"We Called Him Papa Saddam": What It Was Like Growing Up In Baghdad

Growing up in Baghdad, Tarek Turkey and his classmates used to call Saddam Hussein "Papa Saddam." The authoritarian leader's photo was everywhere, and the boys at his school saw him as a kind of superhero, protecting Iraq from foreign invaders, Tarek says.

"I used to like Saddam Hussein a lot as a little kid, because in school, we considered him a father figure," Tarek remembers. "It was like, yes, he’s the man that I like and love and consider my president, because he’s making my country a safer place for me to live. So I believed that, and my parents didn’t try to change my point of view, because I was a little kid."

But all that changed 13 years ago this month. Tarek was only 11 years old when then-President George W. Bush gave Hussein an ultimatum: 48 hours to leave Iraq with his sons before the U.S. would invade. Tarek wasn't totally sure what that would mean for him. But his parents were.

Together with aunts, uncles, and cousins, Tarek and his relatives piled into the family's Kia van and fled the city. His parents thought the family would be safer in the small town of Hīt, in Anbar province, where Tarek was born and his grandparents still lived.

"We basically stacked up the car with bags of potatoes and onions, because they were cheap, and we could buy a lot of them. We took our personal belongings and we went to Hīt," Tarek says.

Once there, the kids enjoyed themselves, oblivious to what was going on: "I remember it as a fun time, because I got to see my cousins that I don’t see a lot." But the adults knew that the war was about to change their lives forever.

"I remember the first day of the invasion, I woke up, and I saw my mom and my grandmother crying, watching TV. Baghdad basically fell for the Americans, and Saddam was on TV, talking. And I remember just smiling, like it didn’t really affect me that much. But then I saw my mom crying, she yelled at me for smiling," Tarek recalls.

"The city was just being destroyed. It’s a sad thing to see. Then the looting started, and people were stealing things from government buildings, and museums, everything. Saddam was basically on TV talking about how he’s encouraging people to loot and steal things, because that's Iraqi money...and, you know, the looting happened in front of the American soldiers' eyes," Tarek says.

Tarek's life would never be the same again: The family would flee to Syria and eventually to the U.S., and they'd never be able to return home. Inspired by his own experiences as a refugee, he traveled to the region for Refinery29, speaking with Syrian refugee women and sharing their stories through Daughters of Paradise. Ahead, Tarek shares the personal story of his own life as a refugee and a filmmaker.

Pictured: Tarek on a family vacation in the ancient city of Hatra, located in Mosul in Northern Iraq. The Islamic State group now occupies the city.

Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Photo: Courtesy of Tarek Turkey.
What was your life growing up in Baghdad like, before the war?
"I was born in 1992, right after the Gulf War. At that time, the United Nations had applied economic sanctions on Iraq, so the country’s economic situation was very bad. I grew up kind of poor. I wouldn’t consider it having a real childhood. I didn’t have the toys or the candy that I wanted. But it was fun, you know? I didn’t overthink it, because I was a little kid.

"I was born to a family of two parents and one older sister. My mother was a teacher at an elementary school. Two years later, she quit when she had my younger sister in 1994 and basically became a housewife. She spent a lot of time raising us and teaching us. My father was a photographer. We didn’t see much of him when I was a little kid, because he would spend 12, 14 hours in the darkroom or the studio where he worked. I’d only see him at night, or sometimes I’d catch him a little bit in the morning.

"My parents were always hesitant to say anything about Saddam or the regime around us as children. But we lived in a very small house, where I shared a room with both of my sisters and my parents slept in the living room. We had just a one-bedroom apartment and we had just a window between us, so I would hear if they were talking about something."

Pictured: Tarek and his mother
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Photo: Courtesy of Tarek Turkey.
What was your life growing up in Baghdad like, before the war? (continued)
"As we grew up a little bit, we’d start to notice what the government is and who Saddam is, and what my parents are up to. But my parents are peaceful people. My father never joined any political party...he always wanted to be independent. But he would sometimes talk negatively about the regime.

"One day, my mom told me that — she convinced me that — the regime had implanted microphones under the ground. So I am not allowed to talk about the regime outside of the house, because then the regime would come and arrest my father.

"It was her way of just telling me to shut up, basically, and be scared. So I actually believed in that — and I convinced one other friend that this is a real thing and that we shouldn’t talk about the regime — until I was in fifth grade."

Pictured: Tarek on a family vacation to Hatra, an ancient city that is now controlled by ISIS
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Photo: Courtesy of Tarek Turkey.
Do you remember your parents speaking out against the government?
"Just general talk about making fun of him, or just talking about how rich his family is and how poor everyone else is. Mostly making fun of him, really, because he would be on TV 24/7. We would watch his birthday, we would watch his speech, we would watch him do this and do that, and TV was 75% Saddam’s content.

"Toward the ‘90s, Saddam got more into religion and started practicing, so we would see him praying and doing other religious stuff, inviting people to practice religion. My dad is not quite atheist, but he never practiced, so he made fun of that, too.

"Both of my parents are not [religious]. I would say my mom is more traditional than religious. Growing up, I prayed sometimes, depending on who’s inviting me to pray. My dad never did that. My mom invited me to pray, to fast, to do all of these traditional Islamic things, but we never got deeply into religion."

Pictured: A family photo in the front yard of Tarek's family's first house in Baghdad
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Photo: Courtesy of Tarek Turkey.
Before the war, was Iraq a violent place?
"I wouldn’t consider it violent. We were aware that it was free, but with limitations, obviously, so there are red lines that you cannot cross. I used to like Saddam Hussein a lot as a little kid, because in school, we considered him a father figure. We called him Baba Saddam, which is 'Papa Saddam,' as little children.

"We actually believed that he was our protector from nations like the United States or Israel or Iran. He’s our safe spot, you know, like he’s covering all of us. That made me feel comfortable... I enjoyed being there.

"[In the buildup to the war], everyone was paranoid. No one knew what was going to happen. No one wanted war. Yes, I remember my parents wanted change before the war. And Saddam, after 2000, he became a lot calmer. He got older. He didn’t project as he used to do. Everyone was afraid, and my parents said that clearly his son, Uday Hussein, would take over, and he’s just a crazy guy who is known to be violent, rape women, he would kidnap people. He just did all the bad things that no one wants. So, people were afraid of that.

"People wanted the change, because they didn't want that family to run the country anymore. But no one wanted the change with this price. No one expected it to be that bad."

Pictured: Tarek's Iraqi ID card
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Photo: Courtesy of Tarek Turkey.
What were the first days and weeks after the U.S. invasion like?
"We stayed in Hīt for an entire month. At that time, I’d just hang out with my cousins. There was no school. Everything shut off. Food was very limited. Water was very limited.

"So we had schedules. We didn’t shower regularly, we didn't eat everything we like. There was a lot of fish, because we’re on the river, a lot of chicken that we slaughter in the house, and a lot of potatoes. We shared rooms, everyone shared rooms together. The house was just, I didn’t like being in the house, because it was basically just radios — everyone holding a radio, trying to hear the news. And a lot of drama between kids and girls and families, because there are so many people in the house.

"It was eight families, and each family is an average of four to six people. Well, eight families is a lot of people, too, hanging out in the same place. Especially, you know, it’s family. People fight, people argue, a lot of politics going on, people having different opinions. But as a kid, you know, that didn’t affect me a lot. After a month, we decided to go back to Baghdad."

Pictured: Tarek and his family in April 2003, a few days after the war began. Tarek sits next to his mother as she picks lentils, while Tarek's aunt fries potatoes.
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Photo: Courtesy of Tarek Turkey.
What was it like driving back to Baghdad?
"The war was still going on, but the invasion of Baghdad stopped, like everything went back to normal. Saddam had fled, and the Americans took over, so it was safer to go back. It was just so surreal. We drove back, the highway that we left looked entirely different. It was destroyed.

"We saw a lot of leftover fragments of cars, tanks, just different things, like the streets were broken, and [there were] cracks everywhere, leftover bullet holes in some buildings. And then we saw two burned-out tanks actually on the road. And my father asked my uncle to pull over, and we got out, and took these photographs. It was very weird. I think it was an Iraqi tank, actually. So it’s a burned-out Iraqi tank."

Pictured: Tarek's father took a photo of him and his sister in front of a burned-out tank as they made their way back to Baghdad after the U.S. invasion.
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Photo: Courtesy of Tarek Turkey.
Were you afraid after the war started?
"I feel scared now of going back, because I’m like, 'Oh, it’s too dangerous, there are so many things going on.' But in reality, there were more things going on when I was living there. But after a certain point, when you live under war and explosions and death and blood, you get used to that, and that becomes your everyday life."

Pictured: Tarek rides a carousel with his cousin (right) and his sister (back).
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Photo: Courtesy of Tarek Turkey.
Did you ever witness death or violence firsthand?
"I'd just turned 11, right before the war. I was born March 2, and the war happened later that month. I finished sixth grade and I moved to seventh grade, which is middle school, and my school that I chose with my parents is a little farther away... Just commuting, I had two near-death experiences.

"One day, I was coming back from a tutor with a friend of mine. My neighborhood bordered the airport road, and there were a lot of explosions that happened on that road, because it’s a highway that American troops would take it back and forth from their camps.

"A bomb went off, and usually when a bomb goes off, the [American] soldiers just start shooting randomly, just in case there’s anyone that actually did it. We were walking, and the shooting was at us, too. We were running, and I could feel the bullets hitting the street between my feet and my friends', too. We ran by a wall and then we just — it was probably the quickest time I’ve ever climbed a wall, it was so quick. I climbed some random gate for a house, and we basically hid in someone’s house for a little bit until it calmed down and we went back home."

Pictured: Tarek, his mom, and his siblings celebrating his birthday on March 2, 2003, almost a month before the war.
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Photo: Courtesy of Tarek Turkey.
What was your second near-death experience?
"After a lot of bad experiences taking the bus to school and just dangerous situations, my parents decided to put me in a school carpooling van with a guy from my neighborhood. I became friends with everyone in the van.

"One day, we went and picked up this kid named Ahmed. It was strange. His dad would usually come up with him to let him into the van. Sometimes he’d pay the bus driver extra money just to come closer to the house. His father was very worried that something would happen to his son. And at that time, there were a lot of gangs and groups of people that would kidnap little kids for money. Most of them came back, but some of them get killed.

"As Ahmed was entering the van, two cars drove really quickly down from the street, and basically surrounded us. Two gunmen got out and they pointed a gun towards the driver, and the gun was like right here next to my head, because I was sitting next to him... And the driver starts basically calling out the prayers [you say] before you die in the Islamic culture, because he thought he was going to die.

"The other guy went and basically took Ahmed. At that moment, I was, I don’t know, everyone was crying and screaming and calling for different things, but I was just in a really weird zone of feeling that: I'm going to die. I just wanted to get it over with, like I wanted the process to speed up. I didn’t want to be in that torture anymore. But I basically like clenched my body and was very calm, and in my place — but very nervous, too. They took [Ahmed] to their car.

"I saw him three months later, after his father paid a lot of money to free him. But it was a very weird meeting... He didn’t function normally anymore. Or that’s what I heard."

Pictured: Tarek studies for a final exam by candlelight before the war.
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Photo: Courtesy of Tarek Turkey.
Why did your family decide to leave Iraq for Syria?
"Several reasons. I mean, experiences like these that I had to face, it was a torture for my parents: not knowing what’s going to happen or if they're going to lose their kid at any moment. Other than that, my dad worked in the media, and he did a lot of work for TV and news channels, documentary work, political work, that sometimes had to offend a specific militia or group. So he got threats from different people to basically get out, or they will assassinate him. So that was a good reason for us to leave.

"It was in September 2006. We hired a GMC suburban driver, because that was the car that they drive to Syria or Damascus from Baghdad. [I said goodbye to] just my friends on the block, I couldn’t see everyone. I hung out with them the night before and then I cried a lot that morning.

"There was just a part of me that felt that I'm never going to come back, which was what happened. My mom was crying, we were saying goodbyes to our uncle’s house, who lived next to us. My grandmother and my grandfather were there, too, to say goodbye to us. My mom was crying and my sisters were crying. I didn’t cry until the car drove and we passed the soccer field that I used to play at, and then I just went on crying because I shared a lot of memories on that field.

"Syria was good. I was a little homesick the first year. I was adjusting to a lot of things. Going to school, I got in a lot of fights, because I was just an angry kid coming from war... after a year, I got really comfortable and I made friends — Iraqi friends, Syrian friends.

"[Then in 2008], we moved closer to Damascus... We were running out of money. Back then, we applied to the UNHCR, to be recognized as refugees, and asked for resettlement somewhere else... I think it was two days before my final exams when the U.N. called us and told us that we have 12 days to get ready. We got resettlement in the United States. So it’s great news."

Pictured: Tarek in the old city of Damascus, playing around with a video camera, in May 2009.
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Photo: Courtesy of Tarek Turkey.
In 2009 your family resettled in Baltimore, and you've lived in the U.S. ever since. How do you identify yourself now, and what made you go back to the Middle East to work for Refinery29?
"You know, it’s always hard identifying myself. I’ve found it really hard, especially in college, because I went to an art school, and sometimes I make art and I feel like, what does this art mean, and what does it say about who I am?

"I tried to avoid being an Iraqi for some time when I came here. I wanted to just be an American kid. But I realized being an American kid doesn’t say much about me. I found out that I’m more unique than that, I can do more. So yes, I, nowadays, I have my American girlfriend and American [friends]...but I keep in touch with my family back home, I talk to my parents. I’m very aware of the politics and the news about what’s going on there. So yeah, I feel that I’m a mixture of both, and I represent myself as Iraqi, if you ask me where I’m from. But I am also part of this community now, and I am a citizen, I pay my taxes, I’m part of the system. So I’m both, I guess.

"So after being in the U.S. for six years, right after college, I felt very nostalgic for the Middle East, and I felt that I should — that I needed — to go back. There were just too many things happening, with the refugee crisis, with the Syrian war, and the ISIS control over that area... I felt like part of me really wanted to go there, to see my family and just understand what’s really going on.

"Then I proposed this project [Daughters of Paradise, about Syrian refugee women living in Turkey] to Refinery29, and I went there. Being there was a cultural shock, because I remember it being bad there, but when I went back, it was so much worse and that was just very disappointing. But the Middle East still had its charm, and at some point I considered not coming back [to the U.S.]."

Pictured: Tarek graduates from college in Maryland in May of 2015. That summer, he went to Turkey to make a series of films about refugee women for Refinery29.
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Photo: Courtesy of Tarek Turkey.
What is your biggest hope for the future, both for your own family and the refugee women you interviewed? And would you ever go back to Iraq?
"My biggest hope is for everyone to be able to go back and live where they want to live. Home is important. It’s everything. No matter how far you go, home is still what represents you. It crushed me to see so many people fleeing their homes, even though they don’t want to. But, I don’t know, being a refugee in America, or being a refugee in Europe, is hard, and I want people to know that it’s not a choice, for me or other refugees to be where we are right now.

"I would love to go back to Iraq. I don’t know if I would go back and live there, because things are not looking up nowadays, and they never did, since I was born. And I feel very pessimistic about the future, too. I think it needs a lot more time... So one day, I would love to go back and live there, but I don’t know when. But I’d definitely consider visiting soon."

Pictured: Tarek, his mother, his sister, and his aunts and uncles visiting ruins of the ancient city of Hatra.
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