Woman left family to serve as Iraqi translator for US, still fears for life
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Sali Sadhi loved Saddam Hussein as a family friend, but she hated what his brutal regime did to her country.
She loves the United States for liberating her nation and giving her asylum, but she hates the occupation that followed there and the discrimination she experienced here.
She loves the democracy that was created in Iraq, but she hates the corrupt government in power now.
She loved serving as an interpreter and translator for the Coalition Forces, but she hated having to leave her children to do it.
And she loves telling her story so others can heed the lessons, but she hates the fear that compels her to keep her real name and image secret, now that the bounty her father offered 10 years ago for her capture — alive or dead — has grown from $5,000 to $125,000.
Sali Sadhi is one of 3,231 Iraqis granted U.S. asylum to escape a war-torn country from 2003-12, according to the Department of Homeland Security's office of immigration statistics, and she is one of 96,385 Iraqis to obtain legal permanent residence in the U.S. during the same time period.
This is her story, from Baghdad to Columbus.
Born amid death
Even at birth, death hovered around Sadhi, now 37. Her mother, a Turkish Christian, died while giving birth to her. One of her father's other three wives raised her. Only five of her 12 siblings are alive after a decade of war.
But her childhood in Baghdad was considered upper class. Her father was a wealthy oil man and Muslim tribal leader with connections to Saddam. She knew the ruthless ruler as a big teddy bear.
"Oh, my God! Back then, we loved this man," Sadhi said. "He'd come to me and give me a hug."
She attended a private Catholic school but also went to the mosque every Friday and studied the Quran along with the Bible. Her father lied about her age to marry her off at age 12 — three years earlier than the law allowed — to a man about 30 years older.
"My dad was freaking out," she said. "… He was so scared I'm going to make my choices of life, and all this power, he could not control it."
She bore her husband the first of their four children at age 13. Despite her domestic responsibilities in the Arabic culture, Sadhi was a modern woman. She wore Western clothes. Her husband allowed her to earn four college degrees and learn 14 languages, all while working in her father's businesses: oil, gas stations and hotels.
"My dad came to me with a suit and high heels and a stack of paper," she said. "We didn't have the Internet back then."
A financially secure life, however, couldn't protect her from more violence and death.
When she was 15, Saddam's militiamen awoke her family in the middle of the night. They grabbed one of her brothers, who had refused to report to the army during the first Gulf War, and executed him in front of the family.
While she washed the blood from her nightgown, she made herself a promise: "Nobody will do this again to my family."
"It gave me strength in my heart," she said. "We should be free. We should be able to say no — not fight, but vote."
A dozen years later, war came again, this time via the U.S. invasion. Sadhi calls it a liberation.
"We were seeing the news, and we know the American was coming, and everybody got scared," she said. "Saddam don't care. He had his bomb in your house with your kids. He had his weapons in houses and schools."
As the U.S. threatened to attack, Sadhi's father ordered the family to flee to Turkey.
Sadhi refused to go along.
"It was the first time in my life I told my dad no," she said. "… I'm teaching my kids a lesson: Don't back up on what you belong to, what you work hard for. It's about freedom, being free, free to speak, free to be who you are."
She hunkered down in Baghdad as the U.S. unleashed its lethal power.
"You hear it coming, the bomb," she said. "You hear it, but you don't know if it's going to hit you or your neighbor."
A week later, she ran out of food and had to venture out. She heard a Humvee.
"The first time I see the American, I tell you, this is the scariest feeling in my life," she said. "When you see them guys with the armor and all the guns — I was shaking."
Left to fend for herself, she did what she could. Sadhi saw U.S. soldiers trying to arrest an elderly man they couldn't understand, so she intervened. Her interpreting skills peacefully resolved the situation.
The next day, a woman knocked on her door and asked for help. The woman had a bomb in her yard and nine children in her house, and she knew Sadhi spoke English.
Sadhi walked to the nearest U.S. soldier and said, "Hey, you! You need to help me."
The soldier fussed at her bossy attitude, but Sadhi barked back and said, "You need to do your job with that bomb."
After it was taken care of, the unit's captain offered Sadhi a job as an interpreter and translator for $400 a week. She declined the money because she already was making $10,000 a month from her father's businesses and she didn't want anyone to question her motives. But she did accept the position because she wanted to help the liberation.
And she understood the risk.
"I said, 'Please, God, don't let my dad know what I done.' That's a big no-no," she said. "Rule No. 1 in my country (for women): You free to do whatever you want, but you better ask permission."
Sadhi became the first female Iraqi interpreter and translator for the Coalition Forces, she said. She was amazed at what passed for others' expertise.
"We hire soldiers to speak this language, and they're embarrassed to tell the officer he don't understand what this man says," she said, "so he makes up something."
The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force gave her a uniform with "Sally" as her name tag. The unit also became her new family.
"These young guys left their wives, their kids to come to my country to help us kick Saddam," she said.
Her blood family members discovered her new allegiance when they returned to Baghdad, and revenge for the perceived betrayal was swift and wide: Neighbors threw rocks at her daughter and broke the arms of one of her sons; a brother threatened her with a gun to her head; her father issued a warrant for her capture.
"I dishonored him," she said. "… It's not about feeling. It's not 'I love you and you love me and I'm going to do this against you.' It's culture.
"What my dad did to me is not because of America. If it was Egypt or people from Saudi Arabia come to my country and help us and I did what I did, my dad would do the same thing. It's culture. I broke the rules to my culture."
The U.S. gave refuge to her, her children and husband in the Green Zone, but her suffering continued. Her husband beat her and divorced her to be with her best friend. She reluctantly told her unit, and her husband was jailed. But the day he was released, he beat her again and locked her in a bathroom for several days. To this day, Sadhi said, she can't go to the bathroom without keeping the door open.
Her oldest son, then 13, helped her escape and begged her, "Run, Mama! Run!"
With only the clothes she was wearing, a photo of her children, the piggy-bank savings from one of them and a stuffed toy tiger from another, Sadhi made it back to the Coalition Forces — and collapsed a few days later from the injuries and exhaustion. She needed three weeks in a hospital to recover.
After she did, U.S. Army Maj. Hugh Sutherland, who was assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in 2004 as a unit commander, needed an interpreter, and someone recommended the woman known as "Sally."
Sutherland, now a retired lieutenant colonel living in the Tampa, Fla., area, preferred a female interpreter because males are forbidden to talk to Iraqi women outside their family, he said. From working together for five or six months, Sutherland doesn't hesitate to assess Sadhi's impact.
"She's the bravest woman I've ever met," he said. "Literally, she was fearless. She prevented not only us from getting hurt, but also a lot of Iraqis."
Sutherland remembers the time in Ramadi when his convoy came across a suspicious device in the middle of the road. He called in bomb disposal experts. Before they arrived, an Iraqi boy ran toward the danger — but Sadhi ran after him and swooped him toward safety.
Troops she served nicknamed her "Xena: Warrior Princess."
Nine years later, however, Sadhi still waits to be reunited with her own Iraqi children. Until then, she sleeps with that stuffed toy tiger each night.
"My dream is I just want to see my kids one more time," she said. "… Sometimes you tough, but it's in your heart. When the sun goes down and the house be empty, that's a different story."
Sadhi served with the Coalition Forces through the end of 2004. Her proudest moment came, she said, when she contributed to the coalition's victory in Fallujah, her father's ancestral home.
"We had big meeting," she said. "We went and sit with all the leader of the tribe, and we told them, 'Look, you losing people and we losing people, and none of us want to fight. Help us to kick al-Qaida there,' and they did."
Trouble was, the U.S. overstayed its welcome, Sadhi said.
"We love American, we like them, but the troop did a lot of mistakes," she said. "You got to realize, when you got a group of people, you have different mentality, different background, and you stay more than you should stay, all this anger going to come out."
The U.S. government granted Sadhi asylum and brought her to the Pentagon, where she worked as a document translator.
"God has blessed me with another life here," she said.
She also taught Arabic culture to cadets at West Point and soldiers at Fort Benning.
"People at Fort Benning are like family," Sadhi said. "They let me feel safe."
Another marriage, this one to a man from Columbus, ended in divorce.
"I met this — oh, I thought he was this perfect man — somebody to have a family with again," she said. "I wanted to settle down. There was too much happening with me, but he was the wrong man."
Sadhi tears up and her voice cracks when she discusses the discrimination she has endured in the U.S.
"I've been spit at, called names," she said. "People tell me I should be dead because my people killed their kids."
The hate is based on ignorance, Sadhi said.
"When I say I'm from the Middle East," she said, "they say, 'What is your camel like?' "
Those images are in only pockets of her country.
"Don't judge Muslim people by what is in the TV," said Sadhi, who converted to Christianity. "We're just normal human beings. Our women gossip. We got drama in our lives. We worry about our houses. Women get up in the morning, go work, do whatever they do in their life, make sure their house looks pretty.
"We don't have no camel, I promise you that. We don't have no tent, I promise you that. We drive cars. We go swimming. We go on vacation. We're just normal people."
Sadhi isn't optimistic about the future of Iraq.
"We still have a civil war between Sunni and Shia," she said. "My country will never have a peace, I'm going to tell you right now. Mix of culture, mix of hate. It took Saddam 35 years to mess up the people; it's going to take another 35 years to build a new generation.
"For 35 years, Saddam tell you to go right, go left. Then, all of a sudden, I give you everything, so they don't know what to do with themselves."
Despite the horror she survived in Iraq and her struggle in the U.S., Sadhi insists she has no regrets, especially when she mentions her school-age American son.
"His dream is to become an officer," she said with a smile. "He want to be a Marine."
The bitter memories sometimes pull her down, but Sadhi also has found sweet, uplifting kindness here. Pat Hart and her husband, John, are her landlords and have become her close friends.
"I was privileged to read the official reports about her heroic services to America during the war," Pat Hart said. "They are quite impressive. She was in danger and really made contributions to help our troops."
Marine Cpl. Veronika R. Tuskowski wrote a Sept. 22, 2004, article for American Forces Press Service about Sadhi's story while they served together with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Anbar Province, Iraq.
"She was just so passionate," said Tuskowski, now an artist and healing arts director for veterans in Orlando, Fla. "Her words, I mean, she could not speak softly. At times, she was yelling at me because she had so much to release. I was like, 'Holy crap! This woman has some fire in her.'
"She went from yelling to crying, such a wide range of emotions. She was still processing everything that had happened to her and was still affected by it because we were in-country, so it was still real and raw."
Sadhi deflects the notion that she is a hero; Tuskowski disagrees.
"She was willing to persevere through all that she did because she just really believed in our cause," said Tuskowski, who left the Marines as a sergeant. "She's very brave, extremely brave. Women from that country are often too scared to have their voice heard, but she blew through certain boundaries that women don't cross "
All of which puts in context this quote from Master Sgt. Tim D. Curl in Tuskowski's article: "Sally risks her life to be here. Many translators we have here have had their lives threatened and their families' lives threatened. She goes on convoys, combat patrols, and they go through the same attacks we do."
Sadhi knew three Iraqi interpreters who were killed by insurgents because they worked for the coalition.
"This is the first time in 10 years I can breathe and go to sleep for real," she said.
She sighed and added, "Nobody can touch me and my son here."
But while she talks tough, she alternately admits her fear continues. Although her father died eight years ago, his warrant for her still lives.
"I'm scared somebody is going to know (my identity)," she said "I'm so terrified. … Trust me. Them people can reach you no matter where you are."
Sadhi now proudly holds her green card, which gives her legal permanent residence in the U.S., and is three years away from being eligible to apply for citizenship. Meanwhile, she makes a living through independent interpreting and translating jobs and teaching about Arabic culture.
And she shares her story.
"I sacrifice my family, my kids, my brothers, my life," she said, "just to say thank you."