One Man's Narrow Escape 

Refugee services worker and Kuwaiti émigré Ali Mahmoud knows firsthand what it’s like to flee war and bloodshed

Refugee services worker and Kuwaiti émigré Ali Mahmoud knows firsthand what it’s like to flee war and bloodshed

Nation of Immigrants, City of Immigrants

A continuing look at the changing face of Nashville

Change is an inevitable consequence of life, and Ali Mahmoud, a case manager with Metro’s Refugee Services Program, spends long hours at his desk helping those who have survived the worst kinds of change. Each day a parade of victims of persecution is ushered into the tiny cubicle he occupies in the basement of the Howard School Building on Second Avenue. There, among the poetry and philosophical phrases pasted to the walls in Arabic, and below a print of his favorite American painter, Norman Rockwell, he relives their terror forged by war and aggression.

“I work with Iraqis, Kurds, Somalis, Sudanese, Bosnians, and other nationalities,” Mahmoud says. “Working with refugees is not an easy job, but it is a fruitful one. When I see a smile on a refugee’s face after I help to find him a job and he gets the first paycheck, it makes me happy. A refugee’s world is a world of sad stories and memories of the beautiful past spent with families, friends, homeland, belongings, and job.”

Anyone who drives the streets of Nashville’s working-class neighborhoods can’t help but notice the number of ethnic businesses that have sprung up in the past 10 years—only one sign of our city’s growing immigrant population. Like our own ancestors, who first crossed the ocean in search of a better life, some of these new pilgrims risk everything for a chance at freedom and prosperity, for a chance to live and die in the U.S.A. No exact figure exists for the number of immigrants living in Nashville; Metropolitan Social Services’ best estimate is somewhere around 100,000 people, and that figure continues to rise rapidly. Of those, a few thousand are considered refugees.

Mahmoud points out that refugees are often victimized twice over: First, they’ve been forced to flee horrifying events in their own countries; then, once they arrive here, they’re hampered by the false perception among Americans that immigrants are a drain on the system. Mahmoud says this couldn’t be more untrue. Citing a 1997 study on immigration conducted by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences—the largest, most comprehensive such study ever undertaken—he explains, “The typical immigrant will pay $80,000 more in taxes than he will receive in benefits from local, state, and federal agencies over his lifetime.”

Mahmoud, who is 55, came to America as a political refugee himself. Each day, as he sits in his office listening to tales of escape and survival, his own story serves as a constant companion; like the current of a shallow stream, it’s never very far from the surface.

For nearly 20 years, Mahmoud traveled the world serving as a culture attaché for Kuwait; he was both advocate and protector of this tiny Middle Eastern country’s culture and identity—what he calls “a very lovely job.” He took the calls of ambassadors and heads of state. He answered directly to the prime minister, and his friends were the country’s finest authors, painters, poets, singers, and actors.

As the whole world now knows, all that changed on Aug. 2, 1990. That day, Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, along with 120,000 other Iraqi soldiers, rolled across the desert and plowed under a much smaller, less equipped Kuwaiti force of 20,000 men. Within 24 hours, Saddam owned the tiny country. That’s when Mahmoud’s nightmare began. “I was in shock. I had no idea that Iraq was going to invade,” he says. “We were friends. We were brothers.”

To understand what refugees go through—to fully comprehend what the United States means to people like Ali Mahmoud—is impossible for most Americans. Most of us don’t lose everything we’ve ever known: our careers, personal possessions, families, and friends.

But then, prior to the Gulf War, Ali never could have imagined such a thing either. His own tale begins along the banks of the ancient Tigris River, which flows through Baghdad, the city of his birth. From his father’s side, Ali inherited the Shia Muslim religion. He can trace his ancestry and the roots of his faith back through 43 generations and more than 1,000 years to the prophet Muhammad. Even now, newly arrived Iraqi refugees bow to kiss his hand out of respect.

Ali’s father wasn’t a devoutly religious man. By Arab standards, he was the embodiment of a free spirit, maybe even the black sheep of his family. Ali’s mother was another matter; open and tolerant, she came from a family that valued culture and education. In a region where religion can border on the fanatical, she would have none of it, and she passed on her openness to Ali.

By the time Ali graduated from Baghdad University in 1968 with a literature degree, he knew his future career lay somewhere in the world of culture, books, and knowledge. He married Ibtisam, an educated Iraqi from a respected family of doctors, merchants, and hotel owners, and decided to relocate to Kuwait. During these years, the two countries were closely allied; many of Kuwait’s first inhabitants had migrated from Iraq, including members of Ali’s own family. Kuwait City in the early 1970s was a boomtown, comparable to the gold towns of the American West in the 1800s, and the small nation surrounding this growing city had risen from an oasis on the Persian Gulf to become a major player in oil production. It was a place for a young man with a new family to make his mark.

For the first few years, Ali taught school and his wife found work as a librarian. In perfect Arabic tradition—which places strong emphasis on male heirs—they had a son, Oday. Three years later, Ibtisam gave birth to twin girls, Noosa and Summer. Within a few years, Ali had attracted the attention of the National Council of Culture Arts, an agency that answered directly to the prime minister. He was offered a temporary job as a researcher that eventually led to the coveted position of culture attaché.

As culture attaché, Ali was responsible for art exchanges and promotion of Kuwaiti artists. He visited cities all over the world—including Nashville, though he never imagined that he’d one day end up here under such different circumstances. “In Kuwait, I would go to work around 8:30 in the morning,” he recalls. “I would read the papers. Then I would meet with an ambassador or an artist. I was always preparing for a trip somewhere, doing the thing I loved. Every day at 4:30, the housemaid would prepare tea. The whole family would be there. Then I would go to the literary community center. We would talk about a new poem, or maybe some other person had written a new book. Then around 9, I would go home and have a Scotch with some dinner. Life was like perfect.”

Even then, though, there were signs of a brewing storm. Saddam Hussein took over Iraq in 1979. Immediately, he started a campaign of discrimination against Shia Muslims to garner support from the much larger population of Sunni Muslims. He confiscated bank accounts and property, forcing the Shia to move to southeastern Iraq. By 1982, thousands had left for Iran and other nearby countries. Some fled to the United States; among those were Ibtisam’s parents, who eventually settled in Nashville.

But Kuwaitis didn’t realize just how much they had to fear from Saddam until 1990. As fate would have it, Ali and his family had just returned from a visit to Nashville when the August invasion took place. “I arrived back in Kuwait the last week of July. If only I would have known that Saddam was going to invade,” he says. “I could have just stayed in the U.S.”

The first day back in his office, Ali started hearing rumors: Saddam, it was being said, insisted that Kuwait owed Iraq $10 billion in lost oil revenue because Kuwait hadn’t fully supported OPEC. Then Kuwait refused to forgive loans it had made to Iraq during that country’s war with Iran. Saddam was furious. Kuwaiti officials thought they could work out a diplomatic solution, but by the time they realized they were in a standoff, it was too late: Saddam wanted it all. Beginning on Aug. 2, Kuwait as an independent country ceased to exist; it became the 19th province of Iraq. Saddam ordered all embassies closed by Aug. 24. “On Aug. 1, I had just returned back from a summer vacation. Back to my sweet home, family, friends, and a smooth, happy life,” Ali says. “On Aug. 2, I was jobless, homeless, and in fear for my life.”

Just a few days before, Ali had made what would turn out to be the first in a number of prescient decisions. “I told Oday, let’s go to the American Embassy and get our visas stamped. Maybe we will need them.”

“The day of the invasion was supposed to be just another day,” Oday remembers. The youth was attending summer school in preparation for his last year in high school. He had asked his father to wake him early that day, but when he opened his eyes and caught the glint of the sun that morning, he knew he’d overslept. He went into the living room, where he found his father pacing and conversing wildly on the phone. As a bomb exploded somewhere in the distance, Oday knew something was very wrong.

Saddam’s propaganda machine started immediately; Iraq claimed that Kuwait was stealing oil by drilling horizontally into its fields. The phone calls to Ali started almost as quickly. Official Iraqi military men told him that his country had been liberated and that they welcomed his support of the new government. For starters, they wanted him to tell where the prime minister and crown prince, Shaykh Saad al Abd Allah as Salim Al Sabah, were hiding. Then they ordered Ali and his son to join Saddam’s army. The choice was simple: Cooperate or suffer the consequences.

“I was torn, ripped apart, split in two,” Ali says. “I am half-Iraqi and half-Kuwaiti. When the bombs fell on either side, I hurt twice.”

Iraqi troops established checkpoints at all major road junctions. Soldiers occupied supermarkets, stealing food at will. Within a week, military trucks stuffed with appliances, automobiles, and all kinds of goods sped through the desert back to Baghdad. By Aug. 11, the borders were sealed off. Ali heard nasty rumors about Iraqi soldiers pulling up to people’s homes, kicking the door in, dragging young men of military age out into the street, and executing them in front of their mothers. There were other rumors as well—unspeakable talk about what Iraqi soldiers were doing to young Kuwaiti women.

Ali was cut off, trapped, frustrated, and under constant pressure to choose sides. Repeatedly, he thought of fleeing to the United States or Europe. He had the visas, but the airport was closed and under guard. Then, in the midst Iraq’s takeover of Kuwait, Saddam ended the war with Iran—a decision that would prove key to the Mahmoud family. All Iranian citizens were given safe passage out of Kuwait, through Iraq, and back to their native land.

Meanwhile, Ali was ordered to report for duty in Saddam’s army. He’d run out of excuses and time. “Either I could help the invaders, join the army, and lose myself,” he says. “Or I could run for it and lose my homeland, family, friends—or worse, the lives of my immediate family.” He was a marked man because of his position in the government. He had no other options.

So when Ali heard from an Iranian neighbor that hundreds of Iranian citizens planned on meeting at a school parking lot and then leaving together, he made an instant decision to go. “It was like, bingo! I have an American visa and a passport,” he says. “I got out of that burning place.”

First, he forged Iranian citizenship documents for each of his family members. Because Iran required all women to wear the traditional hijad, or veil, and Kuwait did not, he used pillowcases to cover the heads of his wife and daughters before taking their pictures. Still, if the documents were scrutinized in the slightest, anyone would be able tell they’d been faked, and it would all be over for them.

Then Ali traded his Mercedes for a beat-up Mazda two-door stick shift registered to an Iranian. Since his bank accounts had been seized, he rounded up all the cash he had, along with all of his wife’s jewelry. He allowed each person in his family to pack one suitcase apiece. He hid his visa, Kuwaiti ID, and newspaper photographs of himself standing next to the prime minister and other government officials in the bottom of his suitcase. They packed what water and food they could, then left behind everything else they had in the hot silence of an August morning.

Ali, Ibtisam, and the children arrived at the school parking lot a few hours before dawn. Cars and trucks of all shapes and sizes were loaded to capacity with looted Kuwaiti goods. The vehicle’s cargo spoke of the occupant’s profession: If the person had been employed in the clothing business, then the automobile was packed with clothes. If he worked in electronics, then he had as many VCRs and stereos as he could carry. At the appointed time, everyone set out, the huge convoy stringing for miles through the desert.

The plan was to head northeast to the Kuwait-Iraq border. Once across, they would go to the Iraqi port of Basrah, then on to the Iranian border, and eventually Tehran. As they left Kuwait City, Ali noticed that almost all the government buildings were shelled, torched, or destroyed; wrecked, smoldering, and shot-up vehicles littered the highways. As the day wore on, the sun became more intense, the temperature topping 120 degrees. They were packed in the tiny car without air conditioning, five people and five suitcases. They rode in silence and were waved through checkpoint after Iraqi checkpoint, their documents hardly glanced at. Ali’s plan so far had worked perfectly—at least until they arrived in Shalamja.

An arid, forbidding no-man’s-land, Shalamja is nothing more than a spot on a map found with a compass and a lot of bad luck. Surrounded by windswept dunes, a lonely one-lane road courses through a narrow pass and serves as the only crossing point for miles into or out of either country. During the Iran-Iraq War, Shalamja served as the backdrop for a number of unspeakable horrors, and because of its location, no one bothered to clean up the destruction, preferring instead to leave it to the magic of time and sand. Graves and bombed-out craters were everywhere; arms attached to half-buried bodies thrust out from the sand; burnt tanks and military equipment littered the area. Everywhere, the place spoke of dirty deeds and death.

Into this place, Ali brought his family. Immediately, the convoy ground to a halt, and all vehicles fell into a single line to traverse the one-lane road. On the other side of this last checkpoint was Iran and—they hoped—freedom, but here the Iraqis scrutinized everyone’s documents.

Ali pulled the Mazda in behind a huge cargo truck as more cars lined up after them. An hour stretched into two, and the line grew from one mile to three, then eight. He wanted to turn around, but there wasn’t enough room. All he and his family could do was bake in the car and contemplate their fate. As they inched closer to the checkpoint, Ali watched the soldiers. All of a sudden, he lost it. “I started to cry,” he says. “I was frightened. I could see my children looking back at me in the rear-view mirror. I wanted to turn around and go back, but I couldn’t.”

The only thing that now lay between them and their demise was the cargo truck. Ali watched as a soldier checked the driver’s documents, then motioned the driver onward. But just as the driver let out the clutch, the truck sputtered and got caught in the sand. He revved the engine and spun the tires furiously, throwing sand high into the air and inching the truck forward. A big cloud of sand engulfed the soldiers, who blindly waved the vehicle through.

At that very moment, Ali “just drove right through the checkpoint,” Oday recalls. “By the time the soldiers noticed, we were already across the border and into Iran.” For the moment, it seemed that the family was safe, but then an Iranian soldier asked for their documents. Thinking quickly, Ali produced their original Kuwaiti papers.

The Iranian officials immediately became suspicious—what was Ali doing in a convoy with their countrymen? “I told them that I was a teacher with heart problems and wanted to go to the U.S. for surgery,” he says. After a lot of discussion, the Iranians took the entire family’s passports and visas. The soldiers thought they could be spies and told Ali that if he checked out, the family could pick up everything at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran. There was nothing to do but continue on.

After a grueling ride, they finally arrived in the capital. Every day for three weeks, Ali went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to retrieve his documents. He also visited the Canadian Embassy to ask for help. There, he produced the newspaper clippings of himself with the Kuwaiti prime minister and other high-level officials. This convinced the Canadian ambassador that Ali and his family were in imminent danger. The ambassador agreed to let him have four tickets that were always reserved on Canadian flights for emergencies.

Ali had five people and only four tickets, he still needed to get his documents back, and there was also the matter of paying for the tickets. After much negotiation in the alleyways of Tehran, he sold most of his wife’s jewelry on the black market. A few days later, his documents were unceremoniously returned. Now they only had to make it through customs at the airport and figure out a way to get an extra plane ticket.

At the airport, they immediately encountered trouble. Although his wife now wore the hijad, her Kuwaiti identification showed her face. The customs official told Ali that Ibtisam wouldn’t be able to leave the country because her face wasn’t covered on the ID. Ali bribed him, and the official colored in Ibtisam’s face with a marker.

But they still had to find another plane ticket on the same flight. Ali solved that problem cleverly: First, he took one of his twin daughters through the line with a boarding pass to the waiting area. Then he went back out, got his other daughter, and brought her through the same line, pretending she was the same girl.

Ali and his family were safely on their way to North America, but in many ways, their difficulties had only just begun. Making a new life would be another challenge they had no way of anticipating.

The first couple of months after they arrived in the States, the Mahmouds stayed with relatives and tried to familiarize themselves with American life. “We arrived in Nashville in September of 1990,” Ali says. “We stayed with my wife’s relatives, who live in a house in Bellevue.” The paperwork alone was endlessly frustrating: There were applications for refugee status, work visas, and permanent residency, plus they had to come up with the documentation required for all of the above.

Then there was the practical everyday stuff most people take for granted. “Where and how would we get jobs to support the family? We had to make money,” Ali says. “How and where would we send the kids to school?” Oday was practically out of high school, and his sisters weren’t too far behind him; would they even be able to consider going to college? How could the family hang onto their culture and still become Americans? How would they make friends?

Once again, the Mahmouds were helped by luck. They were the first family of Kuwaiti refugees to settle in Nashville and possibly the United States. Since America was gearing up for a confrontation with Iraq, the U.S. government was sympathetic to their plight. Ali’s work visa and the family’s refugee status were fast-tracked through the system and approved almost immediately by the Bush White House.

Ali still can’t believe how quickly and easily he got his children into Metro schools—Oday going to Hillwood High and the twins going to Bellevue Middle School. But the children didn’t speak English very well, and they were traumatized. They went about their daily tasks like zombies, and for a while the girls attended therapy sessions at Vanderbilt. “School was not easy,” Ali says. “I spent the first six months translating everything for them. I knew the most important thing was for them to learn the language. Every day, from morning to night, we worked on learning. For the first few weeks, they cried because they didn’t understand what the teachers were saying.”

In the end, though, Ali was the one who had the most difficulties adjusting. Even Ibtisam adapted more quickly than he did; she went to work as a librarian for Vanderbilt and soon took to her job. “For the first two years I was in shock and unbalanced,” Ali says. “What happened? Did I really lose everything? After I realized that I have to start from zero and I need to work, I went to the Chamber of Commerce, but there was no job for me. I went to the Employment Security and registered for job seeker. But who needs a Kuwaiti diplomat?”

After a while, Ali found work delivering Yellow Pages, and he began to buy antiques at garage sales, reselling them to dealers. Together, he and Ibtisam were able to make enough money to rent a small apartment. But after the initial high of liberation had worn off, Ali felt depressed. In Kuwait, he had worked in “exactly the field I was supposed to be in.” Being an intellectual, he knew nothing about working with his hands, nor was he inclined to learn. “I knew I should be grateful, but I still wanted more,” he says.

His heart sank whenever he heard news from home. Even after the war ended, the reports were dismal. Despite being liberated, the Kuwaitis were stunned and wounded. Even worse, there was unexpected animosity between those who’d fled and those who stayed behind and suffered. “They believe they are better because they suffered through the occupation,” Ali says. For the first time, he truly grasped the fact that he had nothing to return to in Kuwait. In Iraq, things were even worse. If he ever set foot in the country, he could and probably would be executed. “So when I remembered what was waiting there, and I was here, I was grateful,” he says.

In America, Ali experienced a freedom unlike any he’d ever had. Even before the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait was in essence a dictatorship, ruled by the crown prince. He wasn’t a bad dictator as far as despots go, but it was common knowledge that no dissenting opinions would be tolerated. Ali had to watch what he said at all times, and his wife often felt intimidated by the men she worked with. “We had to consider every movement we made before,” Ibtisam recalls.

But no matter how wonderful it felt to be in the United States, Ali still had to find meaningful work. In 1992, he found it. He received a phone call from Catholic Charities; the refugee resettlement group needed volunteers to help Iraqi refugees coming to Nashville after the Gulf War. He was delighted to help, because he understood firsthand what these people had been through. Then another refugee agency, World Relief, came knocking; then another, and before long Ali was helping all of them. Finally, when Metro Social Services announced it was looking to hire an Arabic interpreter, Ali applied for and got the job.

Most of the people he worked with could speak very little or no English. All of them yearned for a kind word in a familiar language—something he could at least offer to his fellow Arabic-speaking refugees. He told them, “You have your brain; you can build something. Intelligent people do not stay the way they start. Build a future. Even if you start from zero, you can make something.”

Ali followed his own advice: He used his brain. After working for a while as a translator, he was promoted to social worker technician; four years later, he was promoted to social worker and finally case manager. Along the way, he founded a small Arabic newsletter with the aim of helping newly arrived immigrants and refugees assimilate into American culture. He wrote and printed the free publication himself until it became too time-consuming.

But it wasn’t until he decided to take the United States citizenship test that he truly emerged from his depression. He welcomed the chance to return to the realm of books and knowledge—and he eagerly anticipated the promise of being able to call himself an American. Fascinated in particular by U.S. history and government, he studied alone at night and spent hours considering the nuances of the U.S. Constitution, appreciating—in a way that few American-born citizens ever do—the beauty of this document that guarantees our basic freedoms.

Needless to say, he aced the test. Ali Mahmoud—Iraqi by birth, Kuwaiti by choice, a man who could count his grandfathers 43 generations back to the prophet Muhammad—was an American. The word rolled off his tongue, sweet and satisfying.

In the years since, he has continued his work for Metro while playing an active and vital role in the city’s Iraqi community. He recently orchestrated an art exhibition with the help of Metro Social Services, the Targeted Assistance Office of the Refugee Services Program, and the Iraqi Community Center. “I noticed that several well-known Iraqi artists had fled Iraq as refugees and now called Nashville home,” he says. “They were looking for an opportunity to show their work. I also wanted Americans to get to know other cultures.” Five Iraqi refugees contributed more than 40 paintings to the exhibit, which also featured brass, wood, and ceramic handcrafts. The event was a big success, and there are now plans for an exhibition of works by other immigrant Nashvillians sometime during the coming year.

Early last year, almost 10 years after he and his family fled the Middle East, Ali decided to make his first return visit to the country that he once called home. In March 2000, Ali Mahmoud, the American, kissed his family goodbye and flew to Kuwait for a long overdue visit. “Of course, I enjoyed seeing my family and friends,” he says. “But I had a feeling that I had changed somehow and I don’t belong to that world anymore.

“Everyone wants to be [in America]. There is something magical about this country. Here we are. My son just graduated from Belmont University and he has a good job. My twin daughters will graduate from Belmont at the end of this year with straight A’s. We miss our friends and family, but we love Nashville. America is a magical place.”

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