It's been 10 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq, and we're taking a look back this week, revisiting people you first heard on our air years ago. Today, Ali Hamdani, a former NPR translator at our bureau in Baghdad. In 2008, Ali was with one of our reporters when their car was destroyed by a bomb.

ALI HAMDANI: I felt like I'm chained to this place, and that bomb, rather than like cutting my body into pieces, it just managed to cut all these chains and set me free from this country.

BLOCK: Well, shortly after that interview, Ali left Iraq for the U.S. as a refugee. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro caught up with him in North Carolina where he now lives with his family.

HAMDANI: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hello. How are you? Oh, my God. All right.


LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The setting couldn't be more different. The last time I saw Ali was in a compound protected by armed guards surrounded by Baghdad's dun-colored buildings. On this day, the bright green of the Carolina foliage encircles the quiet Raleigh development where Ali and his family now live. Still, some things stay the same. Iraqis will overwhelm you with food when you visit.

HAMDANI: You can have all.


HAMDANI: It's all for you guys.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, look at that. Iraqi hospitality...

HAMDANI: Oh, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...with American baked goods.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ali is a doctor who moonlighted as a translator in Iraq. He worked for both my husband - also a reporter - and I from the very beginning of the war in Iraq...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ali is a doctor who moonlighted as a translator in Iraq. He worked for both my husband, also a reporter, and I from the very beginning of the war in Iraq until the day he left. Among the many unsung heroes of Iraq's bloody war are people just like Ali. They acted as interpreters or drivers, cooks, even cleaners for the U.S. government or private American companies. For that, also like Ali, 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 knows how lucky he is to be in America.

HAMDANI: Since I am the one who had the chance to get this, I have to do it so well and, you know, make everyone who knows me proud of me, basically, and to be proud of myself at the end.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Making his life work in the U.S. hasn't been easy. He arrived just as America slipped into a deep recession. And the refugee program here gives minimal help to families who have left everything behind.

HAMDANI: The assistance you get, let's say, would be enough for like, three, four months. And then you are left with no medical insurance, you know, with no income, and you are supposed to actually look for a job just like any other American, who's been living all - his entire life here and speaks the language, understands the culture. I struggled.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He didn't even know how to apply for employment or write up a resume. But eventually, because he spoke fluent English and was tech savvy, Ali managed to land a job as an emergency services interpreter. One of the biggest surprises, he says, is how little Americans know about Iraq despite their long war there.

HAMDANI: You'd think, like, Americans are so concerned about Iraq. But then you come here and you find out nobody cares.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He was afraid he'd be stereotyped as a terrorist, but instead, he says, people have been incredibly kind and helpful.

HAMDANI: Here, they smile all the time. They say excuse me so often.


HAMDANI: We never used it in Iraq. It's very peaceful, very quiet and very happy.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ali is also very happy he came here, especially when he gets news from back home.

HAMDANI: Things are getting worse. Like, people started to get new death threats and assassinations, and people are more talking about sectarian issues again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which is what makes what has happened to the program that allowed Ali to come to the U.S. so worrying, say advocates.

KIRK JOHNSON: The programs we set up to help them have been lamentable and, by almost every metric, have been a failure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kirk Johnson is the founder and director of The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. He says 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.

JOHNSON: Although the United States has left Iraq, the Iraqis who worked for us are still in great danger. They're still being hunted. They're being killed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in North Carolina, Ali Hamdani opens his closet and brings out his oud, or lute. When he left Iraq, it was the only thing he took with him.

HAMDANI: (Singing in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He sings 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.

HAMDANI: (Singing in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It brings tears to our eyes.

HAMDANI: We survived, you know? It's an achievement. We survived Iraq. You know, I don't believe in happy endings in stories, but this particular one did have a happy ending, actually.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.




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