I did it for my people. They were experiencing something new called freedom. Democracy. We never enjoyed freedom in Iraq. I always believe this is my battle. Those (U.S. soldiers) need to go back to their families, spend the Christmas, be there during the Thanksgiving. They should not be here. This is not their battle. —Firas Al Ebadi
SALT LAKE CITY — An Iraqi man lifted a miniature American flag to his lips and tenderly kissed the red and white stripes.
It's a flag of the country he could now call his own, a country he had been serving for more than a decade.
Friday was a day Firas Al Ebadi said he never imagined would come.
"If someone would ask me 10 years ago where would I'd be in the next 10 years, I don't know what to say," he said. "I will just say, 'Iraq. Dead. Injured. Disabled.'"
On Friday, Al Ebadi stood with 28 other immigrants at the Salt Lake Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to take an oath and become citizens of the United States of America.
Tears fell from his eyes while "God Bless the USA" played.
"The hard work I've done before, and this is my reward right now," he said.
For five years and seven months, Al Ebadi served as a local translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq.
"I almost died. I was injured. I was kidnapped once in '07, and I never thought that I would survive all this. I'm grateful to everything," he said. "It's the greatest day of my life."
In 2004, Al Ebadi's life was turned upside down in a matter of weeks. He remembers fighting U.S. troops as a member of the Iraqi Republican Guard, working directly under Saddam Hussein.
In the midst of a futile battle in an airport, his troops began to recede. Al Ebadi made a decision then that would lead him to the life he knows now.
"I didn't want to die for Saddam," he said recalling the battle. "If I'm going to die, I'll have to die for the sake of my country."
With tears in his eyes and a failing voice, he repeated his words that day to a U.S. soldier.
"I raised my hands," he said. "'Don't shoot.'"
Al Ebadi led U.S. troops to 600 captured soldiers and stayed as a prisoner of war for two weeks. He was then approached with an opportunity. The U.S. Army wanted him to be a translator.
"I can do that," he told the soldiers.
"I did it for my people. They were experiencing something new called freedom. Democracy. We never enjoyed freedom in Iraq," Al Ebadi said. "I always believe this is my battle. Those (U.S. soldiers) need to go back to their families, spend the Christmas, be there during the Thanksgiving. They should not be here. This is not their battle."
Steve Clark works with Al Ebadi as a security guard for KSL-TV and said his loyalties never fail.
"If there’s anyone that is a candidate to be a citizen, I think it’s him," Clark said. "Now that he’s a U.S. citizen, he’s probably going to be the best U.S. citizen you're ever going to find."
On May 28, 2009, after receiving a special immigration visa, Al Ebadi was officially sworn into the Army. He has been in the U.S. ever since.
"I thought I was a lucky person to escape the drama I had before," he said. "But I was wrong. I just discovered today I was wrong. I'm even luckiest. Being American, I can proudly and loudly say it — 'I'm an American' — to everyone."
That doesn't mean Al Ebadi doesn't feel homesick or long to see his family. He left behind his mother, father and five younger brothers in Iraq. And he can't go back.
"Going to Baghdad will be signing my death certificate," he said.
Al Ebadi recalls his childhood fondly but said he wouldn't go back. Going back would mean a life of sadness and loss, a life of fences riddled with bullet holes. It would mean crumbling walls, barriers, checkpoints, roadside bombs, smoke and ambulances.
"This is not the kind of life I want," he said.
It is a life that still haunts him.
Al Ebadi said he used to ask co-worker Josh Hardy if he was ever afraid.
He would ask "if I ever was worried I was going to get in my car and it was going to blow up," Hardy said. "And he said, 'Well, do you ever check behind your driver's side tire or wheel to make sure that there’s nothing there?'"
"I've seen a lot," Al Ebadi said.
But he has learned to forgive and forget, to treat others how he would like to be treated. And he said he will never regret the decision he made in that airport years ago.
"I've done my best before when I was local," Al Ebadi said. "I'm not going to hesitate to do anything for the sake of the United States and the American people."