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For Veterans Day, this Iraqi refugee to Idaho recalls when her family and American soldiers saved each other

Ava Steven and her family came to the U.S. from Iraq in 2012
Ava Steven, Creative Commons
Ava Steven and her family came to the U.S. from Iraq in 2012

There are many ways to commemorate Veterans Day – a myriad of parades, memorials and banquets will be held across the nation. But for veterans and those who love and know them best, it’s very personal.

Salome Mwangi from theIdaho Office for Refugeesthought it would be particularly appropriate to bring together a refugee and veteran to share their respective stories. Indeed, it was an opportunity to confirm that what we all have in common is a deep love for peace.

“When I realized that a lot of times we have vets, we have people in the Peace Corps who have served around the world and who have been to different countries and different cultures, and yet when we have refugees coming into the country, we are almost shunning them and treating them like people we don't know and people that we don't understand.”

Mwangi joined Ava Steven and David Manning in a visit with Morning Edition host George Prentice for this rare conversation.

“Never, ever see something bad and think it's bad for you, because I might hide something good behind it.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News Good morning. I'm George Prentice. On the 11th day of the 11th month, we commemorate Veterans Day - first known as Armistice Day, to mark the end of World War I, the war to end all wars or so we were promised. The deep desire to honor our armed forces and those who defend freedom is not unique to America. We're going to talk a bit about that this morning. Joining us this morning are David Manning, a veteran. He's retired from the U.S. Air Force. He has since worked as a software engineer, a business owner, and now works for Ooma as a business phone service account executive and Ava Steven.is here, the proud daughter of an Iraq Army officer; and she and her family came to the U.S. in 2012. Good morning to you, both.

AVA STEVEN: Good morning.

DAVID MANNING: Good morning.

PRENTICE: Ava, could you tell us a little bit about your story? And I am interested… tell me about your dad.

STEVEN: Oh, so my dad is a cool dad. He's really a hard worker. He worked so hard for a long, a long time period. I did not see my dad much when I was young. He was always out with the Army, I saw him every two or three months… he'd come visit us sometimes to see us. My mom… she did a really good job. I don't think I can do that. What she did for years, taking care of us when my dad was in the Army. Yeah,so he used to work with the U.S. Army and Iraqi army.

PRENTICE: And those were very difficult times.

STEVEN: Yeah, my dad… he had to send us out of the country in that time. It was too dangerous for us to stay when he tried to switch from Iraqi Army to American army.

PRENTICE: David. Tell us about your service and your story, because when we talk about defending and fighting for freedom that crosses a lot of borders

MANNING: With my story…I actually… I went into the Air Force in 1982 and became a Ground Radar Maintenance Tech… deployed a lot all over the world… and then I did a tour for a year and a half in Incirlik, Turkey.

PRENTICE: So, David, you know as well as anyone, that the world is a dangerous place. And it doesn't seem to be getting that much safer anytime soon.

David Manning
PHil White
David Manning

MANNING: Yeah, it's a dangerous place, but I'll tell you, everywhere that I went… and meeting people all over the world in different cultures, something that was common to every place, every culture was that there was a degree of openness and friendliness. And regardless of what country someone is from, what culture they they've lived in, a pretty common theme for everyone is they just want to live in peace, raise their families and have a good life for themselves and their families. And I think that's something that going around the world in different countries and meeting with people that have different nationalities, different cultures - that's something that we could all relate to.

PRENTICE: And that's a great opportunity for me to bring in Salome Mawangi from the Idaho Office for Refugees. And Salome, exactly to David's point, can you connect the dots here? The experience of being a refugee and of being someone who honors and respects freedom, no matter where they live?

Salome Mwangi
Leap Photography, Leap Photograp
Salome Mwangi
Salome Mwangi

SALOME MAWANGI: That is so true. And this dream of what we are doing today actually started about two or three years ago when I realized that a lot of times we have vets, we have people in the Peace Corps who have served around the world and who have been to different countries and different cultures. And yet when we have refugees coming in here or immigrants coming into the country, we are almost shunning them and treating them like people we don't know and people that we don't understand and people who actually sometimes elicit fear. And so I thought, wouldn't it be nice to bring somebody who's been around the world fighting for freedom, safeguarding keeping peace, or somebody who was in the Peace Corps, who went out to those countries and built things with the refugees who are coming into this country and showing how similar those lives are than they are different.

PRENTICE: Ava, where does your strength come from? Can I assume that, to some degree, it comes from your roots? And then some of it…it's very organic for you, if you will, because you probably see the world very differently than the way that your parents saw the world.

STEVEN: That's true. So, when I was kid, all I cared about, when we're moving out, when my dad, he said, “We have to leave the house.” He just walked to the house and he told my mom, “Get up, get the clothes in the back. We're leaving.” And all what I cared about is my toys. In that moment, we left. So, it makes me feel like when I'm here in Boise, this is what I cared about. It's my toy. You know, my dad who was caring about my safety when I grew up here, I always think about my toy and I feel like how I left my toy behind. But I choose my safety. So sometimes we see things like, Oh, like my dad, he's doing this, why he's doing that, why did he put me in that situation? You know, we don't realize it's the safety situation, you know, so we end up in a sad spot, and Quiran… in Quiran, God said, “Never, ever see something bad and think it's bad for you because I might hide something good behind it.” So, this is where we see things. So, I I still think about my toy, you know, and how I left my toy behind, but I for me to be here and safe. I got the big toy in U.S., to be safe over here.

MANNING: You know, boy, what a… what a lovely thought that is. I mean, that's just absolutely beautiful to think… that to see something bad, to know that there's something good behind it.

STEVEN: Now, can I tell David, this small story?

PRENTICE: Yes, let's share.

STEVEN: Yeah. So, one day I was a kid. I think I was like around seven, eight years old and I was playing outside. And then we have like, we have the street, like a long street and end of the street, we have kind of a big forest. Next to our house, usually were American Army, always stopping, watching the neighborhood wherever I was just playing in the street. And then I looked behind me on the forest. There is a big semi-truck stopped and this truck… it’s actually full of bombs. And then this fire? The truck blew up. I was standing and then I looked. The fire was higher than the forest trees, like three times, to the sky. And then I can see, from the end of the road, each house, all the windows broke…coming to me, you know? And this moment I ran inside, I got the idea “What's going to happen next?” You know, I just went inside, you know? And then I start screaming, “Mommy. Hide mommy, hide.” You know, we went to the basement running in the basement, and then we just closed our ears suddenly. And you can't see anything because the dust, you know, in the house. And then after, like a minute when the dust was gone, I looked around me, all the U.S. Army was there. They came running after me and they hid with me in the basement.
So, when I opened my eyes, I saw my family and the U.S. Army with me. You know, like in this moment, I realized it does not matter. Where are you from? All life is matter like it does not matter what happened. When you go to different country, people like get out from here, you know, like they think you against them, you know? But in this moment, we just all hide together. It does not matter, you know? So it's like no matter how people think, there's people bad, there's people worse. So in this moment, that was like the terrorist al Qaeda trying to fight the army. And this is where we hide, you know? And like my mom, she was thinking, “Oh, the American Army will stay in the house and al Qaeda will come and kill us because they were saying, we're protecting them,” you know? But it does not matter. You know, we kept them in our house. We hid them in there, you know, and we can see how afraid they are, too. So it's not just like we are afraid, they are afraid too, so we just protect each other in this moment, you know? So it's just like in this moment, I just felt there is no difference between us. When it's time to be safety, we all going to look for safety.

PRENTICE: David, thank you so much for your service. Ava, will you thank your father for his service?

STEVEN: I will.

PRENTICE: Salome, thank you so much for making this happen. This is a very particular and yet powerful message for Veterans Day.

MWANGI: Absolutely. And I also love the fact that we are able to put faces and voices to instead of just being the refugees. We can say it is Ava who came here as a refugee from Iraq. She is no longer a refugee. She is actually an American citizen. And instead of just talking about vets in a blanket statement, we can talk about Dave, who served his country in one capacity in the military and now is still serving his country in another capacity within the community and being able to celebrate these two lives. That is amazing. So thank you.

PRENTICE: Ava, thank you so much. Have a very good morning.

STEVEN: Thank you so much.

PRENTICE: And David, happy Veterans Day to you and have yourself a really good rest of your morning.

MANNING: Thank you, George.

MWANGI: Thank you and a happy Veterans Day to you, George, as well.

PRENTICE: Thank you so much.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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