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Grondahl: Imprisoned and tortured, an Iraqi refugee’s journey

ALBANY – When Arthur Preiser first noticed the man of Middle Eastern descent who moved in with his family across the street in his Pine Hills neighborhood two years ago, he grew concerned.

He did not fear the man was a danger of any sort, but Preiser could see he was troubled. He observed arguments and ongoing tension between the man and his wife. The man paced alone outside and muttered to himself.

Preiser, 52, a computer technician with two adolescent sons, tried to make small talk with the man. He would not make eye contact with Preiser and spoke only haltingly. He seemed traumatized.

Over time, more encounters on the sidewalk eventually led to longer conversations between the two, a trust developed and the man began to open up to Preiser.

His name is Ahmed Fikry, 51, a native of Baghdad, a former high school teacher and son of a well-to-do Iraqi family of the Sunni minority. His father was the dean of Baghdad Medical College. Fikry and his wife, Muntaha, also a teacher, lived with their son, Ali, and daughter, Eylaf, in a large compound his parents owned in an upper-class Sunni neighborhood.

Preiser began to spend more time with Fikry and a friendship grew between the born-again Christian and the Muslim.  One day, Fikry showed his friend three notebooks filled with Arabic handwriting. The notebooks revealed an astonishing story of a refugee’s escape from a war-torn country and the resiliency of the human spirit.

The two men also had begun to bridge a cultural divide as Fikry shared secrets he had never told anyone outside his family before.

“We got to know each other little by little,” Preiser said. “We’d have coffee. Hang out together. I consider Ahmed a very good friend now.”

“I feel comfortable with Arthur,” Fikry said. “He’s a very good guy. I trust him completely.”

For the past year, the two men have labored to peel back the layers of Fikry’s complicated narrative. Preiser has a bachelor’s degree in English from Skidmore College and they collaborated each day. They sat at Preiser’s dining room table, hunched over a laptop computer with an Arabic to English translation program. They produced a 170,000-word manuscript, titled “Surviving Hell.” They are working on revisions and hope to find a publisher.

Fikry and his family survived bombing attacks on Baghdad and the American-led invasion of his homeland beginning in late March 2003 in a bid to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. “It was terrible. The bombs hit close to us,” Fikry recalled. “Our country was being destroyed for no reason.”

His family took cover in the basement, endured electricity outages, food shortages and a total disruption of daily life. In just weeks, Hussein’s rule collapsed and American troops took control of Baghdad. Eventually, commerce resumed, schools re-opened and Baghdad returned to a sense of normalcy.

Fikry and his family felt fortunate that they had gotten through the Iraq War without injuries or casualties. Soon, their lives became a nightmare.

In October 2005, they turned on the television to watch coverage of the Iraqi High Tribunal trying Saddam Hussein and other members of his regime on charges of war crimes and genocide.

There was a shocking revelation: Fikry’s brother-in-law, Judge Raid Juhi, was the lead investigating judge in the trial of Hussein, Iraq’s fallen dictator.

“We had no idea. When we saw him, we knew that we immediately became targets of Saddam’s supporters,” Fikry said. “We knew we were no longer safe.”

Fikry’s wife, her sister and mother sobbed in the kitchen and tried to console each other.

His father put it bluntly: “They will come to kill us.”

The family made plans to escape Iraq and the threat of retribution. They fled to Jordan. The stress was relentless. His wife miscarried. She begged her husband to return to Baghdad so they went back.

But they learned that Hussein loyalists in the secret police had broken into Fikry’s vacant compound and ransacked the place. The interior and exterior were strafed with machine gun fire. They scrawled a warning in Arabic: “We will find you and we will kill you and cut your heads off.”

They went into hiding at a cousin’s house. Fikry fled on his own to Syria in June 2006. He planned to bring his wife and kids once he got settled. On the way, the bus was hijacked by bandits, who stole everything Fikry had, including his cellphone. One robber stuck a handgun near Fikry’s ear and pulled the trigger. The bullet shattered a window inches from his head. He heard loud ringing for days.

“It felt like I had gone from one death to another,” Fikry said.

An old man who lived near a bus station in Damascus offered Fikry food and shelter.

In 2008, Fikry reunited with his family in Damascus. They applied for political refugee status.  Fikry’s wife, his wife’s mother and their two children were accepted into the refugee resettlement program. For reasons never made clear, Fikry was rejected. His family arrived in Albany in 2010 and were resettled with help from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Fikry remained in Damascus and continued to apply for asylum.

He was pinned down by the Syrian civil war and could not flee. He hid in a house during the Battle of Damascus in 2012. Syrian Army soldiers seized control of his neighborhood and began a house-by-house search.

Fikry was discovered, pulled out roughly by soldiers, blindfolded and taken to a detention area. He was punched, kicked, burned with cigarettes, starved and threatened with a knife and gun during frequent interrogations. His captors thought Fikry was an enemy informant.

“I thought they were going to kill me,” he said.

He knew nothing and they released him after two days of beatings and torture.

He waited to be reunited with his family. By the time he arrived in Albany in the summer of 2013, he was a broken man. Nothing was ever the same again. He was agitated and restless and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He began treatment for PTSD. He passed the test and became a U.S. citizen. His wife was hired as a substitute teacher in Albany but Fikry could not find work.

His depression worsened. Fikry separated from his wife in May, 2019. He lives alone now in a mostly-empty apartment in Watervliet, subsidized by the city’s housing authority. He was plagued by a racing heartbeat, was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation and doctors installed a pacemaker. He gets by on a monthly disability check of $771.

He is isolated and forlorn. The one thing that has kept him going is his friend Arthur and working on the book.

“I lost everything,” Fikry said. “Arthur told me to tell my story and it would help me feel better. I hope he’s right.”

Paul Grondahl is the director of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany and a former Times Union reporter. He can be reached at grondahlpaul@gmail.com.

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