Fight For A Better Life
by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Dominic Tyler
“When I first arrived in America I could
not sleep for weeks. There were no bombs, no gunshots or sirens. It
was just so quiet.”
U.S. Air Force Capt. Ahmed Alghadhban
was born and raised in a middle-class family in Karbala, Iraq about
60 miles south of Baghdad.
U.S. Air Force Capt. Ahmed Alghadhban, 56th Operational Readiness Squadron bioenvironmental engineer, was born in Karbala, Iraq. He was 16 when the U.S. and coalition forces invaded at the beginning of the Iraq war. He was later brought to America after being selected by the Fulbright Program and now serves as a bioenvironmental engineer for the 56th Fighter Wing. (Image
created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dominic Tyler
- April 26, 2023.)
“My father owned land and a farm, so my
brother and I had basically everything we needed,” he said. “But
everything changed for me in March 2003 when I was 16 years old.”
On March 19, 2003, the U.S. and coalition forces invaded
Iraq following intelligence that the country and its dictator,
Saddam Hussein, were developing weapons of mass destruction. This
invasion marked the first day of the Iraq war.
clock for the morning was bombs dropping on military bases outside
Karbala,” he said. “My father said we needed to leave, but there was
nowhere to go. Baghdad was under massive attack. We were stuck in
Weeks after the first day of the invasion,
Baghdad, the capital city, was captured on April 9, 2003 and the terrorist
regime led by Hussein fell.
This development ignited a
sudden aggravation of an ongoing civil war between Sunni and Shi’ite
Muslims causing an even bigger problem for Ahmed’s family.
“Karbala is known as the holy city of Shi’ite Muslims. My family
migrated here about 200 years ago as Sunni,” he said. “So, we have
always been out of place here as Sunnis, but we got along fine
mostly. But after the Saddam regime fell, so did the Iraq police
force. No police, or Iraqi Army, no security forces; and that is
when the cleansing of Sunnis began.”
Ahmed and his family
were forced to leave their home; all their possessions and land were
seized by the Iraqi government. Fortunately, the family had enough
money to get his parents out of the country and move his brother to
United Arab Emirates after graduating.
Ahmed, on the other
hand, was only 16. He could not work and needed to finish school.
From 2003-2004 he stayed with whoever could take him in for only a
couple months at a time.
“This continued until I was
accepted into a college of engineering in Baghdad. I moved there and
got a job at the peak of the civil war.”
Ahmed moved to an
area under control of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist
group leader also known as the founder of the Islamic State of Iraq
and Syria (ISIS).
“This was the only place I could live as
Sunni,” he said. “I lived under Al-Qaeda for four years because the
rest of the area was controlled by Iranian militia where I would be
killed because of my Sunni name.”
Over the years, Ahmed was
arrested multiple times and kidnapped by the Iranian militia for his
Despite the ongoing war in Iraq, Ahmed managed
to graduate from college in 2008 and obtained a job as an electrical
engineer at a power station in Baghdad.
In 2010, Ahmed saw
an advertisement sponsored by the U.S. government about the
Fulbright program. The U.S. Embassy was offering grants for
qualified Iraqi students to study at the graduate level in the
United States. Seven of the 1,200 applicants would be chosen.
“At the time, I had zero faith I would get selected,” he said.
“I was living essentially in a refugee camp, because I couldn’t
afford anywhere else. I was sending most of my money to my parents
in Syria. I worked twelve-hour shifts and had to share my bed with
another refugee while I was away. I did not think the odds were in
That same year, he was arrested once again for
his family name, but this time was different than the rest.
“I was held hostage in a small room with 35 other men,” he said.
“This time, I thought they were going to kill us all. I did not
think I would make it out alive. Luckily my uncle had some money to
get me out.”
Shortly after his final release from jail, Ahmed
was notified that he had been accepted for the Fulbright program.
After years of dedication to his schooling, he was finally heading
“I had two choices,” he said. “One, surrender to
the fate many Iraqi men my age fall into; joining a terrorist
organization or militia because there is no hope for a better life.
Or two, just keep fighting. I chose the latter. It was a simple
decision to me.”
Ahmed explains that his dedication to
school came from the values embedded in him by his parents.
“I worked hard, but I was also very lucky. I had parents that taught
me the value of books and education,” he said. “My mother was not
allowed to go to school when she was younger, so she did everything
in her power to give me that opportunity. My father always pushed my
brother and I to read books and think for ourselves. My parents have
been behind me every step of the way.”
After being selected
to study in the U.S., Ahmed’s first stop was the University of South
Alabama, Mobile, Alabama, where he earned a Master’s in electrical
engineering and a doctorate in biomedical science.
was glad to finally be out of his situation in Iraq, he had trouble
adjusting to the culture upon arrival.
“The music was
different. The food was different. There’s running water and lights
at all hours of the day. And of course, the silence at night was so
strange to me. After a month or so, I was able to sleep without
worry, knowing I was safe.”
He didn’t know anyone in America
until he met his first roommate Hunter Garcia.
“When I saw
him at the gym for the first time, I could tell he wasn’t familiar
with the place,” said Hunter. “I grew up in a melting pot of diverse
cultures in California. When I found out Ahmed was an Iraqi refugee
and had no family here in the U.S., I made sure to invite him to
vacations and holidays with my family. Our friendship grew from
there and my family treats him as one of our own.”
his roommate was polite enough, Ahmed’s life in Iraq had taught him
to stay guarded around outsiders.
“I’ll admit I was
suspicious of him in the beginning,” Ahmed said. “Where I am from,
you have to be weary of any new person that are not a part of your
group because they could be out to get you. But he kept asking me to
hang out and made me a part of his life and treated me like family.”
To this day, Ahmed visits Hunter and his family every year for
major holidays and camping trips. Ahmed was eventually able to make
friends, travel the U.S. and adjust to American culture.
After graduation, he worked as an application scientist for 3 years
before joining the U.S. Air Force in 2020, serving as a
bioenvironmental engineer for the 56th Fighter Wing, Luke AFB
Capt. Ahmed Alghadhban’s commitment to higher
education and resiliency are in accordance with the highest
traditions of the U.S. Air Force. His story illustrates the
importance of a diverse and inclusive total force.
to America saved my life,” he said. “I felt I was obligated to join
the U.S. military and serve the country that was so generous to me.
I am so grateful and I hope those who read my story will see that
there is always hope for a better life as long as you are willing to
sacrifice for it.”
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