Adel Elkenan, an Iraqi Shiite, fled his home in 1991 after the failed Shiite and Kurdish uprisings against Saddam Hussein's government. He spent weeks in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia before being flown to the United States and placed in Dallas by a refugee agency. Sixteen years later, after escaping a lifetime of oppression and violence, he's considering returning to Iraq as a translator.
One morning in late February, Elkenan visits the U.S. Army recruiting station in Carrollton for an interview with Adnan Kirkuki, a Dallas-area Arabic interpreter-recruiter under contract with the Army. Elkenan, a 36-year-old father of two who has the build, dimples and designer jeans of a model but drives an 18-wheeler for a living, found out about the Army's Middle Eastern translating program from a friend. Jalal Alhasanawi, also an Iraqi Shiite who fled in 1991, has already enlisted as a translator and was set to ship out on February 27. A quiet man with a dark beard, he sits with his friend while he talks with the recruiter.
Elkenan is looking at jobs with private contractors as well, and he has a question: "I heard with the companies you have the option to leave Iraq immediately if you don't like it—is it the same here?"
The answer is no—the 09-L translating program involves an eight-year commitment, including two years of active duty—at least one of which is in Iraq—and six in the reserves. Kirkuki takes this as an opportunity to explain the perks of becoming a soldier. "If you work for Titan, you work one year and you're out," he says. "In the Army, you get certified as a linguist, you get benefits, you can make it a career for yourself. The civilian contractors are offering lots of money [six-figure salaries] but no future."
Alhasanawi opted to join the Army for the educational benefits and because he wants to return to his country. "To help my own people," he says.
"These terrorists, they're killing many civilian people. That's a good reason to go, to fight them," Elkenan says. "I talked to my family in Baghdad the other day, and they can't go out. They stay at home all day." Elkenan lost a nephew and two aunts in 2005, when nearly 1,000 Shiite worshippers were trampled on a Baghdad bridge after rumors of a suicide bomber provoked a stampede.
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"Every time you leave the house and say goodbye to your family, you might never come back," Alhasanawi says.
Elkenan says he didn't agree with the U.S. invasion, and while he's glad Saddam was ousted, he's horrified by what has happened since. "I thought it would take a year to get things settled, but here we are in year four," he says. "But I don't just blame the U.S., I blame the neighboring countries—everyone's involved in the violence, including the Iraqis."
Alhasanawi is looking forward to returning to Iraq. He recently spent two months in the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriya visiting his family, including his new wife. "If I could, I'd go back tomorrow," he says.
Elkenan isn't so sure. He hasn't discussed it with his wife, a Mexican-American, but he's fairly certain she won't be happy about the idea. "I gotta talk to her first, see what's going on," he says. "I don't think she'll agree with it."