Fear lost in translation
Although she is only 25 years old, Iraqi international student Rafraf Barrak has been through wars ever since she was born.
“War became part of my life,” Barrak said. “You just live it. You just know it, so you can’t just fear it.”
Barrak has been in the United States for about a year and a half. She leads a life similar to other students. Between attending political science classes, Barrak works at Starbucks in the USF Library.
“It’s so different here,” Barrak said. “You know what to expect for tomorrow.”
When Barrak lived in Iraq, she worked as a civilian translator for NBC News’ foreign correspondents, including Don Teague and USF alumnus Kerry Sanders.
“First of all, to work as a translator for NBC, I had to earn their trust,” Barrak said. “Earning the trust of foreigners who don’t speak your language is very hard. They would worry that I wasn’t saying the right thing, and I had to be very careful. After I worked with them, I was able to consider myself their friend.”
Aside from coping with her coworkers’ doubts, Barrak dealt with the mistrust of her own people.
“I knew there were people who were observing every move that I made,” Barrak said. “They considered me a spy and a traitor because I worked for Americans.”
The suspicion surrounding Barrak became so great that she was in danger of being kidnapped.
“My neighbor was kidnapped,” Barrak said. “When they released him, he came to my house. He said I was on their list and to be careful.”
Barrack’s bravery in spite of the multiple dangers of her position has earned her the respect of her peers – a far cry from the doubt she previously dealt with.
“It amazes me, what Rafraf has been through,” senior James Olliff said. “She has faced the worst humanity can offer, yet hasn’t surrendered her own. She has one of the biggest, kindest hearts I know.”
Between bombs, grenades and street shootings, no place in Iraq was safe for Barrak and the NBC crew she worked with.
“When you live in the middle of Iraq, often just getting into your car and going from point A to point B can be a harrowing experience,” Sanders said.
During the reopening of an Iraqi school, Barrak translated interviews for NBC. While talking to one of the interviewees, a bomb exploded approximately 30 yards away.
“Everything just shattered, and there was smoke everywhere,” Barrak said. “You will always remember that sound. It’s scary, and it brings bad memories.”
According to Barrak, many Iraqis resist American troops because they associate the current violence with democracy. The uneducated Iraqis don’t understand that war isn’t equivalent to this form of government.
“People want democracy,” Barrak said. “They like having their own opinions and decisions. They like not being afraid. But they want that in a peaceful way. Some will refer to the war as democracy because they don’t understand the difference. When Saddam (Hussein) was in power, they at least knew when they left their houses they wouldn’t be shot.”
Barrak was in Iraq on April 9, 2003, the day that both the Ba’ath party fell and Hussein’s statue was destroyed. She and her family listened to updates of military resistance on a small, battery-powered radio. Contrary to how it was portrayed in news footage, Barrak said that most Iraqis didn’t celebrate on April 9. They were too frightened.
“When we heard a broadcast on the radio saying that the statue had fallen, we started to cry,” Barrak said. “Since there wasn’t any government to enforce laws, we were afraid people would kill and loot. We thought there would be chaos. The only people who were really rejoicing were ones that were around the statue who were under the protection of the U.S. troops.”
Throughout the political upheaval, Barrak was worried for the safety of her brother, a civilian police officer who had been called into his office. Later, she found that her brother had been forced into hiding. All of his colleagues had been either injured or killed. There had been no way to contact his worried family, and he couldn’t return until the turmoil died down.
Barrak’s opportunity to come to the United States and attend USF came from her friends at NBC.
“The NBC people that I worked for decided to help me get something together here in the U.S. so I could study,” Barrack said. “So I got lucky again.”
Sanders and his colleagues collectively contributed to the NBC News International Fellowship scholarship. The $30,000 scholarship was for international students studying political science. Preferences were given to Iraqi females with work experience at NBC. Not surprisingly, there weren’t many applicants for this unusual scholarship.
“I travel all over the world, and people do amazing things for us,” Sanders said. “One day I thought, ‘Let’s do something for someone else this time.'”
For the summer, Barrak is staying in Texas with Teague, whom she considers family. As of now, she is unsure of what she will do after graduation. She might return to her family after the violence subsides. She might find employment in the United Nations or the media. Whatever she does, she hopes to leave a lasting impact on those who hear her story.
“I hope my story will help people to be thankful for what they have,” Barrak said. “It really makes me feel bad when I see college kids take everything for granted. It’s a blessing, and I’ve seen a lot throw everything away. Just be thankful.”