People say that what we are all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think this is what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive. – Joseph Campbell

Let me tell about a joke that I made up while working for a British two-star General. I asked his aid about their 007 hero: “Where is your 007 to come and fix Iraq”. His reply was: “No, call your Charlie’s Angels to come fix Iraq.” Hollywood heroes are fake. But they have a true and realistic theme. An underdog is a common theme of a hero’s life. This Hero is born in a poor unknown area. He built himself with courage, vision, and strong will. Life’s struggles wouldn’t stop him.

Just like each person has a unique thumb print, I believe each person has an amazing story to tell. It is all about the stories of our lives that secure our place in history. I will not enter the history books like Augustus or Steve Jobs, but I am sure I will make a footnote in history.  To remember our past is not just for memories, but a rebirth of our future. There are many ways to write an epic story. This is my journey with a hero’s heart. From misery to magic and brick by brick, not to relive history, but real growth comes through difficult times and challenging situations. Heroes are made.

In a world where no story seems worthy of public mention unless it comes from the lives of famous people, this is my story of how I got here:

1976: Land of Sindbad the Sailor,  a Christian minority between Muslims

In the land of Sinbad the Sailor, I came to be. Basrah is in the southern part of Iraq on the Persian Gulf. I am an Assyrian Christian born in an Muslim dominated poor city. Ironically, even now, the city is poor among  the richest oil cities in the world. Just like many Assyrian families, my family struggled to keep our “Assyrian Identity” alive. My name represents an early Assyrian King who established “Nineveh”, capital of the Assyrian Empire.   As an Assyrian Christian minority,  I grow up speaking Assyrian  – a modern form of Aramaic. I attended elementary school in the poorest area of the city called “Hayanyah”.  My father was an English teacher assigned in that school.

1982-1988: Elementary education under  bombing, Monday cinema day tradition

Four years after my birth, I found myself in the midst of a major 8-year war between Iraq and Iran that lasted until 1988. The frontline city of al-Faw was about 100km away from Basrah. This operation came to be known as ‘First Battle of al-Faw’. During those years, some days I went to school, others I didn’t due to heavy artillery  bombardment by the Iranians. Surviving that period was either a miracle of natural selection or God’s plan. My entire childhood was infected with bad memories. There is nothing I can remember fondly about that period beside our Monday Cinema Day tradition. My father used to take me every Monday night to a cinema to watch the latest movies.  I grew up loving Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee (they have to reopen the investigation to his killing), 007, Rocky, and Rambo (I am still waiting for Rambo 4).

ninos4blog1988-1990: Hope for peace, biblical believer

In 1988, the war stopped. A period of hope for a better life was born. I remember my high school years were peaceful. I spend a majority of my social life with people from a local protestant  church. I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a church. There I met Jesus and got to know more about the Son of God. I grew to believe in the Bible.

1990- 1991: Wrong place-wrong time, tasting the force of the U.S. Army, a living survivor

Iraq had invaded Kuwait in 1990. A coalition of 34 nations led by America waged a war to liberate Kuwait. It is commonly known as “Operation Desert Storm”. I became an eye witness to the war and tasted the raw power of U.S. Military Forces. The sound of American fighter jets still echo in my ear to this day. Again, only the grace of God saved my family and me from the American bombs. I was angry with God! I had many questions. Why me? Why this inequality of life? Why are some people born lucky and some not? Why are some people born retired and some struggle from birth to death? I constantly prayed to God to lead me to the American promised land. I was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. I hated my life, and I could not take living in Iraq anymore. I turned my vision to America. I was determined to go. My father was hesitant and didn’t want to go. However, the only reason my father was convinced to leave Iraq was to let my sisters and me have a better life.

1994-1995 Self-exile, lived on falafel sandwiches, on the run in Jordan without a passport, pilgrimage to a far land

 I left Iraq and went to Jordan in early 1994. It was my last year of high school. I never graduated. I exiled myself and started my pilgrimage to anywhere, far from the land of my birth. I stayed in Jordan for about a year and a half.  The first six months were alone away from my family. My uncle Matthew supported me financially. I lived on approximately $10 a day. I ate falafel sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  I was trying to find a way to get to America or any other nation that would accept Iraqis as refugees (U.K. , Sweden, Australia…) It was a period where people tried to find human smugglers to any country that offered asylum. With the exception of a handful of countries like Malta, the rest of the counties did not give visas to Iraqis (with exceptions for certain people) or honored Iraqi passports. My passport had expired. I couldn’t return to Iraq in fear of punishment from Saddam’s regime due to my attempt to avoid participating in the Iraqi Army as compulsory service. I refused to serve in a dictator’s army.  My first miracle arrived in early 1995. Our American immigration documents were finished and I was waiting in line to move to America. Then, another miracle – a drama with Jordanian Custom Authorities at Queen Alia International Airport nearly kept me from boarding the KLM airplane; I flew to America with an expired Iraqi passport – a blog of its own.

August 1995: Born again in America

On August 21, 1995, about two weeks before turning 18 years old, which is an immigration limit to be included with my family in the process,  I arrived at Chicago. I was born again in a new country with a new life. I knew my life would change. I felt united in my heart with my America. The feeling of kissing the ground overcame me the moment I arrived at O’Hare Airport. I was determine to be a raving success by the world’s highest standers.

1995-2000 School years, ’87 Honda hatchback, dating life –

During my college years, I worked at a Subway  sandwich shop, a 7-Eleven convenience store, and as a gas station attendant in Chicago part-time while studying full-time. My limit was $3000  for every car I purchased during that time. A 1987 Honda hatchback was my first car.

There is a funny correlation between my ability to speak English and the girls I dated; the girls’ demographics changed as my English improved. My dating life started with new-comers to America, who, like me couldn’t speak English, such as Russians, Romanians, and Arabs. Then as my English got better, little by little, I was able to date Latin and Eastern Europeans who had been in America for a long time. When my English improved even more, I was able to go out with American girls – you know what I mean.

2000 Welcome Sir, first European visit, never visit a country with visa requirement –

I became an American passport holder.  I remember vividly the day I became a naturalized American. And as soon as I received my American citizenship, I applied for an American passport. I couldn’t wait 2-3 weeks for the normal process. I had to do it in an expedited way and go get it myself by hand from the Passport Agency. A few months later, my favorite uncle Matthew and I traveled to Holland, Spain, and France. I was having a nostalgic feeling of the past every time I passed through an immigration point of a country. I find it very funny how one document could change my life and status. While I previously was mistreated and disrespected as an Iraqi passport holder in Jordan every time I visited a foreign embassy to apply for a visa, now I am told “Welcome Sir” when I pass through customs and immigration in any country. And due to my past bad experience in obtaining a visa with an Iraqi passport, I made it my life principle to never visit a country that requires a visa for an American passport holder – Brazil is my single exception to that rule.

 2002-2005 B.S. and M.S. obtained, indoctrination of corporate America, became a Lexus owner

I am, proudly, happy to have the ability to have reached this major milestone in my life.  I received my B.S. and M.S. in Computer Information Systems from DePaul University with highest honor. At this point, I can fully consider myself living the “American Dream”. Obtaining two degrees in a foreign language is not easy for most people to achieve. To put it in perspective, I ask you to imagine learning Arabic (Swedish, or Chinese) and graduate with highest honor from an Arabic University.

I entered the cubical life as a programmer in a top consulting company called Accenture. I enjoyed working with cutting-edge technologies for major clients. I got to experience the American way of living. It was time to drive a beautiful luxury car – Lexus GS 300 was my next baby.

 August 2005 -2010 History repeats itself, dined with generals, outstanding civilian service medal, a taste of living a millionaire life –

 After the event of 9/11 and under the leadership of President George W. Bush (considered as Saint Bush to many Assyrians), America lead a second coalition to liberate Iraq from Saddam’s Regime. It was an unfinished business of the 1991 war. However, 10 years after arriving in America, I was embedded with the American Army as a linguist. I refused to service my ex-dictator, but happily supported and served my new president’s directive.

As a linguist, the American Government had confidence in me. I was assigned to be a private linguist for the Deputy of Multi-National Corp-Iraq, a two-star British general posted as deputy to a three-star U.S. Army general. Every six months, a new British general arrived and replaced the previous one. During that time, I worked and dined with many U.S. and British generals and participated in translating historical decisions that shaped the history of Iraq. As a result, I was honored to receive the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal – signed by LTG Raymond Odierno, in 2007.

I made a lot more money from my Arabic language skill, than from my B.S. and M.S education. My income took my life to a different level. I tasted the life of millionaires, from buying two houses, investing in a 401k, buying stocks, to traveling to 17 countries like the rich and famous.

 2010-2012 Back to Chicago, a deja vu, and startup –

After I left Iraq in January of 2010, I spent one month in Dubai, and two months in Germany, then back to Chicago. I stayed a few months at home relaxing with my family, then returned to Accenture. A deja vu, from high rise downtown Chicago, to Saddam’s Palace where my job was with the U.S. Army, to a high rise building in downtown Chicago again; life has interesting turns indeed.

I founded and privately funded a social network startup called IAmAssyrian. The grand vision was to unite all Assyrians around the world in one social network. I was able to push the idea successfully via social media and create a Facebook group that reached 10k Assyrians connected from the four corners of world. However, I was unable to compete against Facebook. I did not have the resources and money to make it technologically equivalent to Facebook. People had/have developed strong attachments for the Facebook way of doing things.

 2012-2014 U.S. Embassy Baghdad, into the future, intense self-examination, next chapter of my epic novel –

Fate has it that by early 2012, I was given a chance to return to Iraq and serve with the diplomatic mission of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. I have been in Iraq during the writing of this blog. Many people could work for Google, or Apple, but only a few could be selected to a very privileged place such as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and serve its mission.

This is not an epilogue to the story. With an eye into the future and not knowing what happens next, I remain in Iraq in search of my next dream. Every stage of life has its challenges. I returned, back to where I came from. As the saying has it, “If we don’t know where we came from, how can we know where we are going to?” With intense self-examination, I am committed in my search to find answers to many questions that remain unanswered in my life, in order to write the next chapter of the epic novel of my life.

P.S. For the first 16 years of my life, I was living under (Saddam) Hussein’s regime. Now, I find myself living under (Barack) Hussein’s government.

ninos youkhana

U.S. Embassy Baghdad 2014