Saad Tawfeeq is an American citizen.
At 28 years old, he says he feels truly blessed every day to be in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But while that may seem trite and trivial to some, it is extremely deep and meaningful for Saad — and for his entire family.
The Tawfeeqs understand the "free" and the "brave" more than most Americans who were born into their citizenship, because Saad, his parents and his three sisters were not.
Refugees from war-torn nations have been a constant topic in this election cycle, the subject of lawsuits between our state government and aid organizations and a flashpoint for political conversations (and Skittles tweets) all over the country. This story — the Tawfeeqs' story — reminds us that every single refugee has a story of surmounting incredible obstacles.
Saad was born July 5, 1988 in Baghdad, Iraq, right at the end of the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran.
He and his twin sister, Shahad, spent their first years of life in Baghdad with their parents and two older sisters.
"I was a cute kid," says Saad with a smile, when we meet at the Hillary Clinton campaign headquarters in Indianapolis. (More on that later.) "I was a very quiet kid and I was a very smart kid."
Just like kids in Indiana, Saad went to school, did his work, played with friends, endured his sisters and lived as normal a life as could be expected in a country torn apart by constant war and conflict. After all, Saad's toddler years included the first Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and the United States led a campaign that ended with an Iraqi withdrawal in February 1991. A month before Saad's fifth birthday in 1993, the U.S. launched a missile attack on the headquarters of Iraqi intelligence in Baghdad in response to an assassination attempt on former President George H.W. Bush in Kuwait in April of the same year.
Saad's entire model school — what Americans would consider primary school — career is laden with sanctions against Iraq, no-fly zones and a growing American resentment toward Saddam Hussein's regime.
The education of the Iraqi people during this time may not seem all that significant, but prior to the conflicts with the U.S. and other NATO countries that began in the '90s, Iraq had one of the best educational systems in the Middle East, with exceptionally high literacy rates (over 90 percent among kids ages 6-12) and the lowest dropout rates in the region with over 20 percent of the total budget for the country spent on education.
That all changed through the Iran-Iraq conflict and beyond. Less and less money was spent on education, and dropout rates rose to double digits.
Despite the constant conflict, Saad continued to grow and live life as an Iraqi boy.
But all of that changed when the U.S. began another offensive strike against the country in 2001.
The February strikes — which were coordinated months before September 11 — were designed to take out the country's defense systems. But the bombings and continued conflict took out the power grid for the country as well.
"I had a lot of suffering in my studies in Baghdad," says Saad. "At that time I always studied my homework by candlelight. And I couldn't finish my college because the country was in the war."
That war was the campaign that led to the fall of Saddam Hussein's reign while the U.S. and other NATO forces tried to maintain the peace in the midst of violence as various groups jockeyed for power.
The year was 2003.
But as Saad lived this reality, the only thing he had known, since strife and conflict and rough living had been the norm since his birth, his father had a different vision of what was and what should be.
Shihab Tawfeeq's vision was to go to America. It was something he had dreamed about since he was a boy himself.
One month after U.S. and British forces disabled Iraq's defense network, the U.S. lead an invasion to dismantle Saddam Hussein's government for good. Coalition forces entered the country to stabilize the country. During this time, Saad remembers his father working for coalition forces.
"I was an active duty military officer with the Army based in Baghdad in 2003-2004 so we were a military police unit assigned to the southern sector of Baghdad," says Todd Harrison, a Hoosier and a former commanding officer with the U.S. Army's 168th Military Police Battalion.
Harrison recalls in the haste to topple Hussein's regime, translator services for military units weren't immediately established.
"There weren't a lot of support structures available to include access to interpreters, so we had to go find people that we hoped we could trust that spoke English and Arabic and could serve as my interpreter and interpreters for the rest of my MP teams."
And that is how Harrison met Shihab Tawfeeq. Shihab speaks five languages including English and was working as an international tour guide. Shihab was assigned to Harrison as his personal translator. He not only translated between Arabic and English, but he also provided cultural awareness and an understanding of the Iraqi people that proved invaluable to the military personnel he worked with and served. Harrison kept Shihab in that position even after the Army secured contract Arabic translators. It was a move that not only secured a friendship and bonded the men forever — it was a move that saved lives.
"Because we dressed [Shihab] in a military uniform, a lot of the Iraqis and the Iraqi police didn't know he was from Baghdad and didn't realize he spoke English," recalls Harrison. "He picked up on what [other Iraqis] thought were secret conversations in Arabic that ended up saving my life twice. In two different instances, there were ambushes being planned or being discussed that had been set up for my team."
Shihab's loyalty to Harrison personally and to the American military was invaluable to the U.S. forces he worked with, but it also came at great risk. Harrison and his unit were deployed back to the United States while Shihab continued to work for coalition forces.
"While he did a very deliberate job of trying to not let his friends and neighbors know that he was working for coalition forces, they obviously always get out," says Harrison. "The family was tormented. They had family members killed and left on their doorstep as a sign of, 'don't work with the coalition.' "
By this time, it's late 2004. Saad is just 16 years old. He remembers 2004 as being a bad year.
While with friends and his girlfriend on the east side of Baghdad, an explosion occurs where the teenagers are.
Saad is critically injured. His friends and his girlfriend don't survive.
"I got injured and I'm in a coma for one month," says Saad. "My family thought that I'm dead but I thank God that I'm alive. After one month, I wake up in hospital in Jordan."
Today, Saad talks about this time of his life with a guard over his emotions. He reflects on the sadness and the grief, but there's a hint of survivor's guilt in his eyes. It's a lot to take for a teenager to survive an incident that results in the deaths of friends and loved ones.
It is also the final straw for a young man who has had enough of war and suffering.
"I talk to my father and I told him that I will never go back to Iraq and I told him never tell me again that Iraq is my country," says Saad.
The family (father, mother and sisters) is able to secure temporary visas to stay in Jordan for six months through Saad's recovery. Then the Tawfeeqs relocate to Cairo, Egypt on other temporary visas and stay — even after the temporary visas expire — until they can relocate permanently to the United States.
"[They] basically lived there as illegal aliens because they had nowhere else to go," remembers Harrison. "Saad's father ran out of money so he ended up volunteering to go back to the coalition forces in Iraq and at great peril."
Shihab and the entire family had applied for visas to come to the United States prior to the explosion that injured Saad. The fall of Hussein's regime and the civil war that followed created a lot of refugees eager to flee the country. U. S. military personnel like Harrison were especially concerned for the translators and other locals who had assisted them in their efforts while in the country at personal risk to themselves.
"I was working with Senator Lugar and his office as the U.S. was trying to establish translator visas, special immigrant visas for interpreters who had worked in Iraq and Afghanistan for U.S. forces," says Harrison.
Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) worked together on bipartisan legislation to grant more special immigrant visas (SIVs) to Iraqi and Afghan nationals who worked as translators for the U.S. in 2003 and later. The original number of accepted applications was 50 but the Lugar-Kennedy legislation increased that number to 500 from 2007 to 2009. The SIVs applied to the translators, spouses and any children 21 years of age and younger.
It took six years from the time Shihab applied for the visas to the time the family was accepted. With Harrison as Shihab's sponsor, the family established residency in Indianapolis.
However the visas were only granted for Shihab, his wife, Saad and his twin, Shahad. Saad's two older sisters, Rand and Ban, had aged out of the program. But with the assistance of Catholic Charities and Exodus Refugee Immigration, the older sisters were able to travel to the U.S. and reunite with the family within a year.
Once in America, Saad was able to learn English at 21 years of age. His father fell back on his own engineering graduate degree and found employment with Foxconn, a Taiwanese electronics company with holdings in Indianapolis. After a while, Saad joined his father at Foxconn.*
"His father got him that job and he flourished, he blossomed into this wonderful, responsible, intelligent young man," says Harrison.
However those happy days were short-lived.
After just a few years of gainful employment, Saad's health declined and he went into renal failure. His American Dream hit a wall, identified as kidney disease. Saad says he believes the condition is hereditary because his sister Rand suffered from the same thing and has since had a kidney transplant. Saad, his sister and his mother are all on disability, receiving Social Security benefits. Although it's hard to imagine when face-to-face with Saad's warm brown eyes and genuinely happy smile, the initial diagnosis sent the young man into a dark lonely place.
Harrison remembers that time and the struggle Saad had with his condition.
"I travel a lot for my work and when I got back into town I found out that he had been hospitalized in renal failure and his sister called and said Saad's refusing to take dialysis," says Harrison. "He lost that job and he got very dark and he went into a very dark place, got very despondent. And he was really down for a long time."
Saad doesn't talk about the specifics of that time, except for the multiple surgeries and procedures he endured to prepare his body for dialysis. But Todd, as a mentor and close family friend, recognized the battle Saad was fighting inside.
"I spent three days in the hospital day and night with him, and finally got him to do dialysis. I got him to realize that this wasn't the end of his life, he could still have a life," says Harrison. "He thought this was an older person's disease, but he started to meet other young people and realized you can have a life and still be on dialysis. He pulled himself out of it. It was all him, but it was a very dark period."
Another turning point again came from dad, who gave his son a new focus, a new goal and a new reason to live.
"His dad got him studying for the citizenship exam. He said, 'You need to know this, you need to become an American," recalls Harrison. "'You will get your kidney transplant and you need to be ready so that you can work again and you can have your own family.' And that kind of got him out of that deep despair."
"I studied the book of the history of America and I know now all the history of my dream home country, America," says Saad gleefully.
He took the Oath of Allegiance to become a naturalized citizen October 29, 2015.
Almost immediately after becoming a new citizen, Saad registered to vote and got involved in the American political process by joining the Indiana Democratic Party as a volunteer. Now, when he's not in dialysis, you can usually find Saad making phone calls on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign or supporting other Democratic candidates, like gubernatorial nominee John Gregg, state legislature candidate Dana Black and many others. Saad has made over 10,273 phone calls on behalf of the Clinton campaign and continues to speak to voters. He was able to meet the Clinton family during their various individual campaign stops in Indianapolis before the May primary.
There's no question who Saad will vote for when given the opportunity for the first time come November.
"Trump said America is not great, but I refuse what he says," Saad says with conviction. "America is already great. Go to Iraq, go to South Africa, go to Somalia, go to Syria. And he says America isn't great. What are you talking about, man? Really?"
Saad recognizes the gift of freedom Americans have in being able to actively choose the nation's leader and speak out against the politicians they disagree with. Saad recalls when his father was removed from his engineering job because a distant cousin said something in opposition to Saddam Hussein's regime.
"Every two weeks, Iraqi CIA comes for my father," Saad remembers. "And when he went to the building, sitting three hours, four hours; no one is talking to him. They show to him how they kill the people in front of his eye. And they didn't look to the people they killed; they looked to him [Shihab] and how he feels. [If] he [showed] compassion, they would have killed him the same as they killed those people. That's what my father faced. He faced the dictator."
Saad knows in his heart that Trump or anyone else who questions America's greatness wouldn't last a month in the conditions he grew up in.
Harrison has noticed the new light in Saad and takes great pride in his "2.0" version.
"The last time he came out to the house, we had a get-together over the summer, [Saad] was a different person — in a good way," says Harrison. "While before he grew up and he was a man, he was still somewhat introverted. But that experience in living the American Dream and being able to take part in the political process freely, he was shaking people's hands, he was introducing himself, he was just ... I couldn't be more proud of him."
The awe and admiration Harrison has for his adopted family is evident in the emotion of his voice describing Saad's growth into his own man in America.
And Saad himself takes nothing for granted, including his patriotism and his own awe for the country he now claims as his own. It's what keeps him motivated to get well and to live.
"When I sit for dialysis, I am thinking of all the good I have in my life," says Saad. " I'm there for three hours, so I think about volunteering at headquarters and I think about my friends and the family I have here."
Saad is Muslim by faith, and recognizes the peace in all religions including his own. The volunteers hail from all socioeconomic backgrounds, races and religions. (Two friends he has made at headquarters and refers to as additional "mom" figures are Jewish.)
Saad is still on dialysis and still in need of a kidney, but he does not let that or anything else stand in his way.
"I never forget of what I have done in my life and thank God that I'm here in my dream home, America," says Saad. "And as I say always, every day is good day for me because I'm American citizen."*This story has been updated. Saad did not graduate from Ivy Tech Community College as previously reported.
Saad's father, Shihab, did not have an easy time in Iraq in the Saddam Hussein regime. According to Saad, his father was removed from his job as a power plant manager, but Hussein's Baath Party subjected him to horrible abuses, both mental and physical. Throughout the dark days, he still had an admiration for America and a desire to come here that stemmed from his childhood.
Shihab didn't speak to NUVO directly about his experience, wanting instead to highlight his son's story. But Todd Harrison, as Shihab's close friend and American confidant, shed some light on Shihab and his desire to come to the United States and willingness to help Americans.
"I talked to Shihab about that many times even while we were still in Baghdad."
Harrison says Shihab had a childhood friend who was able to migrate to America as a young man while he could not get permission from his parents to leave Iraq.
"So he ended up joining the Air Force and was trained as an electrical engineer by the Russians in Ukraine in Kiev where he got his master's degree in electrical engineering," says Harrison. "He came back [to Iraq] and stayed there, but always harbored a hope of being able to rejoin his best friend in America and just never was able to do that."
His dream of joining his childhood friend, who settled in Michigan, kept him going and inspired his decision to assist coalition forces in 2003.
"He was constantly curious and asking questions about America. And the one thing that we used to do routinely was raise and lower American flags, U.S. flags, to send home to people," explained Harrison. "And he asked me one day, 'Why is your flag so important to you? Nobody cares about our flag.' He said nobody cares about the country, everyone just cares about himself or herself. I said, 'Shihab, our country is made up of people from all over the world.' I said it is the ultimate melting pot and that flag is what unites us, people from everywhere, and it's the thing that we go back to as a symbol of our freedom.
"And the first thing he did when he got here — Exodus Refugee Immigration provided him with an apartment — was take the flag that I had given him when we left and hung it on the family room wall. He has just had this desire. They are the poster family for the American Dream. It's there for the taking and people have no excuse not to realize it whether you are born here or born somewhere else."
Becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen is not an easy process. First, a person must determine if they are even eligible to begin that process. Eligible persons must:
• Be at least 18 years of age
• Have Permanent Resident status for a minimum of five years
• Not have been out of the U.S. for more than 30 months within a five-year period
• Have residency in the state of application for at least three months
• Read, write and understand English.
Once those criteria are met, the eligible citizen candidate must submit to an interview, which includes a conversation about the candidate's background and application, a demonstration of proficiency in speaking, reading and writing English and a naturalization civics test, which covers important U.S. history and government topics.
Once all of that is approved, candidates for citizenship must take the Oath of Allegiance in a ceremony before a judge. A certificate of naturalization is only issued after the Oath of Allegiance is taken and the permanent resident card is relinquished back to government officials.