From Baghdad to Brooklyn and back: A deportee's strange, sad tale

All Iraq-born Anas wanted to do was raise his family in New York. But the U.S. kicked him out, and now he's a lost soul in a broken city.

Published November 13, 2003 8:31PM (EST)

Anas Hamadi is the only Iraqi I've met who wears shorts around Baghdad. He dresses as though he's just returning from an afternoon at Coney Island with his wife and son, or heading out for a summer stroll around his Brooklyn neighborhood. But here we are in Baghdad, not Brooklyn, sitting at a kitchen table, drinking iced coffee and smoking cigarettes. Anas is telling me -- in English that contains at least as much New York accentuation as it does Iraqi -- why he's here and not in the home he owns in Bensonhurst. It's an ugly, sad story involving his mystifying arrest, lengthy, often abusive incarceration, and eventual deportation. As Anas talks, the sound of explosions and gunfire occasionally rumbles in through the open kitchen door. Though it's not an unfamiliar background noise these days, the loudest bombs make us both pause and exchange raised-eyebrowed "what the fuck?" expressions. The sounds remind me that I'm not always sure what I'm doing here. But at least I'm here by choice. And at least I have the option to go home.

Yesterday, a turab (sand storm) hit the city. The air turns darkly ochre, flattening all the colors into one dismal marriage of land and sky. The wind pushes dust into eyes and mouths. It skitters into houses and cars through the tiniest cracks. Women on the street pull their abayas close around them, and kids turn their faces into their mothers' skirts. It made me feel very melancholy. I asked my friend-driver, Do people get emotional from the turab? He said, Yes, of course. Of course.

Anas, who is 25 years old, had been living in Brooklyn for five years when the FBI picked him up on March 23, 2002 -- four days after the American invasion of Iraq. He had been employed and making a good living as a deli manager at a Food Dynasty Supermarket in Brooklyn. Before (and even during) that job, he worked as a deli consultant to newly opened bodegas around Manhattan. With the money he and his brother made working at all their jobs, they invested in a part ownership of the Flicks video rental chain. His son was born in Brooklyn.

Anas bought a house, paid taxes, and made mortgage payments. He loved his neighborhood. He and his wife would often take strolls at night to get ice cream, chatting with the neighbors and store owners they knew along the way. His wife, who is also Iraqi, wore miniskirts when they went out to their favorite Italian restaurants for dinner. Until he was arrested, Anas assumed his residency status was in good shape. He entered the United States in 1998 on a G-1 visa, which he had obtained because of his father's job as an attaché to the Permanent Mission of Iraq to the United Nations. When his parents returned voluntarily to Baghdad in July 2001, Anas believed that he and his brother were legally entitled to remain behind under the umbrella of their original diplomatic visas and privileges. In fact, they were not -- their visas expired when their father left his job. Since no one from the INS ever hassled them about it, though, they just didn't worry. Before 9/11, their American life probably would have continued uneventfully. But the terror attacks and then the invasion of Iraq changed that.

For the first time lately, I'm starting to worry the whole country could erupt in violence at some point. The problems and the anger here seem to grow exponentially. Almost every day, I hear about a tank running over a car, killing the Iraqi driver and passengers. Or about Iraqis, seeking information from the Coalition Provisional Authority (about jobs, property destroyed in the war, missing relatives), getting turned away at the gates of the CPA's palace compound. It's the sort of news you don't hear much about in the mainstream press but, in the long run, it will make all the difference.

After Sept. 11, the U.S. government radically changed its approach to immigrants from Muslim and Arab countries, as well as its enforcement of immigration laws. The INS was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, and Attorney General John Ashcroft granted the FBI unprecedented power to arrest and detain immigration-law violators.

Sept. 11 left Anas feeling sickened and sad, as it did all Americans. In the days immediately following, people sometimes looked at him with suspicion. He didnt blame them. And, soon enough, the sense of community and bonding in the city eclipsed most negative feelings toward Muslim residents. Then the U.S. invaded Iraq, and the roundup of Muslims began afresh.

The FBI came for Anas and his brother on the same day. Anas was working at Food Dynasty when two officers showed up and asked him to step outside, still in his apron. In front of the store (and some of his co-workers) they frisked him, then handcuffed him -- just necessary formalities, they said. They took him "downtown" with the assurance that he would be going home very soon. When he was finally allowed to call his wife, she told him that FBI agents were searching the house and removing computer hard drives, address books, passports, and other documents. He never saw his house again.

The FBI told Anas and his brother that, though they were arrested for violating immigration laws, they were being held pending an investigation into whether they "may be associated with other individuals in the New York area who have ties to possible intelligence and clandestine-related activities." I'm quoting from the FBI report Anas showed me. It contains some other points of similarly speculative opacity. In fact, the reasons given in the report for detaining the Hamadi brothers are so vague, it seems reasonable to assume it's based on a general FBI template -- a sort of FBI "mad lib" for detaining Iraqi men at the start of the war.

On March 19, 2003, the FBI announced that, in addition to interviewing tens of thousands of Iraqis, it intended to arrest three dozen. It used immigration violations to detain (indefinitely) Iraqis that had any sort of connection to Saddam Hussein -- the same unprecedentedly aggressive response to immigration violations that the government used to arrest, detain and usually deport hundreds of Muslims and Middle Easterners after 9/11. Presumably, Anas and his brother came under suspicion due to their father's work. But the FBI never gave specific reasons for their detention.

This past Sunday, Muhanad al-Kaadi, the Iraqi leader of a U.S.-supervised governing council for the Shiite Sadr City area just north of Baghdad, was killed in a scuffle with American soldiers as he arrived at council headquarters. The American army contends the killing was justified -- that, as an argument heated up, Kaadi reached for a soldier's gun. Iraqis on the scene say that's just not what happened. Ultimately, though, whether Kaadi did or didn't make a move for the soldier's gun is irrelevant. What matters is the way Iraqis interpret the event, and no interpretation I've heard is helping the fragile state of Iraqi-American relations. Iraqis believe that either the Americans assassinated Kaadi for being overly competent at his job (even the wildest rumors find credulous ears in Iraq these days), or the killing illustrates, yet again, that American mistrust of Iraqis trumps any illusion of cooperation. An Iraqi can have an important job in which he works every day with Americans -- he can be a model for the kind of Iraqi citizen that the Bush administration and Iraq's American proconsul Paul Bremer praise all the time -- but when pushing match comes to shoving match, none of that will make a difference. In the eyes of the soldiers and the American government, all Iraqis are, first and foremost, potential terrorists.

When Anas talks about his conversations with the FBI, his voice becomes incredulous. He tenses his shoulders and flexes his hands, palms upward. His expression and gesture wouldn't be inappropriate for someone who has just spotted a cruise ship balanced atop the Empire State Building. He describes the day he was picked up, when an FBI agent said to him, "You're Iraqi. We're worried that, because of the war, you might do something in the future." Anas' response is the same now as it was then: "What would I want to do? I have a job. A wife. A kid. You know? What would I do?"

Bond was posted at $50,000 but before he and his brother could pay, it was raised to $100,000, and then -- with the war heating up -- the option of bail disappeared altogether. The FBI continued to investigate whether the Hamadi brothers posed a threat, without reaching any definitive conclusion. Meanwhile, for the next four months, Anas and his brother remained incarcerated in Bergen County Jail in New Jersey. They never went home to the Bensonhurst house again.

Anas and his brother eventually chose deportation over staying to fight their case or pursue political asylum. In fact, they were so anxious to end their imprisonment that they paid for their own plane tickets to Jordan so that they wouldn't have to wait out the red tape of a free American transport flight.

The Supreme Court announced this week that it would consider whether the hundreds of men being detained at the United States' Guantánamo Bay military base in Cuba should have access to American courts. For two years, the 650 men have been held without having been tried or even (with the exception of a handful) charged. The court's decision is very good news for the detainees. But it will be many months before the case gets reviewed. And if the Supreme Court does decide in favor of the Guantánamo prisoners (an outcome that legal pundits seem to be predicting as unlikely) many more months, or even years, will pass before individual trials begin in the United States. Undoubtedly, some of these men have committed crimes that warrant their incarceration. But to assume, without trials, that they are all current or potential terrorists is not the way the American justice system is supposed to work.

Anas lives with his family in Baghdad now. His wife and 2-year-old son could have remained in the United States. (His son is a U.S. citizen, and courts won't deport mothers who are illegally in the country because of the hardship that would cause the minor child.) But if his wife had been picked up for questioning -- a possibility the FBI refused to rule out -- their son might have ended up in child-protection services. And so at the war's end, even before Anas got put on the plane to Jordan, his wife packed up their clothes, gave most of their belongings away, and headed to Baghdad.

When Anas realized that deportation had become his only avenue out of jail, he began fantasizing about getting back to Baghdad, reuniting with his family, and building a new life. He made lists of business ideas: start a car service, open an American-style supermarket, an Italian restaurant, a large toy store, a kindergarten. Making plans calmed him down and diverted his mind from the stress of his own situation.

"Most of us [in jail] had nosebleeds all the time from thinking," he tells me. "Tired. Worried about family. Put yourself in my place. You go crazy."

He spent his last week in solitary confinement, handcuffed to the bed, lights on all the time. He and other members of his cellblock had protested when a guard tried to lock them in their cells four hours early one night. Anas said he and the other men pleaded, reasonably, with the guard. But the guard panicked and put out an "officer down" call. Reinforcements arrived. They grabbed Anas and a few other guys at random. They cuffed them, pushed them to the floor, stepped on their faces, beat their faces with the prison-issue slippers. Put them in solitary.

Though I tend to travel around Baghdad freely during the day, going out at night is always a risk. It's strange not to leave the house at night. I've only been out a few times, in the relative safety of a car, to go to a restaurant or another journalist's house. Going for a stroll is essentially out of the question. For me, it's a small price to pay for being here now. And whenever I get frustrated, I remind myself that at some point I'll be back in New York, going to bars and restaurants, walking home from a friend's house after midnight, riding my bicycle to see a movie.

By the time Anas got on the plane to Jordan in mid-June (still unwashed from his six days in solitary and wearing the winter clothes he had on when arrested) he felt wildly excited. By most accounts, Baghdad was making a quick recovery from the war. Life there was returning to normal. But the initial excitement at being reunited with his family gave way, not long after his arrival, to depression. "Before I came back -- the way I saw it on TV -- Iraqis are happy. No more Saddam. Americans are there making it better. Construction. Power and water coming back. I was shocked when I got here."

Like so many other Iraqis, Anas just can't believe the Americans can't do better here. When I visited him one day at his house in Baghdad, we stood briefly on the sidewalk while he pointed out the garbage-choked road median nearby. "Why don't they put more unemployed Iraqis to work, cleaning up the garbage? Or fixing the streets? Why not start building affordable housing in some of the empty lots around the city?" he wants to know. His young son tugged at his dads shorts and Anas hoisted him up into his arms. "Why don't they have more police -- a lot more police -- out at night?" Anas speaks often of his Brooklyn life. The late-night walks. Trips to the beach or the movies, a restaurant, a playground, a park. No bombs. No gun battles. No soldiers in tanks, stopping him at random to search his car (and remind him of his experience with prison guards). And, until last March, no thought of leaving.

Now Anas spends much of his time inside the safety of his house. He still hopes to open an American-style supermarket, but as the situation here continues to unravel, the possibility seems less likely all the time.

He doesn't sleep much. "I never used to have any fear," he says. Always took risks. After all that's happened, I don't want to be alone in the dark. I'm afraid. Like a child."

Anas feels angry all the time at what the American government did to him and to his native country. He blames President Bush and his policies for shattering his life. But his anger won't obliterate the longing he has for his former home. He and his family think about going back all the time. "We want to go back. We miss New York every day," he tells me. "I want my son to grow up there."

Right now, Anas seems caught between being an Iraqi and an American. Though he's still the only Iraqi I've seen in shorts, the last time we met, he was wearing a dish-dash -- the traditional white robe worn by men here. It's as difficult for him as for me to understand his feelings for America now.

"I went to the U.S. thinking, This is the safest fucking country I'll ever be in," he tells me. He pauses to light another cigarette. Behind his glasses, his eyes look sad and bewildered. A year ago, he couldn't have imagined being back in Baghdad, having been incarcerated in, then kicked out of, his chosen home. Now he has no choice but to try to make a life for his family in this broken, breaking city. "They talk about human rights. But they don't exist," he says of the United States. Then he shakes his head. "I don't want to talk this way."

By Jen Banbury

Jen Banbury spent eight months in Iraq reporting for Salon. In early March 2004,she filed a story about Abu Ghraib, "Guantanamo on Steroids," which addressed early Iraqi allegations of detainee abuse.

MORE FROM Jen Banbury

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Immigration Iraq War