Casey Tolan

HOUSTON—The last straw for Ahmed Badr and his family was when a bomb hit their house.

It happened one night in July 2006, when Badr was 10, tearing a hole through their home in Baghdad and filling the room with smoke and debris. A few feet to the left or right and his mother or father or sister could have been killed. That bomb led the family to flee the country and put them on a circuitous path to Syria, South Dakota, and Houston.

Now Badr, 17, has turned his life story into a memoir that explores how his refugee experience shaped him. At a time when refugees are being demonized by some politicians, he's determined to give readers a different perspective.

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Badr told me about his journey over bubble tea at a cafe in a suburban strip mall on the city’s southeast side. He has black-rimmed glasses, frizzy hair, and an infectious smile. He tends to talk quickly, with big hand motions.

Ahmed Badr
Casey Tolan

Growing up in Baghdad with his parents and younger sister, Badr remembers a happy, middle-class childhood filled with family. Even the war didn't enter into his memory that much. “My parents did a very good job of shielding me from everything that was going on,” he said. “As a kid you don’t know what tragedy is—you’re focused on happy endings.”

That changed when the bomb struck in 2006. It was a dud bomb—it didn’t explode—but it went right into his family’s house, narrowly missing his parents and little sister. Badr, who was staying with his grandparents that night, still wonders what would have happened if he had been there.

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Soon after, his family decided to flee the country, his parents leaving behind civil engineering jobs they’d held for 23 years. They got on a bus to Aleppo, Syria, which at the time was much safer. But there were no jobs.

During one trip back and forth between Iraq and Syria, a bus driver suggested they apply to the U.N. refugee resettlement program, which places refugees in other countries. There was only about a 1% chance of getting approved, they thought, but they decided to try anyway.

After a year of security screenings and background checks, “we got a call one day and they said you have four one-way tickets to Sioux Falls, South Dakota,” Badr said. Their first challenge was figuring out how to pronounce the city’s name.

The family arrived in the U.S. on May 19, 2008, and quickly adapted to their new lives. His parents went back to graduate school in South Dakota to get master's degrees in engineering after realizing their Iraqi credentials weren't worth much here. Badr, who was 10 at the time, quickly mastered English, which he had studied in Syria but was far from fluent in.

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They came to Houston after the recession kicked in, in search of jobs. They followed the path of tens of thousands of other immigrants: Houston is now one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., and its unemployment rate of 3.7% is well below the national average. More refugees come here than any other city in the country. Badr’s dad worked at Wal-Mart and his mom at Home Depot for several years, and they kept working hard and applying for better jobs. Now they work at the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality.

The family became American citizens last year. (Badr will be voting for the first time in November, but he doesn’t know for whom yet.)

Growing up, Badr had dreams of joining the NBA—which his height makes unrealistic at best. But then a family friend suggested that he start writing about his life and about the connections between America and the Middle East. “At first I didn’t think that my story was any different,” Badr said. “I started writing and I was like, holy crap, I have something here. … I’ve lived in both worlds, and I can bring these two regions together.”

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Over the last two years, Badr condensed his life story into his book. He’d write late into the night, typing away on his laptop with his eyes shut tight when writer's block struck. It's tentatively titled "The Residual," which comes from the idea that refugees have their old lives stripped away—a residual is what gets left behind. Like Badr's life, the book is divided into three parts, about his time in Iraq, Syria, and America. (See below for an excerpt.)

Badr said part of the reason he wrote the memoir was to spend time thinking through his identity. “I’ve always had trouble connecting my Iraqi and American sides,” he said. “Like, Iraqi-American is almost an oxymoron, right?”

What he realized, he said, is that “you don’t have to choose one thing over the other. The identity crisis is to be embraced, not avoided.”

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Now, the book is nearly done. “I’m still perfecting things here and there,” he said. “It’s not perfect quite yet.”

When he wasn’t writing, Badr started a website, Narratio.org, that publishes art, poetry, stories, and photos by young people from around the world. He's received 50 submissions from six countries, and he’s working on publishing a booklet of the work that will be distributed to refugee and homeless kids in Houston next month.

Narratio led him to a spot as a “global teen leader” at the Just Peace Summit, a conference being held this week in New York for young people around the world. In his suitcase is a 160-page printed draft of the memoir (along with a huge trove of business cards he ordered). He’s dreaming of meeting a publisher or an agent who can help him get the book onto shelves.

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Badr’s determination to share his story is especially powerful considering the political debate over refugees. Presidential candidates like Donald Trump have demonized Muslim immigrants and Middle Eastern refugees, while governors like Texas’ Greg Abbott have vowed to stop Syrians from entering their states. They say refugees might be Islamic extremists in disguise, using America’s generosity to infiltrate its shores.

This rhetoric has driven the media’s portrayal of refugees, which makes it important for people like Badr to stand up and tell a different story. Trump and his fellow anti-refugee extremists “only see one perspective, one world,” Badr said. “I hope my story can show people another side—so they can actually make up their own mind and not listen to certain individuals with bad hair.”

While he loves writing, Badr thinks he’d like to get a job in international relations in the future. So far he’s applied to 17 colleges, and is waiting to hear back.

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During winter vacation last December, Badr and his family returned to Baghdad for the first time in nine years because they finally had enough money for plane tickets. His extended family told them about Iraq’s economic problems, about widespread corruption, about fear of encroaching war. At every street corner, he was struck by memories of what used to be—and how much had changed.

When he went back to his old house, Badr stared at the window where the bomb entered, and thought about the path his life had taken since. “It’s a curse and the blessing at the same time,” he said. Without that bomb, after all, he wouldn’t be in America, wouldn’t have a book, wouldn’t have all the experiences he’s had.

“Part of the reason I wanted to write the book is because I never wanted to forget where I came from,” he said with a smile. “I don’t want to be too Americanized. And if I didn’t write it, I was going to forget."


An excerpt from "The Residual: Baghdad to Houston" by Ahmed Badr, published with permission from the author:

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From the outside, the house looked normal, undisturbed. I had an undying hope that what I was told was merely a lie, that my home, my sanctuary, was safe. As soon as I entered the home, past the gate, and past where the kittens were born, I noticed a strange smell in the air. Rubble and dust. Lots of it. I coughed, and continued on to our living room. It was then that I got my first glimpse of the destruction.

Once I left the living room, and continued on to the kitchen, and bathroom, the floor seemed to disappear. It was replaced by pieces of concrete. The small bathroom to my left was normal, except for the fact that the fan in the top corner of it was gone, and replaced by a 2ft hole. I would later learn that this was where the Dud Bomb came through. To my left, lay what was left of the storage room that faced the kitchen. Also to my left, were three natural gas canisters, which my father had emptied two days prior. If they had been full, I am sure that I wouldn’t be writing this.

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The bomb had entered the house the night before. My family had been using garden scissors for clearing weeds from the back garden, and were getting ready to go back inside for dinner. An Iraqi superstition that was always proven right is that cutting at night is always bad luck. At first, I was always skeptical. After what happened, I don’t want to say that I believe it, but I stay away from cutting anything with scissors after the sun goes down.

My parents went back inside, and that was when it happened. My father was sitting in the kitchen along with my sister, and my mother was in our bedroom. The small bathroom was directly to the right of the kitchen, so if they had been at slightly different positions, they would not have survived.

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The crash was deafening. The rubble was instantaneous and chaos gripped the air. My father instinctively scrambled to pick up my sister, who was sitting on a nearby table. My father tells me that the first voice he heard after the crash was my sister’s, who was crying. Everything was pitch black. Luckily, our neighbors heard the loud crash and came to the rescue. They stayed with us until the morning, and helped us clean up.

My life had changed.

A couple of days passed, and I got the news that we were going to be moving to Syria. To me, that was just another place in Iraq. Perhaps it was near grandma’s house? Apparently, it wasn't.

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Before we left, we had to decide what was to happen with all of our belongings. We decided to give our duck away to our neighbors. The finches were all released.

With civilized society crumbling around us, with Baghdad having both targeted and indiscriminate bombings every day, living in Baghdad was no longer possible. We packed up, and a week later, we boarded the bus to a more secure, peaceful place: Syria.

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Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.