Most of the time, children have no say over choices that are made for them — and immigrant children are not exempt from this. Kids must rely on the fact that their parents are making the best decisions for them based on their best judgement. And in most cases they do. This was the case of author Nadia Al Sultani’s mother, who decided to leave a prewar Iraq in 1980, when Al Sultani was 10 years old, for the betterment of herself and her children, not knowing what effect her decision would have on Al Sultani’s pursuits as an adult woman.
After growing up in the United States, Al Sultani traveled back and forth to Iraq between 2001 and 2014. In 2006, as a consultant for the United States Agency for International Development, Al Sultani traveled to Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s execution. Later, when she visited in 2009, she fell in love with a former Navy Seal and they eventually married. Her most recent visit to Iraq in 2014 was a particularly emotional one, as she returned despite the rising terrorism, finding solace only in her family.
These intense experiences inspired her to write about both the Baghdad that fostered her first steps and the Baghdad she encountered twenty years later, and are how her book, Baghdad Stories: An Iraqi-American Memoir, was born.
Jahaida Hernández Jesurum: Why did your family decide to leave Iraq?
Nadia Al Sultani: I came to the US in 1980 with my family. My mother had recently married my stepfather who was working and living in the US. He is Iraqi American and came to the US to study for his Masters and PhD and stayed here researching, studying and teaching. We were on a green card at first and it was supposed to be a short term living abroad situation, not knowing that the Iran-Iraq war would break out soon thereafter.
JHJ: Did you speak English at that age?
NAS: Not at all. I felt frightened, intimidated, and out of sorts. It’s a big part of my book, Baghdad Stories. I was given a special language teacher and had to work with her while other kids went to regular classes. It was a tough transition and a tough time in my life.
JHJ: What do you remember of your childhood in Iraq?
NAS: I lost my father at age 5 and had to watch my mother transition to [life as] a single mom raising my brother and I. It was a good childhood because we were very close to my mother’s family who often lived with us or next door. I had lots of cousins and family around and happy memories.
JHJ: How do you think that your mother’s example impacted the woman that you are today?
NAS: My mother had to raise me and my brother alone at a young age — she was 26 when my father died and they had just purchased a house for us that she had to work and pay for. She was saddled with many burdens, financial and otherwise. She raised me to be independent and in charge of my life and finances, stressing that I make my own money and not be dependent on anyone, especially in a marriage. She was focused on education and the opportunities that came with that which led to my moving to NYC at a very young age and being on my own. She supported my working, studying and traveling, even though she grew up differently and in a society not tolerant of such choices and freedoms.
JHJ: When did you decide that you wanted to work in finance?
NAS: I studied management and marketing for my undergraduate work and was recruited by a bank while I was a senior at Clarkson University. I was terrified to move to NYC from Potsdam, a small town where I grew up in upstate NY. I was living at home with my family and all the rules and restrictions that came with being Arab. My parents encouraged my move to NYC at 21 years old and supported me to build a career that at first wasn’t clear, but came to take shape as the years went on. Because they always stressed education, I would go on to get my Masters in international economic development from NYU part-time while working.
JHJ: What drove you to transition from Wall Street to the public sector?
NAS: I am from Iraq with Iraqi parents and grew up as an Iraqi, as well as an American. In 2003, when the US invaded Iraq and the war broke out, I was in NYC working in banking and thought I would be involved with Iraq through that work (my emphasis at that time was on promoting and marketing emerging markets). But when Iraq turned violent, that wouldn’t be the case. I watched as the country went into chaos, broken and destroyed, and though I didn’t agree with the way the war had been handled, I soon realized that watching and critiquing from a distance wasn’t going to get the country back on track — I needed to get involved. It was a personal and a professional calling.
JHJ: What motivated you to write your memoir Baghdad Stories?
NAS: I traveled to Iraq to visit relatives for the first time in over twenty years in 2001 and 2002, prior to the war, and grew very close to them. I stayed in Baghdad and was able to live amongst my relatives, experiencing life under Saddam and his sanctions. There was no coverage of the Iraqis in the US as the talk of war was brewing. How they fared and lived was ignored. It was all Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and being linked to the World Trade Center [attacks]. When I returned to the US, people were asking me basic questions: how did Iraqis live, work, love, think, feel. People here wanted to know about the Iraqis and were amazed that I was able to go and experience life there during a time where no foreigners were allowed in. There was a huge quest for learning about Iraq which led me to start writing down my impressions, experiences and thoughts about my trips. That later turned into Baghdad Stories.
JHJ: How long did it take you to finish writing your memoir — did you ever feel like giving up?
NAS: I worked on Baghdad Stories over a 12-year period. I would start writing, put it away and look at it again months or years later. I gave up many times as I wasn’t a writer and didn’t know how to navigate publishing. Then a resolve to finish the book took over about three years ago and now I’m happy that the book is out and has received great feedback.
JHJ: Reading some of your blog entries left me wondering if the political turns that keep shaping the course of Iraq discourages your writing or ignites it?
NAS: I’ve been blogging about my experiences overseas and linking most of it back to Iraq. It definitely keeps the engine running.
JHJ: How has your immigrant experience in US been overall?
NAS: It has obviously changed the course of my life. I would have been a different person had I stayed in Iraq. Now, I have a life that’s very different than my cousins back in Iraq. I can’t imagine my life any other way.
JHJ: If you could talk to the 10-year-old Nadia when she first came to the US, what
would you tell her today?
NAS: Not to be afraid and stress over the transition — trust that things will turn out okay. Home is where you make it and not necessarily what you know; that I would be at ease with the two countries shaping my upbringing and would learn to love things about each.
JHJ: What does New York City mean to you as an immigrant?
NAS: New York City is where I came to be an adult, on my own for the first time in my life. It’s where I worked, established myself and enjoyed my independence and freedom from my family. It’s where I learned about art, love, finance, renewal, growth, and survival.
As an immigrant there’s support here for you when you open up to it. This is a great nation because of its people who are giving, caring and accepting. It’s hard to find people as accepting as Americans. You will do well here if you are not entitled and are willing to work for what you need to make it. Opportunities and support abound.