DAMASCUS, Syria, Feb. 13—I first met Nash a little over two years ago, in the crowded courtyard of a Damascus high school that was being used as a voting center for Iraqi refugees participating in their country’s first free elections.
He wore an Atlanta Braves baseball cap at a jaunty angle, and he practically bounced as he walked. In authoritarian Syria, where the very air can seem to exhaust and oppress those who breathe it, Nash was easy to spot: a skinny Iraqi kid with a big grin and unusual, infectious energy. His accent, when he introduced himself, was pure Alabama.
“Good morning, ma’am. My name is Nashwan, but you can call me Nash—all the other Americans do. Can I help you with anything, ma’am?”
I made the first of many futile attempts to get Nash to please stop calling me Ma’am, and I asked where he came by his flawless, idiomatic English. Nash waved his hand expansively, brushing aside my question and ushering me into a classroom, and asked if I’d like tea. At 24, he was easily the youngest of the dozen or so Iraqi volunteers who were helping Western election consultants to staff the voting station, but he welcomed me in a style that suggested he ran the place.
Nash was born in Mosul, the youngest of 10 brothers. The other Americans that he’d referred to—and from whom he’d learned his astonishing Southern drawl—turned out to be the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, for whom he’d begun working as a translator while still finishing college.
Nash spoke with great affection of the American soldiers he’d worked with, from the guys his own age, who’d taught him the intricacies of American baseball, up to Gen. David Petraeus, then the commander of the 101st, on whose personal translation staff Nash had worked for a few months.
“He’s very quick with languages,” Nash recalled of the man who currently leads all U.S. forces in Iraq. “We taught him to say Ana Petraeus al-Moslawi—‘I am Petraeus of Mosul.’ He’s a very honest, kind and humble person—not like Iraqi big men, who just want you to flatter them all the time.”
Nash had been working with the American forces for about a year when his family started getting death threats from insurgents who saw Nash as a collaborator. Nash asked his American friends for help, only to be told that there was nothing they could do. For his family’s safety, he fled, alone, to Syria in January 2005.
When we met, the news coming out of Iraq was steadily getting worse, and I found his optimism moving, even shaming. If Nash could remain hopeful about his country’s future prospects in the face of open threats to his family, shouldn’t I? Though tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees were pouring into Syria, Nash’s story seemed to me to be full of especially tragic irony, but Nash himself refused to allow me to pity him. He knew the details of dozens of reconstruction projects. He wouldn’t speculate about mistakes that American forces might have made in Iraq.
“They were risking their lives to help Iraq stand up again,” Nash said. “They were like brothers to me.”
Nash wanted, most of all, to join the U.S. Army. He’d heard that non-U.S. citizens were sometimes allowed to enlist. After that, he hoped to do an M.B.A. in the U.S. or Britain before returning to Iraq to start his own business. Once he’d made his name, he hoped to enter politics.
“I want to do something for my country,” Nash said. “This is the thing I learned from the Americans. I need to go overseas and learn, and then I’m going to go back and help Iraq get on its feet.”
Unemployment in Syria is very high, and once the temporary job with the Iraq out-of-country voting program ended, Nash couldn’t find anyone willing to hire a young Iraqi refugee with no connections in Syria. His application for a U.S. visa was turned down, and his requests for information about enlisting in the U.S. Army went unanswered. He researched American M.B.A. programs online and applied for a Fulbright. But a friend who worked at the U.S. embassy in Syria told me that a young Iraqi like Nash was unlikely to get any kind of visa to the States.
“Because Iraq is a free country now,” my friend added bitterly.
In Syria, Nash seemed, if possible, to get even skinnier. When we met, his eyes seemed sad, possibly even reproachful. We fell out of touch for a while. Then, one afternoon last year, Nash called.
Nash had used the money he’d saved while working for the 101st Airborne to start a business buying up high-quality concrete in Turkey and shipping it through Syria to Iraq, where it was used in reconstruction projects. Business was good, he said.
I spent yesterday afternoon in a Damascus pizza restaurant with Nash and Ehab, a friend of Nash’s from grade school in Mosul, who also worked as a translator for U.S. troops in Iraq.
Nash no longer has any hope of returning to Iraq to enter politics. Staving off civil war is probably beyond the abilities of even Petraeus al-Moslawi, Nash told me. The young men hope only to earn enough money to get their families out. They’ve applied to the University of Malaya for business school, and if they’re accepted, they’ll move to Kuala Lumpur early this summer.
But both Nash and Ehab said that they bear the U.S. and its allies no ill will.
“I learned a lot from working with the Americans,” Ehab said. “If the U.S. invasion hadn’t come, I’d have taken my university degree, gotten a steady government job and never left Mosul. Meeting the Americans, everything changed—my principles, my thoughts about life. We became more curious. We’re interested in everything now, Nash and me. Under Saddam, we never had the right.”
I asked if the new generation of young Iraqis were feeling these same freedoms.
“We felt these benefits because we worked with the Americans directly,” Nash said. “Iraqi kids these days are really desperate. But maybe, insha’allah, when we finish business school, Ehab and I will find a way to help them.”