A World Away: An Iraqi’s Journey from War Translator to Missouri Cosmetologist
Sitting in the café of Mama Jean’s on East Republic road, this Springfield hot yoga instructor and hairstylist appears far removed from his days as a wartime Iraqi translator for the U.S. Army.
“I did a lot of what they (U.S. soldiers) did, except I didn’t have a weapon,” Jayden said.
Jayden, who asked we not to use his last name to protect his identity, grew up in Bagdad in a family of teachers. He, by default, started his college career in education. Though he wasn’t happy.
Jayden said in Iraq, unless people work as lawyers, doctors or engineers, there’s little to no prospect in leading a wealthy life. Two years into college, Jayden dropped out to make a change for his life.
“I needed to work somewhere and make enough money so that I can save and move out of Iraq, then start my life somewhere else.” Jayden said. “Because it was very hard.”
In 2006, during the second phase of the Iraq War, Jayden walked into the U.S. Army base in Bagdad and asked to work for them.
“They took me to a company; they gave me an English test. And after that, I was an interpreter!”
He expected a formal training first. But just hours after he became a U.S. Army contractor, Jayden found himself on his first formal mission.
“The minute I got there, they told me ‘this is where you are going to sleep. Tomorrow we are picking you up at two in the morning. We are going on a mission!’”
With little time to react, Jayden was strapping on a pair of boots that were one-size too big and preparing himself for the assignment.
“It killed my feet! It killed my feet!”
That spontaneous yet arduous first assignment marked the beginning of Jayden’s new life. From 2006 to 2008, he ate, worked, and stayed with the U.S. Army on the base.
Jayden experienced many life-threatening events while on the job; one in particular still gives him goose bumps to talk about.
While working for the Stryker Brigade, upon finishing up a routine patrol one night, Jayden and his unit were called to help another unit. Upon arrival, they found themselves in the middle of a war zone.
“There was crossfire right and left… Those Strykers had big guns on top of them. Very heavy… And those were going nonstop.”
Jayden and his unit deployed the Stryker to hide in a clay building. When they needed to evacuate the building, Jayden wasn’t up to speed with the soldiers.
“The captain of my unit told the soldiers ‘don’t leave without him!’ So I remember they grabbed me from my collar and they dragged me and we jumped over a mid-sized wall. They just tossed me around… Everything went blur after that.”
Three hours felt like three minutes, he said.
“I was grateful that they protected me like (I was) one of them.”
When asked if his near-death experiences made him second guess his job, Jayden said no.
“That was my chance to serve the country,” Jayden said. “People wanted to change. People wanted to help.”
After two years of service, Jayden was granted a green card by the U.S. government in 2008. With the help of his boss, who’s from Gainesville, Missouri, Jayden moved from Bagdad, Iraq to the Show-Me state.
Jayden stayed with his boss’ family the first couple of years, until he was comfortable on his own. While with the family, Jayden started cosmetology school.
“I wanted to do something fun, something to express myself,” contrary to his almost-teaching career, he noted.
After moving to Springfield and working as a hairstylist, Jayden encountered Pure Hot Yoga studio on his way home. Following just a few sessions, Jayden fell in love with the workout. Not only was a beneficial physically, Jayden said it made him a “grounded hairstylist”.
“I expose to a lot of people; I feel all kinds of energy. And being able to control my mind and breath, I was able to absorb people’s energy,” Jayden said. “Somebody had a bad day; once they sat on my chair and we talked. Once they leave, they felt relived and they’ve had a therapy session.”
Jayden continued, “My clients not only looked good but felt good. And that’s what it is!”
Jayden is now a certified stylist in hair coloring for Redken at Clip Joint Salon. He will also start traveling around the country to teach his techniques. Jayden’s ultimate goal is to become an international artist. Amongst all his commitments and goals, he still teaches yoga at Pure—to help him find balance.
Building a life from scratch in a foreign country, Jayden didn’t forget his own. However, home no longer means the same in a country like Iraq.
Two years ago, he returned there for the first time since 2008.
“I would like to think it was nice and relaxing; but it really wasn’t,” Jayden recalled. “It was great to see my family. I love my mom. I’m very close to her. But we were all nervous because I came from the states; what if someone is going to target me?”
“You can’t drive down the street because it’s really bad,” he continued. “Assassinations everywhere, random bombing… It was just great to see my family, but the whole country is destroyed. Would I want to go back? Probably not.”
As for his life in the U.S., he’s not certain what his future entails. However, “I’m trying to make the best of it. Since I quit my college when I was 18, until this past hour, I work really hard. I’m not tooting my own horn, but I can say that I’m very proud of my life.”
Jayden says he missed out on a lot while growing up in Iraq. And he’s working hard to compensate for that.
“Like if something happened to me, and I die, people would say ‘he worked really hard! He earned every single thing!’ To me, that’s enjoyment. To me, that’s accomplishing what I wanted to do. That was my initial reason that I quit college, I wanted to have a better life.”
He’d like to petition for his family to come to the U.S. However, with a great amount of paperwork and expense, that dream seems to be far away. Thanks to technology, Jayden now can Facetime with his mom on multiple occasions, including while he’s doing house chores or cooking.
“But it’s emotional. I wish she’s here with me,” he said. “Not a world away.”