Many of my friends began to hate me. People looked at me differently at airports and other public places. Even my co-workers made derogatory comments. I apologized to many people over the years, even people I didn't know. All I wanted to do was to tell the world that I am not a terrorist.
My family and I fled Iraq with no choice. During the 1980s and '90s, my father worked as an informant for the CIA in a plot to remove Saddam Hussein from power. My family lived in a dangerous world, moving from town to town. In 1988, Saddam put an open contract on my father's head and the heads of my entire family. Several times we were shot at and faced the very real threat of being buried alive. My father continued with his job until suspicion was aroused among the Iraqis that my father was working with the United States.
In November 1996, President Clinton ordered my family to leave Iraq immediately. It was great to see President Clinton intervene and help us. In February 1997, we arrived in the United States, in the state of Utah. Ecstatic and extremely lucky to have survived that tyranny, my family and I were no longer in fear.
It was snowing and freezing when we were dropped off at a one-bedroom house on the evening of Feb. 25, 1997. The electricity wasn't functioning properly and the heater wasn't turned on. At that moment, I thought I was in the freezing dark mountains of Kurdistan once again. Except, of course, without the fear of being killed. Our rent was only half paid. The initial agreement from the Rescue Committee stated the first three months of rent were paid. Wrong! We needed to find jobs -- and soon.
I desperately went on a job hunt. Luckily, I found a job at a nearby college, working in its library, despite my terrible English. I was hired to reshelf library books, so I didn't really need to communicate. That job earned me enough money so I could pay the other half of the rent. The landlord seemed to have no patience. He warned us that if this happened again, we could face eviction. (In Iraq, we would have faced execution.)
By mid-March 1997, my father also found a job doing carpentry. Meanwhile, I wrote numerous letters to our congressman and our state senator about our situation. No response from either.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service labeled my family as illegal, despite our initial status of "political asylum." In 1998, we applied for our status change to get our green cards. Eight months later, they had lost our forms. Nothing could be done without a good attorney, but we didn't have the money to spend on high-priced lawyers.
I wrote several letters to the government, including one to the director of the INS. I also sent a letter to the Bush administration. Again, no response.
Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, my family and I decided to move to Detroit to avoid any discriminatory backlash. Detroit offered more "diversity."
Early one afternoon, my father and I went for a drive. It had been a while since we had a father-son talk, and one of the topics we discussed was my father's wish to stay in Michigan and apply for our green cards because the Salt Lake City office had lost our applications.
While driving north on Interstate 75, I wanted to exit the highway and go toward downtown when, suddenly, I lost track and took a different exit, which led me on Interstate 94 toward Canada. The eight-lane road was bedlam, jammed with small vehicles, SUVs and semi-trailers. The only thing I could do was go straight toward the border. As we approached the checkpoint, I simply told the man that I had taken a wrong exit. Suspicion sparked when I told him I was from Iraq. He had us wait there for a few minutes while he made his phone calls. He told us to go straight and to make a sharp U-turn.
I drove away as instructed, but more than 15 Border Patrol officers, with rifles aimed, were waiting for us ahead. They had us get out of the car with our hands above our heads. They searched for bombs as they combed through the car. Then the K-9 unit arrived, and they also searched us. After 45 minutes in the freezing temperatures, we were taken into an office, still handcuffed.
Three federal agents awaited our arrival. The agents had photos of alleged terrorists and asked whether we knew any of them. Then my father told the agents he worked for the CIA in Iraq. The agents seemed to have no interest in my father's work as an informant. The interrogation went on for four hours until they realized we were clean.
It wasn't long before my family moved back to Utah.
The examples of being treated unfairly abound. In one instance, I was removed from a plane because I sat in the exit row. Then I was nearly attacked by a U.S. marshal for having a fishing pole on the plane. They thought I had snuck a rifle on board.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as the entire Obama administration, should really focus on those who are legal in the U.S. today and process their documents before moving on to those who are illegal. There are so many refugees and immigrants here in the U.S. legally who are awaiting their status change. I am eager to see some major changes in immigration processing times.
As for my father, he still lives with that disappointment.
He is determined that some day he will find justice.
Alan Karam attends the University of Utah and volunteers his time to teach English at the Refugee and Immigrant Center at the Asian Association of Utah. He is currently working on a memoir about his experiences as an "unwanted" Iraqi immigrant during the post 9/11 era.