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Baghdad in the mist

BY KC MCGINNIS | DECEMBER 11, 2014 5:00 AM

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Yasir Mohsin is sitting up in bed. East light enters through the narrow window of his basement apartment across from Kinnick Stadium, where 70,000 fans gathered last weekend for the Iowa/Iowa State football game. On game days, Yasir (pronounced YAH-ser) wakes before dawn to the sound of rumbling generators and the smells of pizza and gasoline. Today, he gets to sleep in. He scrolls through his phone, checking in on news and messages from family.

Today is a holy day, one Yasir grew up observing at his home, in Baghdad, and he will refrain from food, drink, and cigarettes until sundown. He has class in 30 minutes. He glances at his phone once more, gets out of bed, and heads upstairs for a shower.

The day of fasting reminds Yasir of his first week in Iowa City, where he began earning a master's in electrical engineering as a Fulbright Scholar in 2011. It was during Ramadan, and he couldn't find halal food to break his fast. For a week, he broke it with ramen and fruit from Walmart. He didn't know about the Iowa City Mosque or its free evening Iftar meals. He didn't even know if there were any other Iraqis on campus.

Three years later, Yasir is fully integrated into the University of Iowa's substantial Iraqi community, 23 graduate and post-doctorate scholars in fields from geology to dentistry, along with their families. Some have made families here; most are sponsored by an Iraqi government initiative that pays for students' educations under the strict terms that they return to Iraq upon completion of their degrees. The students started arriving in 2011, as U.S. troops marked their official exit from Iraq, under improved security conditions, on Dec. 21, 2011. Most Iraqis anticipated returning with their degrees to a safer, more peaceful country.

•••

In class at the Seamans Center, Yasir is inquisitive, if not a little tired. He asks a few questions about his professor's algorithm and stays after to help a classmate with a problem. His colleagues ask him to join them for lunch at India Cafe — his favorite restaurant in Iowa City. At the restaurant, Yasir saves a table while the rest fill their plates at the buffet.

"Water?" a server asks.

"No, thanks."

Yasir's colleagues chatter about grades and conferences while he sits quietly at the edge of the table, noticeably distant. He's distracted, perhaps by hunger, likely by the news from his country. Despite another round of U.S. air strikes in Iraq and Syria, the emergent group calling itself ISIS has made swift gains in its mission to eradicate Shia and minorities from the region, taking up where Al Qaeda left off. The group detonated a car bomb at a prison just two blocks from Yasir's home earlier this week, liberating more ISIS sympathizers.

The violence in the news reminds Yasir of a car bombing he survived in 2006, his junior year at the University of Baghdad. He was carpooling to school in a friend's van, sleeping on the floorboards, where it was cooler. The explosion, just a few cars ahead of the van, sent a shower of broken glass onto his head. The shrapnel had ripped through the windows and interior, but left him and his friends with only scratches on their faces and arms.

That was the second closest Yasir came to being killed in Iraq. The closest was when an IED in a crowded market sent a small steel fragment through his left pectoral the next year, in 2007. Years later, Yasir encountered another IED in the same market. He was shopping for boots in preparation for winter in Iowa.

•••

Normally, on a day like today, Yasir can find refuge in a pack of Pall Malls outside the CVS across the street. He goes to wash his face and pray instead. After prayers, he packs up some items from his cubicle and walks home.

Yasir is one of the only people in Iowa to have witnessed firsthand the effects of ISIS' rise in his country. He came to the United States at a moment of relative stability in Iraq, hoping to return two years later to a country ready to be rebuilt. But after finishing his master's degree in May, Yasir found his city, tragically, worse than it had ever been. His family's neighborhood, El-Salaam ("Peace"), which had been mercifully void of extremist violence in the hardest years, was now in a constant state of alert. His father had just been mildly injured in an explosion. Most businesses had closed, and Yasir was allowed to leave the house only for emergencies. To Yasir, El-Salaam was unrecognizable.

After a few weeks of living as a shadow in his hometown, Yasir began secretly arranging an academic training program with one of his professors at Iowa, which would allow him to secure a visa. He was conflicted; such an arrangement would more or less guarantee his security going into the future, but if successful, it would mean he would likely never come back. It would also cost him 45 million Iraqi dinar (about $40,000), which he would need to pay back to the university that had held a position for him. In June, he gathered his mother, father, and siblings on the floor cushions in their living room to tell them about his plans to secure an academic training period in Iowa. In accordance with Iraqi custom, the family had already built a level onto their home, anticipating that Yasir would soon find a wife and settle down with them. Realizing that Yasir had an opportunity to escape the violence, however, they allowed him to go. At least they wouldn't have to worry anymore, his mother told him. Yasir left Baghdad, 82 days after he had returned; he had been counting.

•••

Back at his apartment, Yasir trims his beard and gets ready to visit a friend's home, where he will break his fast. As the Sun sets, he climbs down a hill through a patch of woods behind his house and follows the train tracks to a dimly lit, three-story apartment complex. After dinner, a group of Iraqis join Yasir and his friend for hookah, backgammon, and dominoes. They laugh and argue in Arabic, snack on Iraqi treats brought in from Michigan, and listen to a mix of Arab music and top 40. It's the closest they get to feel to home.

Yasir's academic training program will end in July 2015. After that, his future is uncertain, but returning to Iraq is not on his list of options. For now, he finds ways to connect with his culture through Iraqi music, language, and phone calls to his family. He still doesn't have a pair of winter boots.


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