Iraq War Turns 20: A Local Kurdish Translator

Clay County Histories

Markus Krueger | Program Director  HCSCC

Moorhead’s Zak Amin, left, in 2006

This week marks the 20th Anniversary of America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was a 22-year-old college student with an older brother/roommate in the Army, so I had many friends who went to fight my generation’s war. Thankfully, all they came home. Lacie, Alan, Archie, Chris, Rebeccah…I’m thinking of you today. 

Zak Amin was also a college student in 2003, just a few months older than me, but he was living in his hometown of Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq. Like many Kurdish people, Zak welcomed the invasion because Kurdish Iraqis were often victims of Saddam Hussein’s cruelty. Last week was the anniversary of the 1988 Halabja Massacre, when Hussein killed 5000 Kurdish civilians with chemical weapons. Today, Moorhead is home to about 3000 Kurdish Americans. Most came here fleeing Saddam Hussein.

After a couple more years of studying English, Zak became a translator for Americans. It was an incredibly dangerous job that he held for eight years. He translated for Personal Security Details, drivers, guards, and various American clients. His longest assignment was translating for American forces training Kurdish police officers. He was relatively safe as long as they stayed in Kurdistan, but his work often required him to go to Mosul, Kirkuk, or Bagdad in the infamous convoys that we all heard about on the news. He experienced firefights and explosions alongside American soldiers. 

At the end of the day, Zak went home to take care of his aging mother. While most people in Kurdistan were on America’s side, many non-Kurdish Iraqis considered him a traitor for working with Americans. Zak received death threats. He began the process to immigrate to the USA in 2007, but his mother refused to leave Kurdistan. In 2013, after his mother passed away and with a wife and baby to protect, Zak resumed his Special Immigrant Visa paperwork. He lost his job when American forces withdrew from Iraq and having “American translator” on his job resume could be fatal. He was also afraid of what would happen after the Americans left. 

Even with the help of American friends, it took several years and thousands of dollars for the Amins to enter the USA. Zak’s family emigrated here because, among Moorhead’s many Kurdish residents, Zak had a close friend. Hashim Goran worked with Zak as a translator in Kurdistan, and the Gorans helped the Amins get settled.     

Zak Amin is likely the most broadly educated person I’ve ever met. He majored in English in Iraq. Then, as translator, he got certified in all the classes the Americans taught the Kurdish police – forensic labs, investigation techniques, traffic laws, domestic violence training, etc. “Knowing English is not a skill here,” Zak explains, “so I had to have something else in order to get a job.” He earned business, accounting clerk and payroll certificates at Minnesota State Community and Technical College (MState). After working in that field, though, he returned to languages, earning a Masters Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Mr. Amin is now a teacher at Moorhead High.   

Kurdish American perspectives on this conflict are stories of American History. I would like to thank Zak Amin for his service, along with every other translator who helped my friends survive the Iraq War. 

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