Haider Abdalgani was accustomed to American culture after spending five years as a translator for the U.S. army in Iraq, or so he thought. He couldnâ€™t have predicted, though, that most of his neighbors at on Devon Avenue in Chicago speak Hindi or Spanish, not English. Or that civilian life is far removed from the military culture he became familiar with in his hometown of Nasiriyah.
Still, this is the land of opportunity, and Abdalgani has no plans to return to his native country. Instead, he wishes he had come to the United States when he was younger. Then, he said, maybe he would be successful by now.
â€œI own a house in Baghdad. Nice house, too. Here, only this,â€ Abdalgani said, gesturing around to the two-room apartment he shares with another Iraqi immigrant. With both their twin beds crammed into the living room, the space looks more like a childâ€™s bedroom than the home of two grown men.
â€œWhat have I accomplished? All my school, my work in Iraqâ€”doesnâ€™t matter here,â€ Abdalgani said, fiddling with the books stacked on the table next to his bed: a worn Shakespeare anthology and a thick English dictionary. Under his bed, in a bag full of photos from home, rests an Arabic-English dictionary he no longer needs. He explains that he used it when he began working for the U.S. army, while he was still in college taking classes on Shakespeare and comparative literature.
Abdalgani talks fondly about his college days, reminiscing– but they weren’t all fun and games. Working for the U.S. army made him a target, and it was after receiving many threatening phone calls that he applied to come to the U.S. He still worries about his family back in Iraq, who he moved to a different neighborhood so they would be safer.
Here in the U.S., Abdalgani is safe. He no longer worries every time he goes to bed or leaves the house. He now works for Avon selling hair products. But Abdalgani has big plans, and he views this as nothing more than a â€œsurvival job,â€ something just to get by.
Currently, he is in the process of getting his degree re-accredited at University of Illinois Chicago, and has begun an to teach English to new Arab immigrants in his neighborhood.
Back home in Nasiriyah, Abdalgani had wanted to study science when he entered college. But under Saddam Husseinâ€™s rule, he was not able toâ€” this privilege was reserved for members of the Baâ€™ath Party. Abdalgani studied English instead.
In the U.S., he hopes to go back to school and one day become a pharmacist. And here, he can do that.
â€œThatâ€™s one of the reasons I came to the U.S.,â€ Haider said. â€œSo my kids can play in the yard with no one threatening them, and so they can do whatever they want to do when they grow up.â€