 16-year-old brother were both killed in separate explosions in Iraq.
Ahmed, who worked with the U.S. Army in Iraq before he fled to the U.S. in 2012, said that although he believes the goal of the U.S. government was “the right goal for Iraq, the problem is that the people don’t want that goal.”
Now, the solution in Iraq must come from its people, he said. He believes he may, eventually, even think about returning home.
But now the United States is his country.
“I see here in the U.S. different cultures, different faces, different colors. But the people are the people, no matter what,” he said. “I’m not a citizen yet, but I don’t get treated differently than a citizen. When my son got sick, I took him to the hospital and got everything the same.”
“I believe this is my home, not there.”