Iraqi Refugee Pours Life as an American Citizen into Writings

Iraqi Refugee Pours Life as an American Citizen into Writings
Posted on 04/14/2016
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Ahmed Badr
Dobie High School senior Ahmed Badr uses his story to bring positive change to the community and change the narrative about middle easterners in America. He's come a long way since fleeing Iraq.
 ~ Photo by Gani Naylor

 Ahmed Badr
Ahmed channels his experience through his writings.

It’s been 10 years since Dobie High School senior Ahmed Badr’s family fled their home in Baghdad, yet thoughts of his time there continue to echo in his mind.

He keeps these memories close as a stark reminder of where he came from and how far he and his family have come as Iraqi refugees now living the American dream.

Badr poured recollections into his soon-to-be published memoir “The Residual.” The book has been divided into three parts – Iraq, Syria and America – and mirrors his experience escaping the Iraqi war, fleeing to Syria and finally settling in the United States.

“The reason I want to tell people my story and get this book out is to destroy the stereotypes that accompany middle easterners in America,” Badr said. “I’ve lived in both worlds and I feel like I can help close the cultural gap between the two.”

But the book is only the beginning, he says.

He has established a website, appropriately entitled, “Narratio,” that empowers youth to share their narrative with the world through various forms of artistic expression such as poetry, art, photography and stories. Over 50 writers from around the globe have submitted works online.

Badr is in the process of compiling their submissions into a booklet. He plans to publish the first edition – a 28-page poetry collection – in the summer to share with other American refugees and homeless youth in Houston.

Turning Point

Everything turned to pitch black when militia troops launched a dud missile that tore a hole through his home in Baghdad. Badr spent that night at his grandmother’s house, while his parents and little sister stayed home.

“Every day I ask myself where I would have been if I had not decided to spend the night there.” Badr said.

He returned home the following day to find his kitchen floor replaced with pieces of concrete and a hole in the ceiling of his bathroom where the missile came through. His father and sister were in the kitchen when it happened. His mother was in the bedroom. A few feet closer to where the missile entered his home and it could have killed his family.

They moved to Syria for safety and often returned to Iraq to visit family.

Surviving the devastating attack was only half the battle.

 “My parents had to make a choice between staying in Syria to have safety, be stable and struggle financially, because the Syrian economy was bad at that time, or go back to Iraq and risk safety and be relatively financially stable,” Badr said.

His parents, Maytham Faris and Hanaa Fayyadh and his sister, Maryam, traveled back and forth between Syria and Iraq for a couple of years.

On a return trip to Syria, Maytham learned from a bus driver about a U.N. refugee resettlement program – that relocates refugees to an asylum country. That would give them the peace and stability they had longed for in the land of opportunity.

“My dad didn’t think we had anything to lose,” he said.

 “They [the UN refugee program] said you have four one-way tickets to Sioux Falls in South Dakota,” Badr said. “We took about four plane rides and landed in America at J.F.K. airport in New York on May 19, 2008. That was our first day in America.”

Refugees in America

Grappling with the recession, his family experienced financial woes their first year on U.S. soil, and several years afterward until his freshman year at Dobie.

Out of work and with no extended family or friends to turn to, his family continued drifting from city to city, starting with Sioux Falls, S. D., and then Brookings, S.D. and on to Houston. His parents continued reaching for normalcy for their family. In their 50s, they both went back to school for master’s degrees in engineering, but were out of work for about three years.

They found a new home in the Houston area.

“We came down in a white and black Buick Rendezvous SUV with everything that we owned,” Badr said. “The drive took about 18 hours total. All four of us spent the first month in Houston living in a one-bedroom motel room because we were on Section 8 [government subsidized] housing, and were waiting for our application for housing to transfer.”

Eventually his parents found work as sales associates at Walmart and Home Depot. That one glimmer of hope briefly diminished when Badr’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

But even through their darkest hours, Badr never lost hope for a brighter future.

“I think back on those times when my parents were unemployed from 2009-2013, and I think we had every reason to feel sad and feel like the world was against us, but now that I think about it – those were some of the best times of my life,” Badr said.

As he reflected on those memories dating back to the Iraqi war, he recalled a quote from the opening of “A Tale of Two Cities that summarized his experience perfectly.

“’It was the best of times. It was the worst of times,’” he said. “Due to the fact that we were so close and united in our struggle, my sister and I never truly felt how hard it was because my parents gave us a bubble to live through it and exist as children. I think those were some of the most engaging times.”

After rigorously searching for work for four years, his parents found jobs in their respective fields as civil engineers at the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality.

“I’ve read somewhere that the longer you wait for something, the more you appreciate it,” Badr said. “At that moment, everything came together.”

By the beginning of his junior year at Dobie, his mother was in remission and both parents had begun reconstructing new lives, with family and school at its core.

He uses his experiences as inspiration for his work in the classroom and his websites.

Global Change Maker

 Ahmed Badr
Ahmed showcases his photography talent. While attending the Summit conference, he participated in a photography competition. This photo was the winning piece. ~ Photo by Ahmed Badr

At the end of his sophomore year, Badr was invited to attend a prestigious journalism conference at George Mason University in Washington, D.C.

“This was where I learned how to tell my story regarding the struggles and the triumphs,” Badr said.

He was among the top echelon of news personalities, including Hoda Kotb from the “Today Show,” and Candy Crowley of CNN. As part of their learning experience, the students were required to create a blog or a website that could serve as a platform for storytelling. And was born.

“I put all of my photography, my poetry, my stories and my essays into the site,” Badr said. “That’s when I realized I love putting stuff out there into the world for people to notice and enjoy.”

He and a friend from his debate class created the website and it took off. Always searching for ways to make a difference, he decided he wanted to do more and reach more individuals so he founded, “an organization that provides a platform for youth to share their creative work with the world,” he said.

“With Narratio, we wanted to broaden the definition of storytelling,” Badr said.

In January, Badr was among only 30 teenagers across the globe chosen as a Global Teen Leader for starting Narratio. The We Are Family Foundation selects teens who are part of a project or an initiative that is making a difference in their communities. He was nominated for the program by Leslie Dwyer, a renowned associate professor at the George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

“At that point, it was almost validation for everything that Narratio was doing,” Badr said.

As a Global Teen, Badr had the opportunity in March to spend a week at the Just Peace Summit in New York. He participated in different workshops daily and met numerous industry leaders and entertainers including Teun Voeten, a world renowned photographer who has captured many wars and conflicts in various countries. Voeten will serve as Badr’s mentor, helping him achieve his dreams of being published.

“The idea behind the Summit is to take youth who are making a difference from all over the world and give them the tools to amplify their voices,” Badr said.

When he is not writing, he is keeping up with his studies and enjoys cycling. He takes Advanced Placement classes and participates in Academic Decathlon and debate. He has already received college acceptance letters from Wesleyan University, the University of Texas at Austin’s plan II honors program, and George Washington University.

Looking toward the future, he plans to continue making a difference after receiving his doctorate degree in international relations. His ultimate dream is to work at the United Nations and become an ambassador or “work in a field that has to do with human connection across different cultures.”

His experience has taught him a valuable lesson about life. “The more you wait, the more you appreciate what you get,” he said. But it’s the lessons from his experiences abroad and at the Summit that have propelled him to continue his art as a storyteller.

“It’s very helpful for me to get my message across and express myself, Badr said. “Writing has presented so many opportunities for me and opened up so many doors.”

Ahmed Badr
Ahmed learns about how to share his story at the Just Peace Summit. ~ Photo by Jerm Cohen

Ahmed Badr
He met with various industry leaders at the Summit who talked to Ahmed about creating and branding his message. ~ Photo by Jerm Cohen

Ahmed Badr
As Ahmed begins preparing for college, he reflected on all his experiences, from fleeing Iraq to moving to Houston. He said, "I'm really happy because we've come so far," Badr said. "I'm more appreciative than ever and I don't think it will ever stop." ~ Photo by Jerm Cohen