This is a guest post by Olivia Katz, a Los Angeles based photographer, writer, and artist.
Olivia is the founder of The Invisibles, a project dedicated to the lives of immigrants and refugees of America. This profile of former IRAP client Sham Hasan is part of this project, and she is looking for other individuals to interview and photograph. She can be reached at Olivia@OliviaKatz.com.
All opinions expressed below are the author’s and may not reflect IRAP’s official views.
Sham and I met on a Friday afternoon in February at a café in Silverlake, Los Angeles. I was immediately struck by his friendliness. He asked me how I was and what was new. He had a generous spirit and I felt immediately at ease.
We sat down and I began asking him about his story. I wanted to know everything.
Sham served as a U.S. Army linguist and a cultural advisor for three and a half years all over Iraq. He has been in the United States since 2014. He was able to leave Iraq and resettle in the United States through the Special Immigrant Visa Program for Iraqi nationals who provided faithful service to the U.S. government in Iraq.
For someone like me, having grown up in America, his life story is pretty much incomprehensible. Everything he told me was especially hard to imagine as we drank coffee, sitting in the sun, on a warm Los Angeles afternoon.
As he spoke, I saw in my mind’s eye a land devastated by war. Broken down buildings. Abandoned houses. Dead bodies. Smoke and flames. Families torn apart by murder, death, and relocation, and nebulous lists of missing persons. Children’s lives cut short. An entire nation of people in a constant fight for survival.
The reality is that Sham is a survivor.
He grew up in a time of war. He lived his life haunted by the knowledge that at any given moment, he could die. Walking to the grocery store. Going to school. Going for ice-cream. Yeah, ice-cream. That’s how Sham lost five family members. They had all gone out for ice-cream, when a suicide bomber killed them all.
Just. Like. That. Five family members, murdered.
How does one recover or heal from such senseless violence?
In all, six of Sham’s family members have been killed during his time growing up in Iraq.
As Sham described the many warring factions in the country I couldn’t help but be confused. This group fighting that group. That group fighting this group that split into these groups. It seemed like everyone was at war.
In 2006, Sham was at a friend’s house, when all of a sudden a grenade exploded, he was beaten unconscious, and then detained and tortured for 10 hours.
He was kidnapped because of his uncle’s political affiliation with the Peshmerga. The Peshmerga are the military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and are said to have played a big role in the capture of Saddam Hussein. His uncle was accused of being a traitor and was murdered by the same people who kidnapped Sham.
This event, rightfully, changed Sham’s life.
His family was forced to relocate multiple times because of the danger in Baghdad. Sham and his family lived in constant fear.
When Sham arrived in America, he felt “a freedom and safety I had never known before. I finally have a life free from the fear of death.” It was with great hope and promise that Sham came to the United States.
He knew no one. He had very little money and no job. But he ended up getting placed with a generous host family that helped him get on his feet. To Sham, America is a dream. A place where he can rise up and do whatever he wants to do with his life. A place where he is safe and welcome to be himself.
He dreams of being an actor, a singer, a dancer, and continues to help refugees through his work with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and other non-profits that work with refugees.
Sham is one of the most grateful and hopeful people I have ever met. His love for America is bigger than most of my American friends’. America, quite literally, saved his life.
His journey continues to be arduous as he struggles with PTSD from his experiences in Iraq, the reality of leaving all your loved ones behind in a war-torn country, and the financial difficulty of starting over with nothing but your dream of a better life to sustain you.
But in the face of all of this, Sham wears a broad smile and extends his hand to anyone asking for help. He has become an advocate for refugees, speaking on their behalf and telling his story.
“The reason why I’m here today is because every refugee deserves a second chance in life. I know what it feels like to have no home and to have the fear of death be all that you can think about. Refugees are just people — teachers, doctors, and engineers, but they’ve had everything taken away from them. Terrorism made them stop living. Refugees are humans with dreams. Thousands of them are on the move now, from one danger zone to another. They shouldn’t be left behind, nor taken for granted, regardless of where they are coming from, who they are, what color they are, or what religion they believe in.”
It’s really hard to put into words what I felt sitting with Sham. It was as if for a short moment, I stepped into his world and I saw through his eyes, and felt through his heart, what it was like growing up in a country torn to bits by war. Losing so much. Fighting for your life. Fighting for a dream and a vision of a better life. And the tremendous victory of getting to America and getting a second chance at life.