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Iraqi-Americans Reveal Hidden Conflict of US War—’Suppressed My Identity’

“I was embarrassed by my last name, and embarrassed of my Arab heritage,” 26-year-old Minnesotan Leila Hussain recalled.

Born to a Muslim Iraqi father, Hussain grew up in the north midwestern state at war with her own identity, she told Newsweek.

“The two different aspects of my identity really conflicted when I was younger,” she recalled. “I couldn’t reconcile it or make sense of it.”

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war, dredging up memories from decades ago for many of those who remember US troops entering the country in 2003.

President George W. Bush told the American people on March 19, 2003, that US soldiers were in “the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to ​​free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.”

Bush told the US military personnel heading for the Middle East that “the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you.”

Two decades on, the cost of the controversial war has proved high. The conflict, which officially ended in 2011, has claimed the lives of more than 4,400 US troops and around 300,000 Iraqi civilians, according to Brown University estimates.

Death toll figures vary, but figures released by Statista show that 2006 was the deadliest year of conflict for Iraqi civilians.

Yet the war has also presented unique personal challenges for those civilians who lived through the war. Many have close ties to the US, complicating the identity journeys many Iraqi-Americans have embarked on through the decades.

“I suppressed that piece of my identity when I was young,” Hussain said. She even attempted to change her name to try and “make sense” of being at once American and also Iraqi in a post-9/11 world.

Shaymaa Khalil is now 37 years old but was living in Baghdad when US forces entered the city. Still a teenager at the time, she remembers seeing fear and sorrow fill her family’s eyes. The entire family left their inner city apartment on that first night, heading out for open space as they waited to see what the next few hours would hold. The world felt as if it were “collapsing on my head,” she told Newsweek.

Just weeks after Bush’s announcement, US forces were among those who claimed control over Baghdad in April 2003, topping a statue of the country’s leader Saddam Hussein in the capital.

Khalil’s family couldn’t go to work, and living in close proximity to government-held buildings in early 2003 left the family nervous at the prospect of becoming collateral damage in the hunt to tear down Hussein’s regime.

Khalil left Iraq in March 2019 after studying translation and interpreting and has settled with her family stateside. Moving with her husband and children, they eventually landed in the US as the place to build a “stable foundation” for their new lives, and she now works for the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project.

But a feeling of “anxiety” lingers, rooted in her arriving in the same country that invaded her homeland, she said. Iraq now is a country “forcibly” reshaped by US military involvement, and “everything changed” from 2003.

Yet these feelings of conflict are directed towards policymakers, not US citizens or war veterans, Hussain and Khalil said. The foreign policy is separate from how many Iraqis see the people of the US, and vice-versa, they added.

The same sentiment is described by Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, who moved to the US in 2013 after staying put in Iraq for years after the war began.

Celebrating his ten-year anniversary of living in the US, “my experience with the people here has been very positive,” he told Newsweek. Curiosity about his life in Iraq is a common response, he said, and he has grown to feel simultaneously American and Iraqi.

“When I travel overseas, I think of my home as America, not Iraq,” he said.

“Home is where I can fulfill my dreams and follow my opportunities, and America was able to provide me with this,” he reflected. “I’m an American with an Iraqi background.”

The US is where the opportunities lay for Al Mutar, and you don’t have to “pick and choose” between co-existing identities, he said. This is also what Hussain came to feel once she became an adult and headed off to college, she said. The source of “inner conflict” slowly became a part of her identity she felt “pride” for, rather than shame, she said.

“I was embarrassed by my last name, and embarrassed of my Arab heritage,” 26-year-old Minnesotan Leila Hussain recalled.

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