Majd Wess has a bachelor’s degree in human biology from MSU and is looking into medical schools across the country for the fall of 2016.
But as a 12-year-old during the 2003 American occupation of Iraq, Wess lived in the war zone of Baghdad, Iraq with his mother May Anayi and sister Dana.
“Before 2003, there was a sort of false security,” Anayi said of Iraq under the Saddam Hussein regime. “You don’t see people dying in front of you, but you know it’s not safe.”
Wess said there were only three channels on television and all of them were dedicated to Saddam.
“That should give you an idea of what it was like in Iraq,” Wess said. “There was no freedom of speech at all.”
The channels would play scenes of Saddam’s speeches and show the people he had recently killed. The people of Iraq were expected to celebrate these events as accomplishments.
Then the American troops invaded and occupied Baghdad, bringing hope to Anayi and her family.
"(The community) couldn’t trust their neighbors enough to openly show their support for the Americans, but within their own home they were exuberant,” Anayi said. “When the American troops pushed down the statue of Saddam Hussein, we were secretly jumping up and down in our house.”
The distrust toward their neighbors was so strong that Wess was confused as to why his mother was quietly celebrating the collapse of Saddam’s statue.
“(Wess) said, ‘I thought we loved him, why are we cheering?’” Anayi said. “My children did not know what was going on in the country. I overprotected them so they wouldn’t know how unsafe it was.”
The war would last nine more years after the statue was torn down. For most families, the American invasion was an amazing thing — a turning point in the lives of many who were oppressed under the regime of Saddam.
They thought their freedoms would increase, unemployment would decrease and the country would be a much safer place to live. And for a while, all of these things happened.
“2003 to 2006 was like a golden time for us,” Anayi said. “We thought things would get better.”
Soon after, however, things deteriorated to such a dangerous level that Wess and the entire family had to collect everything in one night and flee the country as refugees.
Now, eight years after fleeing Iraq, Anayi owns a home in Lansing, has a thriving daycare business and her son has not only graduated from MSU, but has a prosperous path ahead of him with medical school on the horizon.
“I would not have imagined I would be in this position I am in right now,” Wess said. “If you had asked me 10 years ago if I would be going to medical school in America, I wouldn’t have even dared to dream about it.”
Life in Iraq after the Invasion
Anayi was already a single Catholic mom in a neighborhood of Islamic extremists and traditional families. To add to her already dangerous position, Anayi took a job working with the Americans after they started occupying the area in 2003.
“I think my mom was very brave,” Wess said. “We had no idea of the danger she was going through by working with the Americans.”
Anayi told her kids to tell anyone who asked that she was an English tutor at a high school.
Working with the Americans was dangerous, but it was a sacrifice Anayi was willing to make.
“I worked with the Americans because the pay was good,” Anayi said.
On her way to work every day, Anayi had to cross through two different militias, each controlled by differentiating Shiite and Sunni groups.
The militia would ask Anayi at gunpoint where she was going and if she worked for the Americans.
“I would lie to them so they wouldn’t know I was working for the Americans,” Anayi said. “When they asked me where I was going, I told them I was going shopping.”
Anayi would lie at gunpoint every single day. And the entire time, her children did not know the danger their mom was putting herself in.
“I appreciate what my mom did so much,” Wess said. “I am here today in America because of her.”
Life in Iraq during the American occupation was hard for the family, not just because Anayi was secretly working for the U.S. Embassy, but also because neighbors’ views made for unpredictable circumstances.
“Some of our neighbors were terrorists,” Wess said. “We were the only Catholics in the area.”
Because of this, one night American troops made a mistake and went to the wrong house to capture terrorists.
“We were sleeping at night when American troops attacked our house,” Anayi said. “They walked in and threw a sound grenade in our garage. They had guns pointing at us and said we were harboring terrorists. ... They meant our neighbors. They realized they had the wrong house, gave us $700 for the damages and then left.”
American troops were not the only people Anayi and Wess had to deal with while in Iraq. There were also insurgents in the area who were against the American occupation.
“We kept hearing and seeing insurgents killing and tying people up in our neighborhood,” Anayi said. “They would keep bodies and throw them in the open space behind our house in a pile.”
It got so bad that, after a while, the American troops made the Iraqi police bury them so the smell wouldn’t get too bad.
“Dogs started eating the flesh before the people were buried,” Anayi said.
A new life
While Anayi worked at the U.S. Embassy, her sister worked at the Australian Embassy. Working at the Australian Embassy was just as dangerous as working at the American Embassy, Anayi said.
For a long time, the sisters kept their secret hidden well from neighbors, militia and insurgents in the area.
But one day in 2007, Anayi’s sister accidentally dropped her Australian Embassy security badge in front of their house on the way to work. A neighbor saw it, came up to her and told her to pick it up.
“We left that night,” Anayi said. “We got our papers, IDs and gold and left for the American Embassy.”
Anayi’s boss at the embassy helped get her and her family out of the county immediately. In September of 2007, Anayi and her sister, kids and mother arrived in Lansing and have been there ever since.
Wess started high school in Okemos and then went to MSU in the summer of 2012. He graduated with a major in human biology in spring 2014.
“It is definitely different here,” Wess said. “There are a lot of things to get used to, like the language, culture and small talk,” Wess said.
Wess said learning the culture and language was a unique challenge.
“Not speaking the language was equal to not knowing the culture,” Wess said. “I was popular back in Iraq, but to fit in here you have to different things. ... In Iraq, it was cool to do well in school and be nerdy. Here, it is cool to do sports.”
Wess and his family were helped by the St. Vincent Catholic Charities Refugee Development Center. They helped the family find housing and get jobs.
Wess was the first one in the family to get a job. He started working at McDonald’s soon after he arrived in Lansing. Anayi started working at the Refugee Development Center and now she runs her own daycare out of her home.
“I am a hard worker,” Wess said. “I study a lot. In high school, even though I studied a lot, everything took a long time. I couldn’t cut any corners.”
English took Wess a while to learn, making it evident to him that schooling in Iraq and America is significantly different.
“While other people were just walking, I felt like I was always sprinting just to keep up,” Wess said.
Nevertheless, Anayi’s sacrifices have paid off for Wess. The ethics she passed down to her son have him currently working at Sparrow Hospital as a scribe, with aspirations once unobtainable.
“People at Sparrow are interested in my story,” Wess said. “I give them a summary and they seem intrigued. ... I tell people, ‘Do you see how bad it looks on the news, how gray it is?’ It looks like a desert and a war zone. That’s what it is like to live there. ... Here, people take safety for granted. When I’m driving home from work, my mom knows I’m coming home.”