WASHINGTON — Nahla Qader often spent her morning commute to work dodging sniper bullets, car bombs and kidnapping attempts. At night, her phone would ring with death threats against her and her family.
Such was the life of an Iraqi woman, wife and mother who chose to work as a translator for the U.S. military in the high-security Green Zone perimeter in Baghdad during the early years of the Iraq War. That choice forced Qader to flee her homeland and become a refugee before eventually landing in the U.S. with diplomatic help in 2008.
Her journey ended last weekend, when the 47-year-old native of Kirkuk, Iraq, became a U.S. citizen in a naturalization ceremony in Oakton, Va.
She puts it simply: “I’m home.”
“I’m an American! I can’t believe it!” she said after the ceremony. “It’s just like I’m free. I want to fly. … It’s like I’m a new person. When you go through a hard time and you feel like you survived, you made it. … So many times, I gave up. I’m not going to make it. I never thought I would come to the finish line, make it to this day.”
In 2004, Qader was one of only a handful of Iraqis brave enough to aid U.S. troops by working as translators. Doing so risked retribution by insurgent forces who were monitoring U.S. news broadcasts. She was supporting her husband and child.
She was known for her bravery. In May 2004, she found herself in the middle of a media circus at the Baghdad Convention Center for the trial of the first U.S. soldier in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. While mortar rounds from insurgents thumped near the horde of international journalists camped outside, U.S. officials inside fretted that they needed a translator who could help communicate to the world what had happened in the trial. Knowing that being seen on TV would mean a virtual death sentence, several Iraqis working for the U.S. refused the job.
Six months pregnant and facing sweltering summer heat, Qader volunteered. Ringed by U.S. soldiers behind a hastily built barricade to protect her identity, she performed her duty.
“Exceptionally fearless, and she showed up regardless of the security situation in Baghdad,” recalls U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, who was Qader’s supervisor at the time. “She took more risks than any other woman I worked with at that time.”
But the stress and continuing threats took a toll on Qader. In spring 2006, she took a vacation –- and never returned. For months, coworkers did not know whether she was alive or dead. She made her way to a refugee camp in Switzerland via Italy after an official at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad helped her obtain a visa. While in the camp, Qader exchanged emails with Susan Phalen, an embassy press officer whom she met in Baghdad. Phalen now works as a press secretary for the majority Republican office of the House Intelligence Committee and saved all of her friend’s emails.
Qader said she was probably at her lowest then, facing pressure from her husband to stay in Switzerland because she could obtain housing and a monthly stipend from the Swiss government. But there were limited job opportunities, and Qader said she felt pulled to America.
In her emails to Phalen, Qader said she was struggling with the decision to move her two young children.
“Whenever I look at the kids and feel like I am going to uproot them again from this new small world that they have created for themselves, and got familiar with, I feel responsible for making such a decision,” she wrote. “If it was against their desire then they will not stop blaming me ... How am I going to forgive myself if I failed to make them happy, or disappointed them?
“I am growing old and totally worn out. Two years of suffering, humiliation, dilemma, illness, displacement and fear from the future have almost eaten me up to the bone,” she wrote. “I feel like I cannot give any more.”
In March 2008, Qader made up her mind and enlisted in a U.S. program for Iraqi refugees. The choice cost her her marriage -– she divorced her husband -- and she arrived in Washington, D.C., with her two sons and seven suitcases.
She still needed help and received it from Phalen, who reached out to actor Gary Sinise, a longtime advocate for military issues, who co-signed for Qader’s Alexandria, Va., apartment and paid her first and last month’s rent without even meeting her.
In a phone interview, he said he was drawn to her sense of bravery and her dedication to the U.S.
“She had no money, and they came with very little. No credit or anything like that,” he said. “I just have such admiration for Nahla and her courage. I was made aware of her fearless attitude towards helping the U.S. and the coalition to win in Iraq, and that was very moving to me.”
Sinise later met Qader at the end of a speech he gave at the National Press Club in Washington.
Qader now works as a social media analyst for the State Department, where she is valued for speaking seven languages, including Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish and Farsi. Becoming an American wasn’t simple –- she got her Virginia driver’s license on her third try -– but she said she feels “a huge responsibility” as a citizen.
“I feel like I have to work harder. ... I tell my kids all the time to appreciate what this country has given us. It’s given me my freedom, my freedom of speech and the freedom to live life the way I want to.
“I never dreamed I would be in the United States. I didn’t plan it,” she said. “I had been in Iraq for 40 years. But I was being threatened by people, and it was no longer a place for me and my family. I was trying to help them, but they didn’t want me.”
Qader returned to Iraq in 2011 for a brief visit. Within a week, she said, she missed America.
“It was only one week before I felt this way, and I stayed only 10 days,” she said. “I felt like I was choking. ... When I came back, I felt like I was back home.”