Iraq War 10 years later: Iraqi who served as U.S. interpreter in war, says he won't go home again

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Hussein al Tekreeti was just an average 20-year-old college student in Iraq when the war started a decade ago, on March 19, 2003.

By March 2004 he was working as an Arabic interpreter, aiding various organizations as they attempted to rebuild Iraq.

Throughout the next six years Tekreeti was constantly in danger, not only from enemy forces seemingly everywhere but also -- because of some unfortunate luck -- his own people. He once barely escaped an IED attack while traveling to repair a police station in a neighboring town.

INTERACTIVE FEATURE | The survival rate for wounded U.S. troops has generally improved from the Civil War and each war thereafter through Iraq and Afghanistan (http://bit.ly/10yearsiw).

With danger surrounding him, Hussein knew he had to leave his homeland.

Now 30, Tekreeti lives alone in a small apartment in Knoxville, as a refugee under a special immigration visa granted to persons who worked with, or on behalf of the U.S. government. He has no intention of returning to his home country.

"Anything bad happen in Iraq maybe I need to go back to them (family), but the better thing is I moved to States," Tekreeti said. "In Iraq everything is gone. Nothing is good. We can't live in Iraq, in any place."

When the war started Tekreeti was a sophomore at Mammon University College in Baghdad, studying commercial sciences. He began working as an interpreter in March 2004 and continued after he graduated in 2006.

His father died in 1993, and his mother raised Hussein, his older brother, younger brother and younger sister.

Once the war started things quickly changed for the family of four.

"For me, it's good before the war, but after the war (started), a few days after, everything is gone," said Tekreeti.

Many of the people in Iraq assumed his family was close with Saddam because Tekreeti's name originated from the same tribe as Saddam's. In the Arabic culture, the second part of a person's name indicates what tribe the family originated from.

While working as an interpreter, Tekreeti faced many dangerous situations.

One day, while he was helping Hart Security transport boxes containing election ballots to a warehouse in Baquba, during Iraq's first election, 12 men approached the group.

Tekreeti said his team leader did not understand the danger of the situation, and instructed him to translate to the men that the team had the election boxes in their possession and needed a GPS location for a helicopter to come.

However, Tekreeti did not feel comfortable telling the men about the election boxes.

"I know my culture, I know the people, what they are thinking about saying and doing," said Tekreeti. Instead, he made up a story that they were at the warehouse because some thieves had stolen the group's food, and they needed help.

He knew the group of men might attack them if they knew Tekreeti's group was carrying material for the election.

"We have to wait to see if these are good people or not," he explained.

Angry crowds were not the only danger that he faced while working as an interpreter.

While traveling with Gulf Regional Division to help repair a police station, the group was stopped by an American convoy that wanted to traverse the road before them.

Tekreeti's team could only watch as an improvised explosive device struck the third vehicle in the American convoy as it passed by. The incident was recorded by a camera attached to the dashboard of the car Tekreeti was in.

He is looking to obtain US citizenship. He works assembling lights and other parts for Toyota cars, and hopes someday to join the U.S. armed forces. Tekreeti still talks to his mother in Iraq every day, and she tells him how scared she is.

He does not see himself ever returning home.

"I love my country, " he said. "But I can't live there."

(Reach Knoxville News Sentinel reporter Mal Alder atalderm@knoxnews.com.)

 

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