Ahmed Shama was born in Cairo, Egypt, and grew up in New York in a Muslim household. He began studying the Quran at a young age with his father, who, like Shama's mother, is a devout Muslim.
Like a lot of young Americans looking for a way to afford college, he decided to join the military to pay for school. But with the U.S. involved in wars with Iraq and Afghanistan and the image of Muslims in America complicated at best, he decided that one way to break through the stereotypes and cultural dissonance against Muslims was to join up and try to change minds from the inside.
"One of the reasons I joined the military ... it was the wrong thing to do, but in my mind, I was 17 and I was thinking, 'You're a Muslim. You kind of have to prove that you're American now,' " said Shama, 22, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Ramadi, Iraq, and is now an intern at the Jerusalem Fund's Palestine Center in Washington, D.C. He's working toward a degree in international relations with the dream of working in the U.S. State Department office of Middle Eastern affairs.
Shama's father served in the military in Egypt, and Shama said his parents knew that he would get lessons in discipline and structure in the Marines, as well as a chance to attend college when he got out. What he never imagined was the vital role he was going to play for the Iraqis he encountered and the members of his own unit, who came to depend on him to help break through the cultural and language barriers on the battlefront.
Stationed in Japan for his first three years, Shama said he began his career after President George W. Bush had already made his infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech, so he didn't think he would end up in Iraq. But after watching footage on TV of mosques being blown up by al Qaeda and other insurgent forces and yearning for a way to help Iraqi civilians who were victims of the country's sectarian violence, he developed a yearning to go to Iraq and help out his fellow Muslims.
He got his chance when the Marines sent him to Ramadi as a translator in 2006, where he trained Sunni Muslims to fight against the insurgents. As it likely is for the other estimated 15,000 to 30,000 Muslims in the U.S. armed forces and reserves (the majority of whom are African-American), the conflict in Iraq presented a unique challenge for Shama as both a soldier and a Muslim. That challenge was much more trying than the scarcity of Muslim chaplains available to him at boot camp, where he sometimes had to go without meals when pork, prohibited in the Muslim faith, was being served.
"When it comes to the Quran, I'm sure it says you're not supposed to wage war against others of the same religion," he said of some of the criticism he's received from other Muslims about his time in Iraq. "In Ramadi, Iraq, we were fighting al Qaeda. And al Qaeda, every day in the news at the time, they were blowing up a mosque, killing Muslims and women and children. To me, I wasn't fighting against Muslims. I was fighting against extremists who had taken the religion."
One of the advantages he had, which helped "break the ice" when he went into Iraqi homes with his Marine compatriots, was his ability to speak Arabic to the local citizens and explain to them what was going on.
"There were times we were going in places where instead of it having to be an ugly situation where Marines don't speak Arabic ... telling them to move from room to room ... instead, I could speak to them," he said, explaining the sense of relief many Iraqis had when they realized that they could communicate in their own language with one of the Marines. "By the end of the day, we were sitting there sipping tea with the Iraqis in the house, everybody is relaxing, talking."
Rather than facing skepticism from his fellow Marines, Shama said they were not only accepting, but at some point they began specifically requesting him for missions because of his translation skills and knowledge of Arabic cultural traditions, which provided a huge advantage given the scarcity of available translators in the armed forces.
Despite the internal conflict and the emotional toll of fighting in a Muslim country against other Muslims and facing the possibility of discrimination in his adopted country and among his ranks, Sergeant Shama said his experience in the military was worth it.
"I can never complain about being Arabic and being in the military," said Shama, who estimated that he was one of maybe three soldiers out of the 1,200 in his unit who spoke any Arabic. "Because of the way my leaders have treated me, I have nothing to complain about. If anything, being Arab and being Muslim in the military right now benefits a unit so much. If anything, it helps your career."
While he admitted to hearing some anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment from time to time in the military, ironically, it's when he came home that he faced the most discrimination.
He recalled a train ride after his return to the U.S. where, while dressed in civilian clothes, he recognized a fellow Arabic man and began speaking to him. The man was seeking employment, and Shama happened to have paperwork with him about translation work for the government and suggested to the man that it would be a good opportunity for him.
"One thing led to another. I said, 'Yeah, I served in Iraq,' " Shama said. "And he said, 'Arabic people [in] Arabic towns here will never accept you for that.' It doesn't piss you off, it makes you sad. Because I know what I did in Ramadi, and the number of Iraqi children who got sent to us ... and the police who got sent to the hospital who we helped save."
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