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Life after Iraq: Refugee begins career in uniform

Aug. 17, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Pvt. Mari Hamid holds the pencil she received when American soldiers visited her grade school in Iraq. These soldiers inspired Hamid to enlist.
Pvt. Mari Hamid holds the pencil she received when American soldiers visited her grade school in Iraq. These soldiers inspired Hamid to enlist. (Dawn Arden / Army)
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As a young girl, Mari Hamid wanted to be in uniform because she “thought soldiers were bad­ass.”

As a teenager, Hamid and her family escaped their native Iraq as it crumbled around them, crossing into Syria. Their situation — “single mom, two teenage daughters, working almost 24 hours a day and can’t afford living” — landed them a rare visa, courtesy of the United Nations. She ended up in Massachusetts shortly before her 15th birthday.

As an adult, she’s fulfilling that childhood dream — one strengthened by positive interactions with U.S. troops in the war zone.

Pvt. Hamid graduated basic training July 2 in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and will serve in the Massachusetts National Guard while attending college, with the goal of becoming a doctor.

Hamid, 20, said she contacted a recruiter last summer after talking to a college classmate who served in the Guard.

Two days before taking her Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery, she broke the news to her mother.

Was she pleased to hear of the career choice?

“She was not at all,” Hamid said in an Aug. 7 phone interview — an attitude that started to change “once I went to basic, because she knew how dedicated I was to this. ... She loves me too much, she has to love what I want.”

Hamid’s mother wasn’t the only one with doubts. The new recruit worried her fellow soldiers wouldn’t welcome an Iraqi into the fold. And the sound of gunfire brought back memories of Iraq that were difficult to control — in an Army news release, Hamid told of breaking down in tears after hearing the first shot.

Hamid went to her drill sergeant, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Thompson, for assistance. He suggested speaking with a chaplain, who “did a great job in helping me,” she said.

As for the culture shock, Hamid’s experience wasn’t much different from what any recruit would face.

“I was so scared that I would get a lot of racist feedback from people,” she said. “I was scared that people wouldn’t respect me as an Iraqi in the military, but it turned out to be totally fine.”

That behavior by men and women in uniform echoed Hamid’s experiences as a young girl in Iraq. She recounted a story in the release about receiving a camouflage-coated pencil from U.S. soldiers while in sixth grade, and remembered being impressed by their kindness and respect in the battle-scarred nation.

She still has the pencil. And as her citizenship papers work their way through a bureaucratic maze — a lengthy process she began at basic training — she’s learning those Army values from a soldier’s perspective.

And, like all recruits, she’s picking up a few other tidbits.

“They’re teaching me some phrases that we didn’t say in Massachusetts,” she said. “I had a battle buddy from Louisiana tell me what ‘throwing shade’ means. I didn’t know that. Like, having a problem with someone. ... The rest of them I can’t say to a reporter.”

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