A car bomb exploded in Baghdad, Iraq — targeting a government official. Elon professor of communication design Ahmed Fadaam could see the smoke from his front door. He grabbed his camera and drove through his neighborhood, following the smoke. When he arrived at the scene of the explosion, he remembered seeing dead bodies everywhere. This was 20 years ago, but Fadaam remembers the details clearly. 

Fadaam was a photojournalist for the news organization Agence France-Presse and went to work, taking photos of the explosion. Seeing him with a camera, the Iraqi soldiers grew skeptical of Fadaam. They beat him up while another soldier held an AK- 47 to his head. 

“I didn't care about the guy punching me. I didn't care about the camera. I was just worried about the guy with the AK- 47, because he may squeeze the trigger by mistake at any moment and kill me,” Fadaam said. 

American forces arrived at the scene and saved him. He said the attack was worth it journalistically.  

“I went back to my office with two brown eyes and with a bunch of pictures that were on the front page the next day,” Fadaam said. 

This year marks 20 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq. Fadaam is an Iraqi citizen and lived in Baghdad as an art professor. When his university shut down, his career pivoted. Translating conversations, taking photographs and reporting on the war kept him busy until he immigrated to the U.S. in 2012. Eleven years later, Fadaam said he wants to return home. 

“I spent all of my life living there, and I'm still attached to these roots,” Fadaam said. “I can't just cut them.” 

Fadaam said he thinks about his life back home every day and remembers teaching sculpture at the University of Baghdad when he lived with two of his brothers and their families. 

But, he said not all the memories were bright. Fadamm was making $1 per month as an art professor and he said electricity, food and medicine were hard to come by — even before the war started. He worked extra jobs to support his wife and two young children. 

“Life was rough in Iraq. We were locked inside a big prison,” Fadaam said. 

If Iraq were a prision, Fadaam saw President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, as the warden. Fadaam did not support the U.S. invading Iraq, but he was not against it either. Fadaam thought the U.S. invasion would take Hussein out of power. That, to him, was worth the invasion.  

“The thing that I'm dreaming of is to see Saddam Hussein in a cage, answering for his crimes, and to think about a better, healthy future for my kids,” Fadaam said. 

Becoming a journalist

But that is not what the immediate future looked like. Airstrikes, car bombs, fires and soldiers fighting in his neighborhood became his daily life. He was frustrated and scared, but Fadaam said he wanted to funnel that energy into something he thought would be productive. That is why he became a journalist. 

“I thought that I was doing my job, trying to help my people to bring the truth out to inform the rest of the world and hopefully help ending this violence and this craziness happening to my country,” Fadaam said. “But I had to pay a heavy price for this,” 

One price was his reputation, as many Iraqi people didn’t like that he worked for international media. 

“We were all looked at as traitors, as blood merchants,” Fadaam said. 

The other price was a physical one. According to Fadamm, he lost count of how many times he was shot at by both Iraqi and American soldiers.

Fadaam’s contributions to international news coverage did not go unrecognized, especially by WBUR radio foreign correspondent Dick Gordon. Gordon connected with Fadaam in April 2003 when he needed someone to help him understand the conflict and translate interviews. When they first met each other, Gordon was immediately impressed. 

“His English was wonderful. His sense of Baghdad and the conflict was all encompassing. He was happy to help,” Gordon said. “I had no idea at that moment that I would end up forming a friendship with Ahmed that would last for the next 20 years.” 

The men relied on each other. Gordon for information and Fadaam for a job. Gordon left Iraq two weeks later, but he stayed in touch with Fadaam by exchanging messages online. When Gordon moved to WUNC, he saw an opportunity for Fadaam to tell a story like no other foreign correspondent could. 

Gordon asked Fadaam if he would write stories about his daily life for his new show. Fadaam said he was bewildered by this request. 

“‘Dick, I have never written anything in Arabic, so how do you expect me to write something in English?’” Faddam said. 

But Fadaam gave it a try, and it was a big success. Gordon said the show’s listeners were always asking to hear more. That is how “Ahmed’s Diaries” started — a series of broadcast episodes that Fadaam wrote and read aloud himself, detailing what it was like to live in a war zone. 

Episodes of “Ahmed’s Diaries” are no longer available online due to technical difficulties. WUNC told Elon News Network that it is working on putting the episodes into the National Archive of Broadcasting, which could take months. 

DC Comics also followed along with his series and asked him to turn his stories into a graphic novel and use his artistic skills to draw the pictures himself. Fadaam agreed and began his work, but when the Great Recession hit in 2008, DC Comics canceled the project. 

“The cancellation of the project was a big blow. So I put it on hold, just threw it on the shelf somewhere,” Fadaam said. “Hoping that I would finish it one day.”

All the while Fadaam kept up with his journalism duties, running the video desk for Agence France-Presse. The bigger the responsibilities, the bigger the danger. He received two separate death threats: One was an email and the second was a phone call that rattled him.

“They gave me my children's names, even the license plates of my cars, what schools my kids go to, what's the name of my wife, what's my house address. Everything,” Fadaam said. 

Fadaam said he wasn’t afraid for his life, but he was afraid for his family. In 2006, he sent his wife and children to live in Syria for two years. 

Moving to America

The death threats worried Gordon too, who was still in regular communication with Fadaam. Gordon worked with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to get Fadaam to work at the university as a visiting scholar for one year. 

“Ahmed had risked his life for me as a fixer in Baghdad. He had become a close friend and he was in trouble. And it was the only decent thing to do to see what we could do to help,” Gordon said. 

Fadaam left his family in Syria and came to the U.S. for one year in August of 2008. Gordon hosted a welcome dinner for Fadaam. The guests included people who helped fund Fadaam’s year-long stay and other people Gordon thought Fadaam would enjoy meeting. Among the crowd was Elon sociology professor Thomas Arcaro. 

“I remember one of the first things I said to him was, ‘I apologize on behalf of the United States for invading your country,’” Arcaro said. 

Arcaro thought Fadaam’s story was worth spreading and brought him to Elon in 2009 to teach a Winter Term course about Iraq in between his two semesters at UNC. 

In 2009, when his time was up at UNC, Fadaam moved back to Iraq. He said he was following the news and concluded that the war was winding down. 

“I don't hear much about daily explosions and everything. And probably things got better. I'm away from my family so I need to get back to them,” Fadaam said. 

He was misled. Fadaam noticed more militias, lots of corruption and no electricity or running water. 

“I decided that it's not a healthy environment for my children to grow in and maybe it's time that I should apply for asylum,” Fadaam said. 

Fadaam told Arcaro about his plan. At the time Elon was looking to hire more international professors and Arcaro threw Fadaam’s name in the hat. 

“Life is such that there's not a lot of people you feel totally comfortable with. And I felt able to be vulnerable with him and vice versa. And that's the hallmark of any good friendship,” Arcaro said. 

In the meantime, Fadaam worked for Al Jazeera English, and they offered him a job in Qatar. As he was discussing this offer on the phone with his bureau chief, he got an email from Elon University offering him a full-time job. 

His boss at Al Jazeera told Fadaam to ignore her offer and encouraged him to go to the U.S. instead. He listened to her advice.  

“I couldn't believe how lucky I was back then that we are gonna be granted asylum in the United States, and I'm gonna have my job waiting for me,” Fadaam said.

After three and a half years living surrounded by war, Fadaam arrived in the U.S. with his family on Aug. 17, 2012. He landed at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport where Gordon and a World Relief resettlement organization employee were waiting to drive him to Burlington. Arcaro was waiting at Fadaam’s new house which he had stalked with pantry and refrigerator essentials before Fadaam arrived. Three days later, Fadaam started his job at Elon University. 

“It was like a dream that took me a while to understand,” Fadaam said. 

Fadaam said it was a whirlwind at first. He got electricity and water in his house, renewed his driver's license and got a social security card. He also set up a bank account and bought a cell phone. Then he had to get used to Elon and teaching courses completely in English, his second language, on a regular basis. 

“I don't even know where I am on campus. And I had to ask around and even to find where my classroom is gonna be and how to reach it,” Fadaam said. 

Arcaro mentored Fadaam about acclimating to the U.S. and Elon. 

“I knew he would have all those questions. So I was always over his house and, and talking to him about stuff, how to do this and how to do that, and getting to know his family a little bit,” Arcaro said. 

Fadaam and his family have been in the U.S. for 11 years now. Although he has lost touch with Gordon, Arcaro and him are still close friends and talk almost everyday. When a friendship is older than a decade, the friends come to know each other well and reimance about who they once were. 

“I've seen over the years how frustrating it is for him to have his artistic vision and his skills kind of waning from disuse,” Arcaro said. “I know that that has hurt him. I think he's at heart an artist, and at heart is somebody that likes to create.” 

While he is no longer an art teacher like he was in Baghdad, his artistic skills are not totally lost. Fadaam’s graphic novel, titled “Art on Fire,” that he has been working on since 2008 is being published in a few months. The  novel tells a graphic story – one of loss, love and legacy during the Iraq war 20 years ago. Fadaam never wants people to forget about the war and its victims: his people. 

“This is not only a reminder for me, but it's also my way of educating others about what really happened to my country,” Fadaam said.