It takes a lot to surprise Airman First Class Aws Hussein.
The 36-year-old Baghdad native worked as a translator for coalition forces in Iraq for more than five years before immigrating to the United States, where he subsequently joined the Air Force.
Last month, at a ceremony in Northampton, A1C Hussein culminated months of preparation when he completed the final exam of his naturalization test and was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
Hussein knew that physical distancing precluded any kind of celebration. But his colleagues from the 66th Comptroller Squadron, back at base housing, had other ideas. “I’ll never forget driving up to my house and seeing the decorations and congratulations sign across my garage door,” said Hussein. “I was so shocked, but then I saw my co-workers and my neighbors come around the corner with a red, white, and blue cake. I just wanted to jump, I was so happy.”
Hussein grew up in Baghdad and Balad, 50 miles north. His parents, both college graduates, imbued in their five children the value of education, he said.
In the summer of 2004, a year after the regime of Saddam Hussein was toppled, 20-year-old Aws Hussein, on vacation from college, accepted an offer that changed his life.
His brother was working as an Arabic translator for coalition operations. “He told me, ‘You speak English better than anyone I know.’” Two days later, Aws also was serving as a paid translator.
How did he become fluent in English? “My mother was supervising our homework, and one of the most important things she said was about how we needed to learn English in case we want to work in a country other than Iraq. She was right.”
Hussein spent five years as a translator – 2004 to 2006, which involved a lot of contact with the Iraqi army, and again from 2008 to 2011, much of which was spent working at Joint Base Balad, a huge installation run by the Americans.
Enemies of the Iraqi government were not happy with his participation. “I and my family received a lot of threats. I was shot at and chased several times.” He added,” I had a fast car,” which saved him more than once.
Increasingly afraid for his personal safety and that of his wife and two babies, Hussein ultimately immigrated to the U.S. in 2013. As a translator, he benefited from recommendations by several military personnel. “They made it much easier,” he said.
His first experience on American soil was unforgettable. “They flew us from Iraq to Rapid City, SD. “We did not know about the weather there and it was freeing – we came on Dec. 13, two or three days after a blizzard.” They had to remain in the terminal until receiving appropriate clothing.
After a couple of years in Rapid City, the family moved to San Antonio, where the weather is more like Iraq’s. “My brothers lived there, and the job market was better,” he explained.
Hussein said that the work he found wasn’t so satisfying. One day the man who sponsored his immigration, an Air Force veteran, suggested he consider enlisting. “I didn’t even know about the different branches,” Hussein said. ‘I told him, ‘I don’t want to go back to Iraq – I just got out of there.’”
But once he began doing some research, “I was convinced that the Air Force would be better.”
It took a little while to process, but Hussein formally began his enlistment in March 2019. Before his assignment to Hanscom, where he works in finance management, Hussein was stationed at the major training center Keesler AFB in Mississippi. He explained that permanent residents – holders of a so-called green card – are eligible to enlist in the armed forces. Officers must be U.S. citizens, he said.
The airman and his wife, Asmaa Ibrahim, started preparing for the citizenship tests at the same time, but she finished ahead of him because of some “paperwork” issues. Asmaa works as a realtor in Woburn
Education was a cornerstone of Hussein’s worldview, and he credits his parents for setting an example and encouraging their children to pursue their fields of choice. In Iraq, Hussein was a theological student. His siblings work in information technology, geology, and law. The entire family is in the United States except for their father, who is in Jordan awaiting immigration approval.
Now that he is a citizen, Hussein hopes to qualify for officer candidacy. Regardless, he said, he anticipates a long career in the Air Force.
“I would recommend the Air Force for anyone,” Hussein asserted. “For a kid who doesn’t know what to do, just join the Air Force. The structure of the Air Force can help you determine what you want.”