Connie Shoemaker has experienced more than half her life in an international setting. Her interest in Muslim women began with four years at American University in Cairo, Egypt, where her husband initiated a graduate communications program and she combined raising three children with teaching English, writing for Associated Press and other newspapers, and publishing a book of poetry. She continues that interest as co-founder and director emerita of Spring International Language Center and board member of Immigrant Pathways Colorado. She has paired her passion for the Muslim world with her commitment to the value of writing life stories.
The following is an excerpt from “Taste the Sweetness Later: Two Muslim Women in America.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Book Award winner for General Nonfiction
Informed by more than 200 hours of personal interviews, the author shares the stories of two women living in the grip of murderous dictators. Nisren, a Kurdish Iraqi whose childhood is plagued by Saddam Hussein’s “eyes that are watching,” marries an interpreter for the U.S. Army. She escapes to America with her family after anti-U.S. factions threaten to kill her husband. Eman, a Libyan growing up in the shadow of madman Muammar Gaddafi, persists in her dream of higher education by fighting for a scholarship that will take her from her sheepherding family of 22 siblings to graduate study in the United States.
Excerpt: Nisren describes the assassination of her husband’s twin brother Saad, who was also an interpreter for the U.S. Army.
Transportation was important for interpreters in order for them to quickly move around the city as needed. Raad used a motorcycle, so he could maneuver the narrow Baghdad streets at high speeds and with less visibility. His brother chose to drive a car to accomplish his duties. The twins were different in their attitudes toward danger. Raad was cautious and aware of his surroundings. Saad was more naïve and didn’t think anyone was watching him. He didn’t listen to his brother who frequently warned him to be alert and always look behind him. “You can’t relax for even a minute,” Raad advised him.
In his third year of work, Raad was in a meeting with U.S. Army officers when he started to feel sick to his stomach. He left the meeting to go to the bathroom.
“I felt something was wrong. Something had happened,” he told Nisren. What he didn’t know until several hours later was that his brother had been killed at the exact time that he had felt ill and left the meeting.
Nisren tells me that Saad, driving on a main street, had been followed by al-Sadr’s men in two cars. They planned to kidnap him to get information about U.S. actions in the area. Saad saw the cars behind him and sped up to get away from them. He couldn’t maneuver around a concrete barrier, so he hit it head on and rolled the car.
When his pursuers saw the accident, they changed their minds about kidnapping. Instead, they wanted to be sure he was dead. As Saad tried to get out of the car, he was shot. When Raad and Nisren saw photos of the accident, they saw that the car was riddled with bullets. The government performed an autopsy on the body to determine how Saad died. “Multiple gunshot wounds” was listed as the cause of death.
Raad didn’t sleep for a week after Saad’s death. “It was the first time I had seen him cry,” Nisren says. “Saad was also like a brother to me. He stayed with me in the hospital when Noor was born and brought me ice cream as a treat. His wife had children at almost the same times as I had Noor and Mohammed.”
After Saad’s death, Nisren and her father begged Raad to stop working with the U.S. Army. He quit for two months and then went out again. Nisren said, “I cried so much about the danger he faced every day.”
In December 2006, three years after the U.S. invasion and Raad’s decision to be an interpreter, Saddam Hussein was judged by an Iraqi Criminal Justice Tribunal and found guilty for crimes against humanity. He was hanged. .
In 2007, thousands more U.S. troops were dispatched to shore up security in Baghdad. Considered the deadliest year of the invasion, 2007 statistics recorded 26,000 civilian deaths and 904 U.S. soldiers killed in violence, according to Statista: The Statistics Portal. At the same time, the National Defense Authorization Act authorized the issuance of up to 50 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) annually to Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters working for the U.S. military.
The number was expanded to 500 annually for 2007 and 2008. Spouses, as well as unmarried children younger than 21, were granted SIVs and could travel with the interpreter or could follow to join him or her after they had been admitted to the United States.
Raad saw other interpreters applying for SIVs that would allow them to go to new lives in the United States with the status of legal permanent resident or “green card holder.” He decided to begin the process of application before telling Nisren and the children. He finished the paperwork and requested letters of recommendation from his commanders, even receiving one from General David Petraeus, then the commanding general in Iraq. It took him six months to finally decide to activate his application.
“I hoped that things would change, and I could continue working with the U.S. military, but it was just too dangerous for my family,” he said. Taking his family thousands of miles across the world from Baghdad was the biggest decision he would ever make.
However, with hopes for a better future for his family, he submitted his application for an SIV. The final step was finding a sponsor in the U.S. who would help him to settle in a specific city, a seemingly impossible task for someone without American connections.
On several of his early deployments to Iraq, U.S. Army Colonel Joe Rice had met Raad. When he ran into him at a meeting, the Colonel expressed surprise that “Tom,” as he called him, had not joined other interpreters who were getting visas to re-locate to the US.
“Why are you still here after all these years?” Rice asked him.
“I’ve done all the paperwork, but I don’t have a sponsor yet.”
“That’s not a problem. I’d be happy to sponsor you,” Rice offered.
He knew Raad had served well in his job as an interpreter and recognized the imminent danger that he and his family faced. He also recognized Raad’s dedication to progress in Iraq, his good character, and his ability to face new situations, all traits that would aid his adjustment to life in another country. Colonel Rice was generous in his offer and subsequently served as a sponsor for several other Iraqis.
A firm handshake between the two men confirmed this momentous turning point in the family’s lives.
“How would you like to take your family to Colorado?” Rice asked.
Raad had never heard of Colorado, but he was relieved and eager to go anywhere that would provide safety and hope. Because Colonel Rice was still on active duty, he told Raad he would arrange for contacts in Littleton, Colorado, to assist him when he and his family arrived.
Now Raad could tell Nisren about the prospect of going to America, but what would she think about leaving Baghdad, the only home she had ever known? Could she thrive without the support and love of her family?
Excerpt: Eman on the first day of the Libyan revolution against Qaddafi
The smell of lamb, mint, dill, and parsley still lingered in the kitchen of their new house in Al Khadra village. It was almost 8 p.m. on February 22, 2011. Twenty-eight-year old Eman and her husband’s niece, Susu, had finished washing the dishes after cooking a hasty meal of soup.
Susu had done most of the preparation because the odor of cooking food still nauseated Eman, who was four months pregnant. Meal preparation had become a hurried task because electricity was sporadic and cooking gas was in short supply since the first major protests and violence had begun in Benghazi a week before.
Inspired by Arab Spring revolts in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, hundreds of Libyans had gathered outside a Benghazi police station waving signs and shouting “Down with Qaddafi!” and “Release the prisoners!” The revolt quickly spread to Tripoli, just 60 miles west of Tarhuna.
Sami was sitting on a cushion in the living room of their new house, fingering his prayer beads as he stared at the flickering light on a large TV screen accompanied by the half-tones of Arabic music. He had heard that Supreme Leader Qaddafi was going to give an important TV speech to the Libyan nation that night.
“Maybe we’ll learn what’s really happening,” he thought to himself. Like a fulfilled promise, the TV screen was suddenly focused on the green Libyan flag and the music changed to the marching sounds of the national anthem. Eman and Susu hurried into the living room and settled onto cushions next to Sami. Eman placed her hands on her belly to comfort and protect the baby boy inside her.
Suddenly, Qaddafi’s Botox-puffed face under a shock of curly, dyed black hair jumped onto the screen with a blast of words and full volume.
“Who are you? Who are you?” he shouted. “You are the drug-takers, jihadis, and rats,” he ranted, threatening the demonstrators in the streets. In the background, a crowd of supporters jumped up and down waving green flags in response to his invective.
“You people taking helluwassa drugs have been made crazy!”
Slamming his fist on the podium, he shouted, “Zenga! Zenga! We will cleanse Libya inch by inch, alleyway by alleyway, person by person, street by street, house by house!”
Eman shivered and pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders and over her belly. Sami leaned forward, his nose almost touching the TV screen, as if his eyes could pierce through Qaddafi and learn the truth of what was taking place in his country.
“Not knowing what to believe was the worst thing,” Eman said. “The military leaders were telling made-up stories about who we were fighting. Qaddafi wanted us to believe it was people on drugs who were raping and looting.
When he said, ‘Let’s go to this city or that place where the opposition is taking young girls,’ it was a way of recruiting more fighters.”