How Rida Hassan escaped death in Iraq to find a life in Louisville

I’m looking at a photograph, a picture that on the surface looks no different than anyone’s 30-year-old elementary school picture. It’s black and white, faded, creased and too small for the frame that holds it. The boy in the picture is smiling, happy, and if he was anything like his adult self, then he’s also precocious, generous and perpetually motivated, his face always on the verge of just the slightest mischievous grin.

The picture is an 8-year-old Rida Shakir Hassan.

A child in pre-Sadam Iraq

The child in the photo clearly doesn’t know the road that lies ahead of him, the countless steps to freedom he will have to walk one day, but he already seems prepared for them. In 1970, Rida was born a Shiite in Najaf, Iraq, about 100 miles south of Bagdad. Rida grew up with his brothers, Yehyah and Jafar, and two sisters, Niema and Simira.

“It was a good life. We laughed a lot,” Rida says of growing up in pre-Sadam Hussein Iraq. Rida grew up watching the same cartoons as American children, and he was an avid reader, with special interest in French comic books that had been translated into Arabic. For fun, the Hasan kids played marbles or “Thief and Good Guy” with the Iranian kids next door.

Everything changed in 1979, when Rida was only 9 years old, and Sadam Hussein with his thuggish Ba’ath political party came into power. The following year America elected Ronald Reagan, who spent the next 8 years with his head turned, cleaning up oil spills, arming Afghanistan and tearing down the Berlin Wall. This left a blind spot in the Middle East, which allowed Sadam and his Ba’ath Party to plow through region, paving their way with the bodies of those who opposed them.

“The family next door was Iranian. All I knew was that I played with them; I didn’t know the difference between Iranian and Arabic,” Rida remembers. “One day the army came with buses and loaded the mother and the father and the kids and took them away.” To this day, Rida is not certain as to the fate of his childhood neighbors. Some of the Iranians were driven to the border and left there, while others were simply executed.

For all of us here in Louisville, a town Rida knew nothing of and couldn’t have imagined would one day be his home, the 1980s were relatively benign. The city hosted a presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale, John Timmons was opening the legendary record store Ear X-Tacy, Mayor Jerry Abramson was elected to his first term and we were all transfixed by an ugly flour de-lis fountain that was docked in the middle of the Ohio. On the other side of the world, Rida was coming of age in a 1980s that consisted of government imposed indoctrination, an ongoing war with neighboring Iran and a mounting fear of his own government and its officials.

“They’d come knock on your door,” he recalls. “They’d ask you, ‘Do you want to join the Ba’ath Party?’ If you said, ‘no,’ then you were on their list. So you had to. In 1980, I was a kid next to my mom when they came to the door. She said, ‘I have no idea, whatever you are, I am.’”

In school, Rida and his peers were issued Ba’ath Books, which were filled with a revisionist history of Iraq, including the glorification of Hussein (he was referred to as “Father Sadam,” a divine power) and general pro-government/anti-Western propaganda. “When that’s all you see and hear, the glorification of Sadam, you don’t know any better,” Rida explains. “It was like a brainwash.” Everyone had to have their Ba’ath Book on them at all times, a votive to prove that they were loyal to the oppressive regime.

In 1986, Rida was informed he had to register for military service. He and childhood friend, Mohammed Abraheem, reported together. Usually young Iraqi men weren’t drafted until the age of 18, but when officials saw that Rida was only 16 years old, they changed the birthdate on his paperwork from 1970 to 1968, thus making him old enough to serve. Since his military paperwork was all that could identify him later to American soldiers, Rida still carries those extra two years.

Rida and Abraheem served in the same units throughout the rest of their military careers. Abraheem still lives in Iraq today, but the men remain close friends, talking regularly, ribbing each other about the extra weight they’ve both gained since their lean days serving in the Iraqi military. “He’s still in Iraq,” Rida says, “but he says he wishes he had gotten out with me.”

An elite Republican Guard

Officers came from Baghdad while the two old friends were still in basic training. The high ranking generals would travel to each unit looking for men to serve in the elite, highly trained Republican Guard, which reported directly to Sadam Hussein. The training officers would pick the best people out of a unit and recruit them into The Republican Guard. Rida and Abraheem were two of the eight men selected from their unit. “You had to be chosen. To most of the soldiers, it was an honor: who was going to be trusted for this job?” he says. “All we knew was that the pay was good and you slept in good places. It wasn’t regular army anymore, no more tents.”

The two men reported to advanced training for The Republican Guard. Their drill sergeants had been trained in Russia, using the tactics utilized by Russia’s elite Spetsnaz (Special Purpose Force). In 1987, after training, they were sent to fight in Iran, which was still entangled in a war that had been raging since Hussein took power. Rida would earn two medals of bravery, one in 1987 (for an invasion in Iran) and a second in 1988.

August 2, 1990, Rida with the rest of the Iraqi military invaded the country of Kuwait. It was during this invasion that all of the mounting reservations and discontent with his country and its leader came to a boil. “I thought, you know what? Everything we’ve done, we’re not fighting for the country … we’re fighting for Sadam, to please him, that’s it.” Rida says, explaining what led to his decision to defect. “Honestly, nobody had come to my country wanting to take over. We always were the aggressor. We were always fighting other countries on their ground, not our ground. They were defending themselves from us. The U.S. had started bombing and we knew they were going to win, and we also knew Sadam didn’t care if we lived or died and he wasn’t going to retreat. So I just left.”

Deserter

In any country, at any time, defecting from military service is a serious offense, but in Sadam’s Iraq, it was a death sentence … and most likely not a quick, humane death sentence, either. Fleeing on foot, Rida soon got word from an acquaintance who was serving with his brother Yehyah that Yehyah had already been captured by American soldiers. Returning to his mother’s home in Najaf, Rida did not tell her the news of his brother right away. Due to the anti-American propaganda that was circulating the country at that time, his mother would have been inconsolable, believing her son to already be dead or at the very least being tortured at the hands of American soldiers.

They remained in Najaf for two weeks, while Sadam resituated his broken military. “He wasn’t going to leave us alone,” Rida says. “I was on his list. He was going to kill all of us just to make an example of those that retreat with no order.” He joined up with a resistance group, with plans to topple Hussein’s reign, but they soon got word that The Republican Guard was moving toward Najaf looking for defectors. “This was my unit, I knew those guys and knew what they were going to do when they got to town. They were just going to start killing.”

Rida packed up his mother, his other brother Jafar, Yehyah’s wife Nadima and her eleven children, plus three other families made up of friends and neighbors, and together they fled Najaf on foot. Sadam’s military would soon arrive, the very unit he had served in for years and defected from, moved in and bombed the entire city of Najaf.

Rida led his and the neighboring families on foot 150 miles south to Al Shamia, a small remote town where his mother was from. After safely arriving at his grandfather’s home in the country, Rida stayed two days, then strapped an AK-47 to his back and “I said, ‘I’m leaving.’ My brother was like, ‘I’m going with you.’ I told him, ‘Don’t go with me, you did nothing wrong, they won’t take you.’ But my mom was like, ‘You go, he goes.’ So I took Jafar and left.”

The brothers headed north into Samarra, but they didn’t stay long because of rumors among the resistance and other defectors that The Republican Guard was near. Returning south to Basra, Rida and Jafar walked for four days, trying, when possible, to avoid main roads, which left them much more vulnerable. “We were walking down the road to Basra, and a big old dump truck passes us,” Rida remembers. “I waved him down. I just wanted a ride, because we had been walking so long. He stopped and said he was going to Basra, and said we could hop in. I climbed the ladder and looked down into the back; there were about a hundred people squeezed into the back of this truck. There was no room for us at all. So I just told him to go ahead without us.”

Six or seven hours later, they came upon the dump truck again; this time it was pulled over to the side of the road. Rida instructed his brother to hide while he investigated the peculiar scene. “As I approached, I could see blood dripping out of the truck. The driver had been shot and the man riding next to him was dead. I climbed the ladder to see down to where all the people had been, and they were all dead. The Iraqi army had flagged him to the side of the road and found the members of the resistance in the back. They started raining down grenades and machine gun fire on them.”

That was the last time the two brothers stepped foot on a main road. Once in Basra, Rida and Jafar took shelter in a building that had been shelled by the Americans with a a group that said they were from they resistance, yet it was impossible to know who might be spies and who was still loyal to Sadam. “But this is when I really started asking, ‘Where’s the United States troops located?’” Rida recalls. “And everyone I would ask would get really scared, and they’d be like, ‘What do you want the United States for?’ And he’s scared to tell me, because he’s in the same situation as me, wanting to get away — but no one could trust each other.” After four nights sleeping in the bombed out building, they got word the Americans had taken over an air force base in the nearby town of Safawn, just on the border between Iraq and Kuwait. Rida left his AK-47 with the resistance in Basra, knowing they could always use more weapons, and also not wanting to appear aggressive when he approached U.S. soldiers.

When Rida and Jafar arrived at Safawn, they found Iraqis surrounding the base. Walking closer they realized the American soldiers were handing food out to the people. “I noticed the boxes they were handing out were numbered, but they would skip this one particular number every time and not give it to us because there was pork in it. I thought: How does that make them bad people? If they understand your religion, and that we don’t eat pork — and they would take it away from us so we would only eat the good food,” Rida says, recalling his first impression of the kindness displayed by the U.S. soldiers. “I was walking down the road, and a convoy was coming from the opposite direction. We didn’t even have to move over, the entire convoy went around us; they got out of our way!” The compassion was overwhelming to the men that been trained to hate America and all western culture.

“When we got there, they didn’t want to take us, but I said, ‘I can’t go back. If I go back, I get killed.’” That’s when the ranking officer began making phone calls. Finally they brought out barbed wire and built a temporary, protected camp where the two could stay the night. The next day, Rida and Jafar were moved to warehouses with cots and blankets, where they remained for a few weeks before finally being moved to Rafha Refugee Camp in northern Saudi Arabia. March 21, 1991, the two weary brothers who had traveled so far were now safely out of Iraq and under the protection of the U.S. military. “I remember traveling from the Iraqi border to the refugee camp,” Rida says. “It was about 12 hours, and at night in the cold, we were sitting like animals. But I didn’t care as long as I was leaving.” Rida and Jafar were soon surprised to be reunited at Rafha with a long lost cousin named, Bassem Wheed, as well.

Refugee

The camp was like a city: 24,000 Iraqis without a country were situated into Rafha Refugee camp. Initially they were put in large tents. but those were soon replaced with more permanent housing structures. They had water piped in, along with communal toilets and showers. A school, a technical college, a post office and mosques were all constructed within the camp. They received an allowance of 300 Saudi Arabian Riyals a month (about 60 U.S. Dollars). However, with the exception of a small general store that sold household items, there was really nowhere to spend the money. Once a month, a chosen few were taken on a long bus trip to the nearest city, Basera Safan.

After a year in the camp, things were looking bleak. The U.S. military operation known as Desert Storm stopped outside of Baghdad, and Sadam remained in power. He began rebuilding his military, while continuing to murder and torture any actual or suspected members of the remaining resistance. Even those Iraqi citizens who weren’t openly resistant lived in an extremely oppressive police state. Sadam’s resilience made for very low morale among the refugees in Rafha.

“We were told we could stay at the camp or go back to Iraq,” Rida says. ‘We certainly didn’t know when or if Sadam was going to die. And as long as he was alive, we couldn’t go home. Sadam’s people are criminal. They like blood, they like to kill, they like violence. So we were just going to be stuck in this camp in the middle of the desert for the rest of our lives.”

In the summer of 1992, the Saudi government, which was running the camp in conjunction with the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), began pressuring the American government to figure out what to do with all of these Iraqi refugees. They certainly couldn’t all be relocated at one time, so that fall, the United States set up a lottery system. By drawing names in rounds, people would be given the opportunity to apply for asylum in either the United States, Canada or Australia. Rida’s name was drawn in the first round.

When a friend saw Rida’s name on the list he ran to congratulate him. “I was like, ‘Man, you’re joking. Get out here, I’m tired. We don’t have no hope no more — we’re just going to stay here forever.’” But this was no joke. Rida finally had a chance to escape once and for all.

They were taken the next day to a heavily secured location where the U.S. International and Naturalization Services (I.N.S.), as well as the Canadian and Australian equivalents, interviewed applicants.

The woman who interviewed Rida had been rejecting applicants all day. “I told the translator, ‘Tell her exactly what I’m going to tell you now. The truth is I just wanna get out of Iraq and all of these problems. It’s just killing. And all of my life it has been nothing but killing. I know nothing except that Sadam is killing us. And if you don’t go to the army you get killed. And if you do go to the army you get killed. So that’s what I’ve known all my life. I just want go to a free land somewhere. Whether it’s America or Canada or wherever I end up … anywhere is better than my country.”

Approved. That was the stamp Rida and Jafar saw on their files that afternoon. Jafar was included because anyone granted asylum was allowed to bring whatever immediate family they had in the camp with them. So Rida and Jafar were on their way to America. Sponsored by Catholic Charities of Louisville, Inc., the two men arrived stateside in the fall of 1992.

Louisvillian

Rida and Jafar arrived in America at a key turning point in the recent history of the United States. The nation was adrift. Its angst was coming to a boil, when Nirvana released Nevermind and changed the way everyone under 35 viewed the world. Weary of the over-indulgence of the 1980s — and the trickle down that never trickled down — America was suddenly transfixed by the blue collar subculture of the Seattle music scene and mostly eager to say goodbye to President George H. W. Bush, a lingering relic of the stagnant economic policies of the Reagan administration.
Here in Louisville, Mayor Abramson had just been elected to a second term, the Aegon building was still under construction and we were cheering on The Icehawks, our minor league professional hockey team. And our indie rock scene — Slint, Will Oldham and Endpoint — was garnering national attention.

Rida and Jafar were settled in an apartment off lower Brownsboro Road, and Rida’s first job was in roofing. After a couple of months, he began working in tile and granite installation. Only 22 years old, with a whole lifetime behind him, Rida took to 1992 America almost right away. Having found a job he loved, he grew out a rather impressive mullet, which was par for the era and began to study Tae Kwon Do in his spare time, eventually earning a black belt. Within a couple of years, the cousin, Bassem Wheed, who had been left in Rafha would finally get to join Rida and Jafar. By 1997, still working in tile and granite, Rida took a second job at the restaurant W. W. Cousins and enrolled at Jefferson Community College.

September 19, 1997, while working a shift at W. W. Cousins, a co-worker, Sheana, introduced Rida to her friend Charlene Stiles. Almost instantly the two were connected. “She stalked me,” Rida says with a laugh because every time Charlene would stop by “to visit Sheana,’ it would coincidentally be during one of Rida’s shifts. Soon, they were falling in love.

September 15, 1999, three months after earning his degree from JCC, a 30-year-old Rida Shakir Hassan took his Oath of Allegiance and officially became a naturalized citizen of the United States of America, once and for all severing any ties with Iraq and the life of horror he fought to escape.

The following St. Patrick’s Day, on March 17, 2000, he married Charlene, the one real love of his life. Together they would build a life and family grounded in gratitude, joy and generosity, values accentuated by Rida’s long road to freedom.

Rida spent the next decade continuing to work with tile and granite installation, honing his craft to perfection, raising a family and saving money. He worked hard, harder than everyone around him, working long overtime hours through the ranks of the company – all the while saving money the old fashioned way — in shoe boxes under the bed. In 2012, he started his own business, Affordable Granite & Marble, and he did it without a bank loan.

Affordable Granite & Marble has a large shop in the deep southwest end of Louisville, off Cane Run Road, where Rida employs ten people, not including Charlene and himself. He generally works 18-hour week days and relaxes on the weekends with mere 12-hour work days Saturday and Sunday. He also manages seven rental properties. In addition to work, Rida and Charlene are active members of the community. They are also people of faith: He worships at his mosque, and she at her Baptist church.

A little over a month after my initial interview with Rida for this story, I find myself standing in the shop of Affordable Granite & Tile. Rida is smiling with salt and pepper just barely starting to graze the sides of his black hair. A picture is being taken of him holding a portrait of himself. In the picture he is two-and-a-half decades younger, proudly decked out in military dress, and there are two medals penned in the upper corners. This picture being taken of Rida now holding a younger version himself represents the journey that is behind him, the one that he has finished, the journey that brought him from a life ravaged by a tyrannical leader to a success story that could only be told in America.