Living the majority of one’s childhood and prominent years in the middle of a war zone can be unimaginable. For some, it was once a reality. Haider Alshukoor, 27, was born and raised in southern Iraq during the midst of Operation Iraqi Freedom and was fortunate enough to survive.
Alshukoor lived the majority of his life in Alqadisyah, Iraq, 115 miles from Baghdad, and recalls waking up many mornings to the sounds of bombs and gun shots right outside of his bedroom window. When the war between Iraq and Iran first began, he said he was nearly six months old. His father was absent from the home for a while due to being called to serve in the military by Saddam Hussein, the president. Being a local teacher, Alshukoor could not understand why his father would be called to serve.
“Forty five years old. He’s a teacher. Why?” Alshukoor said.
Alshukoor’s mother was also a teacher at the time, until all schools were forced to be closed, and was left to take care of the family financially.
After serving half a year in the military his father returned home, but not in the same conditions in which he left.
“My father came home with a missing leg and missing fingers,” he said. “He almost died.”
His injuries landed Alshukoor’s father in the hospital for two years to recover.
Leaving the home for necessities like food was difficult in those turbulent times.
“It wasn’t safe to go out, but you had to go out for food, if you had money,” Alshukoor said.
Many citizens of the area were not able to get food during the entirety of the war. Since many public places were forced to be closed to preserve safety, few individuals were able to work to earn money. Families had to use the money they had saved for support during this time. Alshukoor said his family was “in the middle” with financial stability during the war.
Alshukoor’s father was not his only family member affected by Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Three days after being the first Iraqi in the area to graduate with an engineering degree, Alshukoor’s uncle went missing. Alshukoor said no one in the family knew what happened and where he could possibly be. In 2003 after the war had ended, the family went to an office that housed files belonging to Saddam Hussein in search of documents about the whereabouts of their beloved family member. Within the files, they were relieved to find a small card containing information on Alshukoor’s uncle. The card stated that he had been hanged. It went to tell the exact date of the hanging and where his body was buried.
The family was devastated to hear of this news.
“He hanged him after three days of graduating because he felt he could do something to overthrow him,” Alshukoor said.
Saddam Hussein was finally captured in 2003, ending years of turmoil for the Iraqi citizens.
After Hussein was hanged, Alshukoor said everyone celebrated in the streets for three days. Everyone except for the people of Hussein’s city.
“You know why we celebrated,” he said. “It was because we’re different now, we’re better now.”
The changes in the country did not happen over night. Progress came “step by step.”
“I grew up during Saddam’s rule, experienced the war, and now it’s all over,” he said.
Alshukoor ended up graduating from high school near the end of the war and went on to college where he received a degree in sports and fitness. He then taught track and field and gymnastics for three years.
Before the war, he said his father traveled all over the world. He visited each county except for the United States. When Hussein became president, “all of that changed” and his world exploration days were over.
“My father said, ‘you must go to the United States’,” he said.
After being given the opportunity to pursue his graduate studies in the United States, Alshukoor wasted no time with granting his father that wish. He accepted the offer to study at Winthrop University to pursue a master’s degree in sports and fitness administration.
When he first stepped foot in America, Chicago to be exact, Alshukoor said he was “lost.” He did not speak any English and was culture shocked.
“I met a guy in the airport who spoke my native language,” he said. “I told him to call the university and tell them I would be at the Charlotte-Douglass Airport in two hours.”
With a week to get settled into a new country and adjust to a new culture, Alshukoor soon began school at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte where he studied English for a year before beginning the master’s program at Winthrop.
During his time in the states, Alshukoor said his biggest challenge has been the language.
“The difficult thing I find here is the language,” he said. “It’s a big problem.”
Alshukoor said in Arabic he writes from right to left, and English is left to right.
“When I started this semester, I was lost,” he said.
The way he works around the language barriers when it comes to completing assignments, is by seeking help from his Arabic laptop. The keys on the computer, as well as all programming is in the Arabic language. He types his papers and any other assignments in Arabic using the Google Translator online and then convert them to English in order to make sure he uses the English language correctly. He said it usually takes him more than twice the amount of time it takes the average American to complete an assignment.
All in all, he is rapidly adjusting to the language. As there is a seven hour time difference between South Carolina and Iraq, Alshukoor does not call home often.
“I call my family every weekend,” he said. “When I call, I call at night because it’s morning there.”
Since his family is familiar is with computers, it is easy for him to stay in contact with them via Facebook.
Having learned so much during his months in the country, Alshukoor finds it a little overwhelming at times.
“I learn too much here,” he said. “A lot of stuff; culture, religion, people.”
However his plan is to make the most of his experience. He wishes to gain more than just a master’s degree.
“My plan is to travel to all of the states before I leave,” he said. “I’ve been to 13 already, only 37 more to go.”
Alshukoor said he thinks everyday about how blessed he is that the United States came to assist Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and plans to gain as much knowledge and culture he can during his time in America.