The day before Easter 2003, Louis Yako—now a Fulbright Scholar at Lehigh—approached a soldier standing in front of American military’s headquarters in his hometown of Kirkuk, Iraq. Asking to translate for the military, Yako eagerly listed his qualifications, proficiency in five regional languages, English and an understanding of Spanish.
“I was so naïve,” said the English master's candidate during a lecture given last Thursday to an intimate group of students and professors in Maginnes 102.
The American soldier listened impassively to Yako’s recital and told him to come back tomorrow, Easter Sunday. His mother, a devout Catholic, refused to let him skip mass. So, Yako dutifully attended mass—at least for the first half of the service, and then slipped out of the church to meet with an American colonel. Soon, the undergraduate at Bagdad University was hired as a translator for the army. As a translator, he saw wrongs done by both the American army and the Iraqi people.
Yako began his talk by recounting personal tales from his life as an Assyrian and a Christian in Iraq.
“I’m being very personal with you, because I want you to feel like you’re having a cup of tea with an Iraqi,” Yako told his audience.
“Will you drink your tea without sugar?”
“Many people are interested in life under Saddam,” he said. During that time, “Iraq was very much like the Soviet Union.” Although Saddam provided free medical care and education, the people had no political freedom.
Yako wonders if he could have endured as an adult under Saddam’s rule. “To me freedom is more important than life itself,” he said passionately.
Yet, “people find creative ways to survive,” he said. Yako’s remembers gathering around the radio at night, listening to broadcasts from Britain and other countries. “I admire the courage of people,” he said.
A child during the first Gulf War in 1990, Yako fled from his former neighborhood in Northern Iraq with his family, wandering from city to city seeking safety.
During their journey, they came to a small house in a village and begged the owner for food. The owner, a Kurdish woman, welcomed the family, but told them she only owned two eggs and a loaf of bread, which she was planning to feed to her two children. “I have some tea, but no sugar,” she said. “Will you drink your tea without sugar?”
Looking at pictures of his mother, Yako can see the evolution of Saddam Hussein’s government from a very secular institution to a more religious and conservative one. The 1980s were a “golden period for Iraq,” he said, and women taught in the schools and worked as nurses.
During the 1980s, Iraqi women wore stylish and attractive clothing, but just 10 years later, their outfits became much more conservative, as Saddam initiated his faith campaign in 1994. The government began spending money on Qur’an training schools and encouraged the creation of mosques in what many believe was an attempt to raise support for the current regime.
“We were so naïve”
Yako was at the University of Bagdad just before the second Gulf War in 2003. Because of his fluency in English, he was frequently interviewed by foreign journalists, including a group of Swedish documentary filmmakers. However, because he was a Christian, Yako was very careful not to criticize the government. “The government was wary of Christians so I was very neutral in the interviews,” he said.
At the onset of the war, most Iraqi opposed the conflict. “We knew it was about fortune and oil,” he said. Although his family survived, Yako lost friends in the bombings of Bagdad.
When Saddam’s regime finally toppled, the Iraqi people cheered, he said. “We thought we would start a new life. We were so naïve,” he said. “There’s an Iraqi phrase, ‘Nothing worse will happen than what has happened.’ Now I believe things can get worse.”
Initially, Yako volunteered to translate for the army, and after a few weeks, he was given a paid position. “I was the most trusted translator,” he said. Yako interpreted conversations honestly and provided cultural advice to the Americans, but as he translated, he lost his naivety.
“During my work, I witnessed corruption in Americans and Iraqis,” he said. He remembers translating documents where the Kurdish people agreed to share profits from smuggled goods with members of the American army, if they let them pass unhampered.
In his opinion, U.S. soldiers act as if they were stars in a war flick. “Americans are so influenced by the movies,” he said. “It’s a big problem because the soldiers behave like it’s Hollywood.”
For three years, Yako enjoyed translating for the Americans. “I wanted to serve my home country and do my best to bring the two cultures together,” he said in an interview before his talk. The Army was also impressed with his abilities and promoted him to work in the U.S. Embassy.
By May 2005, insurgents had killed dozens of interpreters for the U.S. military, most of which were Iraqi civilians, says the Associated Press. Seeking a safe haven, Yako applied for scholarships at schools in both U.S. and the U.K. Although accepted at schools in both countries, he entered a British school where he studied management and political policy.
“I look at the U.S. as very separate institutions”
The friction between different racial and religious groups arose partly from American military tactics, he said. Sunnis and Shi’as once inner-married, but by dealing with the groups separately, Americans gave the impression that they were different. “They planted the seeds of division,” he said.
However, Yako does not blame only the American government for the conflict. “The Iraqi government is just as guilty,” he said. “If you really loved your country, then you could find a way to help it.”
Today, he struggles to reconcile his admiration for individual Americans with the actions of their government.
“I look at the U.S. as very separate institutions,” he said. “The same U.S. that is attacking my country gave me a Fulbright. I spend a lot of time thinking, thinking, thinking. It’s hard to love America, but I have to remind myself that there are good people.
“I try to forgive them, but then I think it’s not (the individual person) who did it. So, I can’t forgive (that person).
“I like to think that I’m an educated person, but how would an uneducated Iraqi think about (America)?” Yako asks.
“I’m very sad. I’m very angry. I use my eyes and tongue to tell people about the issues, But some people are not afraid to lose their lives, and they have nothing to live for. These people react very differently,” he said, referring to the suicide bombers.
“Deeply, deeply touched”
The influence of Yako’s story may not be measured by the size of the audience, but by the audience’s reaction. Nearly everyone in the room lingered to further discuss Yako’s presentation.
An economics master’s student, Rebecca Nicodemus was struck by Yako’s understanding of the conflict between different racial and religious groups.
“What stood out to me was how he didn’t view the problems as that religious,” she says. “But I think many Americans do view it as very religious.”
Nathan Punwani ’09, president of the College Democrats, saw the Iraq War from an Iraqi’s eyes.
“I’ve never seen someone who is directly affected by the war and not American,” he says. “I’m deeply, deeply touched.”
Abbey Janis Dillon, a master’s student in education, agrees. “It’s a perspective I could not have gotten elsewhere.”