Naseer is a member of the Khuzaie tribe, an influential tribe with a tradition of providing assistance to its members. Naseer and his brothers worked with their father, a tribal leader in Baghdad, to help their community. The family was admired for its efforts. One of Naseer’s cousins was the first woman appointed by Paul Bremer (former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq) to the initial Iraqi Governing Counsel, another cousin was appointed as Defense Minister in the first Iraqi Government, another cousin worked in the Iraqi embassy in Washington and yet another cousin is the current General Inspector of the Iraqi Health Department.
Naseer spent seven years in Tulsa, Oklahoma studying aircraft engineering in the 1970’s, and the next 30 years, until the war in 2003, working for Iraqi Airways. He was also a member of the Iraqi National Aerobatic team and owned a travel and tourism company.
Reflecting on his life before the war, Naseer explains that despite hardships in Iraq, his family was happy. “We never thought about leaving Iraq,” he says, “even though I flew every day to different countries. Sometimes I didn’t have time to shop in Iraq and I bought things on the road. Life was really beautiful.”
When the American army entered Baghdad, Naseer checked on his travel and tourism office and found a woman stealing a chair. “I screamed at her,” he says, “and she told me she had made a mistake because she only intended to loot government property.”
A Washington Post reporter, Anthony Shadid, witnessed the exchange and interviewed Naseer. “I explained to him,” says Naseer, “that I had studied in Tulsa and he said he was from Oklahoma. We chatted and I invited him to my house. When he suggested that I work for the Washington Post, I replied, ’doing what, the only thing I know about newspapers is that they’re the best thing to clean windows with.’ He arranged a meeting for me with the new bureau chief, Rajiv Chandrasekaran. When Rajiv asked what I thought about working for the Post I said I didn’t have any experience. ‘We’ll teach you,’ he said. I started the next day.”
Naseer worked for the Post from 2003-2008. “At the beginning,” he explains,” I went out with Rajiv to show him places and translate. I saw that when American reporters were out focusing on a story, no one was watching their back. They didn’t want to be guarded by the military or just work from the Green Zone. They wanted to be in the Red Zone, among the people. So I watched their back and told them what was dangerous. I realized that Iraqis might mislead the reporters and if the story was wrong in the Post, it would be considered true. I believed that the reporters were writing the history of my country so I wanted to be sure everything was right and I wanted American readers to know exactly what was happening.”
Naseer’s name appeared on dozens of articles, many on the front page. Among the reporters he assisted were Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru, who won Pulitzer Prizes for their coverage of the war in Iraq. Naseer is thanked in the acknowledgements of several books written by Post reporters who worked in the Baghdad bureau (including Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Steve Fainaru, Anthony Shadid, Thomas Ricks and Jackie Spinner).
Rajiv’s book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone,” (published in 2006), was made into a movie, the “Green Zone,” starring Matt Damon. In Rajiv’s acknowledgements, he wrote,“[t]he Post has been fortunate to have an amazing team of Iraqis working as interpreters, drivers and guards. They put their lives on the line every day to help me understand what was really happening in their country. For that, and so much else, I am eternally grateful…”
Naseer’s work for the Post ultimately endangered his family. Armed men tried to kidnap his 14 year-old daughter and succeeded in kidnapping his nephew. The boy managed to escape and told Naseer that one of the kidnappers had said, “your uncle thought that he could hide his daughter, but you see how we were able to get you. Your uncle works for the Americans, spying on Iraqis.”
Naseer realized that he needed to get his family out of Iraq. His brother-in-law traveled to Baghdad to bring money for passports. On his way, he was stopped by militants who killed him. After the funeral, with the help of the Post, Naseer moved his wife and children to Amman, Jordan.
Naseer couldn’t stay in Amman because he didn’t have a work permit, so he returned to the Post in Baghdad. “I stopped going home or to my brother’s house,” Naseer recalls, “because I was shot at twice. For two years I slept at the Post bureau and saw my family every month or two. I started to feel like a stranger or like a grandparent who visits and gives advice that’s never followed.”
Naseer’s Washington Post friends encouraged him to apply for refugee status in the US. He was accepted for resettlement and chose to live in the DC area because his friends were nearby. “When we arrived at the airport,” Naseer says, “my family asked ‘do you think anyone will remember you now that you’re not working for the Post.’ Before I replied, I saw Jon Finer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Josh Partlow waiting for us. Jon Finer was wearing an Iraqi soccer team t-shirt and waving an American flag. They hugged us. You can’t imagine the positive impression that left on my kids to this day.”
Naseer explains that during his first months in the US, a friend visited nearly every day. “Every time a door seemed to close,” he says, “they helped.” Naseer points out that help doesn’t need to be “big or complicated, it can be a small piece of advice like “instead of carrying your grocery bags, buy a trolley.”
Shortly after moving into his apartment, Naseer discovered that he couldn’t get an internet account, a cell phone or a cable account because he didn’t have a Social Security Number or a credit history. A friend contacted Comcast and explained the situation (when Verizon later asked Naseer to switch to their service, he said “no” because they didn’t help him when he needed them). Comcast put an account in his name and made his friend the guarantor. Naseer eventually got a cell phone from T-Mobile and Bank of America permitted him to open a bank account. “Now,” says Naseer, “I tell newly arrived Iraqi refugees about those companies.”
A Post friend brought Naseer’s wife and daughters to appointments and another guided him in applying for a job online. Naseer’s American graduate degree and FAA license made it possible for him to get a job as an aircraft engineer with US Airways at Reagan National Airport. “Every night,” says Naseer, “one or two aircraft that take off from DC are maintained, signed and released by me.”
Yet another Post colleague, Tom Ricks, organized a campaign to raise funds to cover the high school tuition for Naseer’s two younger daughters. In his 2009 book, The Gamble, Ricks thanked the school, “I am obliged to the Sandy Spring Friends School…which responded with swift generosity when one Iraqi family associated with the Post was forced to flee Iraq. The school took two Iraqi students into its warm and tolerant environment.”
Now, two years after resettling in the US, Naseer’s family is doing very well. They recently moved into a new house (built to their specifications), the younger girls are in college (with full scholarships) and Naseer’s older son and daughter are working. “We couldn’t have achieved what we have,” says Naseer, “without the help of our friends.”