short takes

A New Start

An Iraqi journalist builds a life in New Jersey
May 4, 2010

Saif Alnasseri stepped out into a winter morning, stood on the wide front porch outside his apartment in a rambling house in suburban New Jersey, and pointed with pride to the view.

Here, he said, he and his family could sit in the sun, have a barbecue, and enjoy their new neighborhood—the overhanging trees, the large, close-set homes, and, a short walk away, the pharmacy where he works as a technician. And it was here that, for the first time since leaving Iraq, they finally began to feel settled.

The past year hadn’t been easy for Alnasseri, a slim, earnest thirty-one-year-old who six years earlier had joined the Baghdad bureau of the Los Angeles Times. So on a Sunday in February, as his mother poured sweet, strong Turkish coffee for family and guests including Tina Susman, the Times’s former Baghdad bureau chief, he was happy to show off his new life, and to tell his story.

He was working as a pharmacist in Iraq in 2004 when a friend employed by the Times asked if he would be interested in a translator’s job. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about journalism. My only skill is that I speak English and am interested in politics,’ ” recalled Alnasseri. “He said, ‘Perfect. This is what we want.’ ”

After living under a dictator, he said, it was exciting to be part of a free press and to witness the making of history. Alnasseri’s favorite assignment came in summer 2008, when he and correspondent Doug Smith were embedded with U.S. Marines in Ramadi as the transfer of power to local authorities began. “We were able to interview people who were really influential in the whole transition that nobody had interviewed before,” he said. These stories, about efforts to restore order to a fractious nation, are too often overlooked, he added later.

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But when a special visa program began to allow Iraqis who had worked for American interests to come to the U.S., Alnasseri and his wife, Zeinab Alrubaye, decided to apply. “We wanted a better future for our child,” he says. “It was civil war. This was not the place we wanted to live.” In December 2008, they and their daughter Sarah, then two years old, moved in with Alrubaye’s sister in New Jersey.

The transition wasn’t easy. Besieged by a harsh winter, the dismal economy, and the isolation of suburbia, the family was soon reconsidering its decision. Before long, Alnasseri found himself applying for welfare benefits. On the day before the Super Bowl in 2009, as their new country readied for an unofficial holiday, he and Alrubaye decided to return to Baghdad. At least there, he says, despite the danger, “everything was in our reach.”

The next morning, Alnasseri woke prepared to buy tickets back to Iraq. Before he could, he received a call from a Walgreens an hour away, asking him to come in for an interview. The call—arranged by Philip Sweeney, who heads the Central N.J. chapter of The List Project, a nonprofit group that helps Iraqis settle in the U.S.— “changed the direction of our lives,” Alnasseri said.

He got the job, and their life in New Jersey has taken shape. They found an apartment close to work—Sweeney co-signed the lease—and Alrubaye landed a job in another pharmacy. Soon her mother, Layla Alshawi, arrived from Iraq. While Alnasseri and Alrubaye study for their certification as pharmacists, Alshawi helps care for Sarah.

He no longer chases scoops or jobs in journalism, but Alnasseri still follows the news from Iraq. Word that Baghdad’s Hamra Hotel, where the Times bureau is located, was bombed in late January sent him into a panic until he learned that his former co-workers were safe. Sitting in the parlor, he and Susman, now a New York-based national correspondent for the Times, traded news of those colleagues, including the friend who first helped him land the job. And they reminisced about their time together in Baghdad—the long, intense days covering one of the most difficult stories either of them will ever know. “All of us got married when we were there in the office; all of us had children when we were there; some of us lost beloved ones,” Alnasseri said. “It was five years that will affect my life forever.”

Vera Haller is an assistant professor at the Department of Journalism and the Writing Professions at Baruch College in New York. Previously, she was editor-in-chief of the newspaper amNewYork and an editor and reporter at Newsday’s New York City Web site, She has also worked for Reuters and The Associated Press.