April 14, 2023 | NEWS | By Konoha Tomono-Duval
I’ve known Yousuf Amer since early freshman year. We met when we both lived in [the] Enclave LLC in Mathias Hall. He’d told me parts of his life before: leaving Iraq during the invasion and settling for a short time in Syria, then Albuquerque, N.M. Here, he talks about what that meant for him and his family.
You left Iraq when you were five and then Syria when you were six to come to New Mexico. Do you have any memories of how you felt leaving Syria to come to the U.S.?
I was very excited, mostly because I didn’t know what it actually meant, permanently leaving Iraq and Syria and probably not returning for a very long time. I just thought “I’m gonna go explore a new place” and it was very exciting because the United States is a big place.
Do you have any memories of what you thought the U.S. was like at the time?
Being a child, I didn’t think it was any different. But I soon realized that it was.
I remember: In Syria, we couldn’t have a car. And so, when we were flying in, I was looking down from the plane. We were flying over New York and I looked at my dad, I said “Dad, you can finally have a car.”
I mean, we have highways in Syria. But the refugee rights or the newcomer rights in Syria weren’t all that great. You couldn’t get a regular job as an employee in Syria if you weren’t a Syrian native. The way you got a job was that you needed to open up a business and that was the only way you could make money. You could open a clothing store or restaurant, stuff like that. But you couldn’t go work at a restaurant.
Do you or your family have any connections to people back in Iraq or in Syria?
Yes, I have connections to both. I still have family living there.
Do you keep in touch?
It’s hard, because we had a lot of family all over the world after the war. And it’s really hard to keep in touch just because of time differences. And it’s hard to stay in touch with people that you haven’t seen in a decade or so. Even if they wanted to come to the U.S., they couldn’t get visas. Even if they’ve immigrated away from Iraq. After Donald Trump, that became almost an impossible thing to get. So, if we wanted to meet halfway, some family would come to Canada. Or we’d go to Sweden, wherever family lives.
Do you think that that relationship changed at all, as your direct family moved to the U.S. and they stayed in Iraq or the Middle East?
No, they don’t view us any differently. It was more “If you can get out, do.” Some people didn’t want to leave their homes for understandable reasons. And adapting to a new world after you’ve lived somewhere for more than half of your life, that’s really hard. So, some people decided to stay, and some people decided to leave, but there wasn’t any judgment for either choice.
Do you still have any connections with other refugees who came on a similar path?
Well, I have a lot of family that came to the United States. And I’ve worked with lots of refugees. And I have volunteered in Refugee and Immigrant Well-Being Project and a bunch of other places. And so, I do have those connections. But it’s also very hard to work with refugees and immigrants just because everybody brings a new type of story. And a lot of those stories are very hard to listen to. Like I said, a lot of them immigrated from a totally different country and have a good reason for doing so. And so, listening to all of those true stories is really hard to continue doing.
If you don’t mind me asking, are there any that stuck out to you?
One of the ones that really stuck out to me, it wasn’t a story about what [the family] lived through before coming to the U.S. But after they’d come to the U.S., not knowing the English language and trying to get accustomed, and how poorly they were treated for that. One of their children went to school for eight hours a day. Then he would go home, and he’d get tutored. And after, he would go do homework, and then he’d have an hour or two of free time to do more homework. You’ve got to remember that this kid is in elementary school.
So he’s trying his absolute hardest to learn the language. But when he goes to school, he doesn’t necessarily know how things are run. So, the teacher had you turn in your homework to a certain box every morning. But the student would be like “Where do I turn this in?” And the teacher would tell him we’ve been talking about this since the beginning of the school year. And then he wouldn’t turn it in. He’d be getting bad grades, even though he’s studying super hard. And the teacher wouldn’t accept that.
It’s hard to hear these stories of people working hard to get adjusted, but others just aren’t taking into account “this guy isn’t trying to hurt you.” He’s not trying to be annoying. He actually just doesn’t know what’s going on. Repeating yourself, telling him “Go put it over there” or showing him is very important
A lot of these kids start off working really hard, especially when they first come in. It doesn’t exactly matter where from. But even high schoolers, they work really hard.
I’m curious, because the same thing applies to you. You’re getting ready to go to medical school, preparing to put yourself through almost a decade of studying. Where do you think that confidence comes from, that this is what you’re going to do?
I didn’t always know that I wanted to go to medical school. But being from Iraq and just coming to the U.S., I know I wanted to help people in some way. To figure it out, I did a lot of volunteering over a lot of places. I did some hard labor, constructing a school. I worked at Generation Justice, which is a radio program to help youth find journalism. And so, I worked for a lot of nonprofits, but nothing really stuck with me. And then one of my friends said “Hey, maybe you could try doing medicine.” I was like “I don’t really like blood though. But you know, I’ll give it a try.” It sounded the most impactful on people’s lives, because you’re literally saving people’s lives, right? I started shadowing at a hospital and I loved doing this. It doesn’t feel like homework, it doesn’t feel like work, it feels like something I want to be doing.
You mentioned the blood and then suddenly you’re shadowing, dealing with emergency patients. What was that first contact like?
Actually, I didn’t deal with emergency patients until I took the EMT class here at CC. And that’s the first time I had to deal with emergency patients that were really in pain. I think that drove me to want to be a doctor even more than I already did. One thing that really sticks in my brain was this guy, he’d broken both of his legs in a car accident, and he was absolutely screaming in pain. He’s bleeding everywhere. But everybody was just around him, helping him even though he’s cussing them out constantly. And I thought, this person is just yelling at them, and these people are still trying to help him in every way possible.
I guess where do you think you could be or what do you think you could do that would have the most impact? Or that you consider the most important?
I want to do something that’s outside of the U.S. Or if it’s in the U.S., it’s in a rural area. New Mexico, especially the rural areas, has a very high maternal death rate. And that’s because they had no doctors in the area. Or one doctor would come every other week. It’s places where people need help and they’re not getting it.
Do you feel tied to New Mexico specifically? Or is it anywhere people need help?
I am going more towards New Mexico. Because it feels like home, and I feel like I could really help it out. New Mexico has really helped me out so much. Especially coming here as a refugee, all of the programs that they had really helped out. And I’d feel horrible because I would feel like I’d be turning my back on New Mexico.
I know you’ve taken the EMT adjunct. Anything you’d want to tell people taking it this year or in the future?
Make sure your last block is the easiest block. laughs
But really, it is exciting and fun. The things you’re going to be able to do – it’s great but it is a lot of stress, and it is a lot of work. It is rewarding though.
What was it like, coming from Albuquerque to Colorado College?
In Albuquerque, especially Albuquerque public schools, it was split half-and-half between white people and Hispanic people/Latinos. Versus CC, which was particularly less diverse than I had initially realized. It’s not really a huge thing, but it’s a totally different environment. I’ve never really felt like someone that doesn’t belong. But here I always feel like I’m a little different.
In Albuquerque, I get mistaken for Hispanic a lot, just from my skin complexion. And so, it’s really funny when you don’t know somebody and they just say, “Hey bro, what’s up” and start dabbing you up. Or when you’re with someone, usually older, and they call you mijo. That’s great. Doesn’t happen much around here though.
Is there anything I didn’t get a chance to ask about, that you think is important?
What makes me who I am is my family. My parents and my siblings and I, we were the first ones here out of our family. So, they went through a lot of the things that I went through, especially in school and making friendships and learning language and culture. We always have a similar experience that’s hard to get almost anywhere else, unless you’re interacting with another person who’s immigrated to the United States.
When I learn language, you also have to learn culture with it. Your mannerisms and how you speak, what’s considered offensive and not. If you reach over somebody in the United States, that’s considered offensive, but in Iraq that wasn’t an offensive thing at all. So, it was a big shock when I reached over somebody, and they got really mad. And they were like “Oh, you’re so disrespectful” and all that. And I didn’t know. I apologized when I knew. A lot of people don’t know you come from a place where doing things like that are ok or are not ok.
Things like that don’t happen as often anymore, but it happened a lot while learning the language and the culture. People thought I was trying to attack them [metaphorically]. But I just didn’t know.
At this point, do you think your parents consider themselves American?
I think they consider themselves both, combined. Identity is hard. Are you American, or are you Iraqi or are you Middle Eastern, it’s a very hard thing. Your identity becomes a mixture of both, basically. So, they do consider themselves American, but they also consider in this sense Middle Eastern, right. They’re not one or the other, but both of them.
And I assume you still consider yourself Middle Eastern, right?
Yes, I do. I do consider myself somewhat Middle Eastern. It’s weird, because when you know, interacting with a person from the Middle East, it makes me feel less Middle Eastern, especially if they lived there longer. Just because I spent more of my life here in the United States than I did back in Iraq and Syria.
That means they got to learn fully the culture of Iraq and Syria. There’s different stages in your life. You learn how to be a kid, but at that point you don’t know how to become a teenager or an adult. People treat you differently when you’re a kid and the culture around that is also different. And so, I didn’t get to experience being an adult in Iraq. So it’s very different from my experience, when I’m interacting with another adult. It makes you feel a little bit less Middle Eastern, just because I don’t have that same experience.