Emad Hussain survived a gunshot, escaped Iraq and wishes the U.S. would stay in the country
President Barack Obama announced last Friday that the vast majority of U.S. troops -- about 39,000 of them -- would be out of Iraq by December 31. But not everyone is happy about the imminent end of the ten-year-involvement, including Emad Hussain, a former member of the Iraqi Olympics Committee, who survived an insurgent attack and eventually found safety in Denver. "We will make a crime if we leave Iraq," he says.
In his view, "we'll just lose all our achievements that we have in Iraq." He adds, "Iraq is not ready. We're just giving control to Iran." He's concerned that Iran, Iraq's predominantly Shia-Muslim neighbor, will move in after the U.S. pullout creates a vacuum of power. While approximately 60 percent to 65 percent of Iraq is Shia, a large minority (32 percent to 37 percent) is Sunni according to the CIA World Factbook.
Hussain with Lois and Ray Nelson and other immigrants the couple helps.
Hussain, who left his native country in 2007, says that the Iraqis are still not ready to run their own democracy. The fact that the civil structures in Iraq -- including schools, electricity and hospitals -- are in disrepair because of continuous fighting doesn't help to get people focused on the minutia of nation-building. Still, he thinks Iraq has been making progress. "Democracy is not something that takes a few weeks," he notes. "It takes practice... The army should stay there to correct and support the democracy there."
In 2006, Hussain was working as the press secretary for Iraq's Olympic Committee (he also played with Iraq's national ping-pong team, though he never appeared in the Olympics) when the office was ambushed. Many committee officials were killed or taken away, including the president -- who has never been heard from again. Hussain was shot in the leg but not kidnapped, because, he thinks, after a stint visiting the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, his clothes were more casual than those of his co-workers. He looked like a janitor, not an executive, he says; he thinks dressing like an American saved his life.
Sports brought the Iraqi people together, Hussain explains, and the insurgents wanted to prevent that from happening: It would suggest that the Americans were justified in invading.
Emad Hussain (second man in a suit from left) with the Iraqi national soccer team at the Asian games in 2006.
Denver Outlaws / Major League Lacrosse All Star Game
TicketsSat., Dec. 29, 6:00pm
After running from safehouse to safehouse in Iraq for a year, Hussain was able to get a visitor's visa to the U.S. through his contacts in Colorado Springs. He lived in that city for a few months before he was approved for political asylum.
Soon however, he was transferred to Denver, because there were services here for immigrants, including English classes and lawyers who would be willing to take his case pro bono. There was also Lois Nelson.
"He and I had an instant affinity for each other," Nelson says. "From then on, virtually every night, he'd take a bus from his apartment to the bus stop near our apartment, and my husband would pick him up and we'd have dinner together. The second night he was with us, he asked if he could call me 'Mom.'"
Nelson had found out about Hussain through the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center, a now defunct nonprofit that helped asylum seekers and grantees in the area. All she knew was that he was a "high-profile case" from Iraq. She and her husband, Ray, are retired and both of their children have moved away; Hussain easily fell into the son role.
He goes with them to a Methodist Church. While he's still a Muslim, he doesn't want to join a mosque. "He'll get things for them [other Iraqi refugees], but he never gets close to them," Nelson says. "It's not a fear, it's just a preference. He strongly identifies with the United States."
"It is fresh air from what we had in Iraq," Hussain says. "There's a feeling of love," especially now that his wife and son have joined him. It took two years to get them out of Iraq, during which they moved from safehouse to safehouse, but that's still relatively quick for the American asylum process.
Hussain has an Iraqi masters' degree in electronic engineering, but employers in this country don't recognize that. He currently works as a parking-lot manager and janitor at the Denver Athletic Club; he was recently certified to work as a masseuse there as well. Hussain speaks proudly of that certification, and also the fact that when the DAC maintenance guys are unavailable, he can fix exercise machines because of his engineering background.
In Iraq, he also worked as a journalist for a time, but his English isn't good enough for him to pursue that career here. "With all his education -- and his education is quite broad -- it was not at all beneath him to go to the Denver Athletic Club," Lois Nelson says. "He's extremely happy to be employed."
Hussain still walks with a limp as a result of his bullet wound, but he's okay with that, too. He's happier now than he ever was in Iraq. "Nobody knew who I am" when he first arrived in this country, he says. "But they support me."
More from our Immigration archive: "ACLU urges schools to adopt policy banning school police officers from working with ICE."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.