From Iraq and back

Omar Fekeiki's work with the Washington Post in his native country brought him death threats and a rare ticket to UC Berkeley. So why does he want to return?
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amanda@sfbg.com

Omar Fekeiki sits alertly at a café table on the terrace of International House, his dorm at UC Berkeley. His straight posture belies his relative ease. It's the only sign that he may not be entirely at home.

Like any other 28-year-old graduate student, he's wearing jeans — not the pressed slacks necessary for a meeting with Iraqi officials. His hands are resting on his knees, rather than poised with a pen and a reporter's notepad, scribbling Arabic words from an informed source. His smooth, tan face, with just a hint of unshorn shadow, is turned up toward a mild afternoon sun, not away from the heat of a Baghdad noon. The dark stubble on his head is no longer covered by a helmet. His slim chest is free to breathe without the pressure of a flak jacket. His heart may or may not be racing, but it's definitely beating.

It's difficult to believe that the quiet cell phone on the table in front of him once rang regularly with field reports of car bombings, kidnappings, and execution-style shootings. It's unsettling to think it could ring now, that something irrevocable could be happening at home, 7,500 miles away, as he sits in this idle sunshine.

What does Fekeiki find unbelievable? That he's in the United States, that he's finally on his way toward a real life, studying journalism at one of the best universities in the world.

"It was not even a dream," he told the Guardian with the careful pronunciation that can sound like a proclamation often heard in the voices of nonnative English speakers. "It's something beyond a dream. It was such an impossible thing to do. Now I flash back memories of when I spent hours on the phone with my best friend. We would say, 'Could you imagine if we could go to the States and find work and live there?' I always think about this and say, 'Wow, I'm lucky.' "

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at least 3.9 million Iraqis have fled their homes since the US invasion. Half are displaced within their country, and the other two million have crossed borders, with 700,000 in nearby Jordan, 100,000 in Egypt, and 60,000 finding a sort of solace in Sweden.

By contrast, in four years only 692 Iraqis have been resettled in the United States. Despite the danger at home and a flood of applications, the State Department routinely denies Iraqi visa applications, apparently believing Iraqis need to stay home to rebuild their tattered country. Of the record 591,000 student visas given last year, only 112 went to Iraqis, an increase from 46 in 2005.

"I waited months," said Fekeiki, who thinks his affiliation as a special correspondent with the Washington Post is what got him the necessary piece of paper in the nick of time.

But his status here is temporary, and even though a civil war rages in the streets of his hometown and no US, UN, or Iraqi politician has yet to forcefully present a viable solution to the quagmire, he has no plans to apply for citizenship.

"Every Iraqi I know in the States now doesn't want to go back. I don't blame them," he said. But staying here is not for him. And that's the other unbelievable thing about Fekeiki: he can't wait to return to Baghdad.

"I belong in Iraq."

FINDING HIS POST

Fekeiki says he's always been lucky, and April 2003 was no exception. The day after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, Fekeiki was hoping to track down a BBC reporter at the Palestine Hotel who might lend him a phone to make a "we're alive" call to his uncle in London. He noticed a Washington Post reporter struggling to interview a civilian and stopped to lend a hand. The reporter was impressed with Fekeiki's translation and suggested he go to the paper's offices and see about a job.

He did and was temporarily hired by bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran, but after a week he was let go.