Escape from Baghdad: A True Rugby League Story

“People were getting taken away, captured and killed for no good reason. My fiancé was one of them. I tried to escape Iraq the way you see immigrants, just jumping on a boat and get out of there, but it didn’t work.”

Imagine surviving multiple wars, the death of your loved ones, destruction of all you know and then finally, finding redemption through Rugby League. It sounds like a movie script. For Saif Kareem it is real life. We’re pleased and proud to bring you his incredible true story, in his own words.

I always like to build the idea when people first talk to me of how old I am. Because I have two birthdays, one is on 19th January, which I consider to be my ninth birthday. But my actual birthday is October 9th, and I’m 36-years-old, but I spent 27 of those in war and violence.
I was born in Iraq during the Iraqi-Iranian War. That’s where I lost my father, he was a victim of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship of Iraq. My father was a freedom fighter, but he also served as an officer in the Iraqi government. That’s why he lost his life. If anyone was not happy or agreeing with the war, you’d be killed.
People started to kill each other just to get a higher rank and, sadly, he was executed because he helped too many people from his position of power. He managed to stop a lot of people getting killed by the government, despite being an official himself, but ultimately he sacrificed himself.
I was only three-years-old when it happened, but I grew up with that story and it never escaped me. Our life was devastated. I started working at five-years-old selling cigarettes and roasted nuts on the streets of Baghdad.
As tragic as it is, that was the story of every Iraqi family. You had to live with that pain deep in your soul, but you were told not to talk about it or to say bad things about the government, because the consequences were real.
You had to suffer in silence. We had to live an espionage lifestyle, even when I was a child playing with my friends, I had to be careful what I said because their father could have been an officer and as a young child your actions could have affected the fate of your family.
And I never saw that change even as I grew up as the government kept getting involved in more and more wars, invading Kuwait, then Desert Storm and then eventually the Iraq War with the USA. I’m sure you’ll have heard of them, but I lived them. I was losing my best friends, we had no electricity and you had to wait so long even for a drop of water because the water station had been hit.
The last war in 2003 finally took the government and Saddam down and people thought that things were going to improve. After the government was successfully dismantled, there was no government. But that was, surprisingly, the safest year in Iraq. Then things were completely flipped.
Bus drivers and teachers were going back to work for free, just to try and rebuild society by their own accord. The country was running in peace, because that’s all everyone wanted. All the fundamental constructs in society were beginning to re-emerge like education, and I always wanted to go to college.
Thankfully, my mother was educated because she was a fashion designer and I went to medical school. It felt like I had my freedom back. I met my fiancé, who I actually knew from a young age, and we got engaged and wanted to build a family.
Then shortly after that, the government started to form. There were over forty political parties trying to fight for government. We’d just tasted peace, but that’s where conflict was born again.
Saddam had ruled the country for over four decades, and he left a culture of conflict. You know nothing but his system. Freedom was impossible to digest and the violence between parties began to sneak back in onto the streets.
Then the period followed where people were getting taken away, captured and killed for no good reason. My fiancé was one of them. She was kidnapped in college for ransom. I didn’t care who did it, I just wanted to find her. By this point a lot of people had moved out of the country. But I couldn’t.
I decided to join the army to help rebuild my country and find her, and that was my drive. I was a refugee in my own country at this point, my own country. I was moved to a safer location, but violence was everywhere. Nowhere was safe. That was the turning point for me.
I was trying to get an education, walking over dead bodies on my way to college, and have a life and I knew that every time I woke up there was a chance it could all go and I could be killed. But, to be honest, I already felt dead.
My family were in real danger, the education I had dreamed of was crumbling in front of me, my friends were all dying in front me of me and I had to be moved away from my family. I had nothing left.
But I knew I had to find her. That’s when I was involved in interrogations as an interpreter in my work at the army, I couldn’t tell my family about my work either because it would have put them in danger. Yet, even though I was working for the government, I was still getting my life threatened and house attacked.
I had to leave the army camp to see my family, locally, and that’s when I was in real danger. I was a target. I didn’t want to be in the army, but I had to because you were armoured. As a civilian, you were left to fight on your own.
I ended up working in the army for four years to find my fiancé and I did, but sadly I found her dead. That destroyed my life. That’s when the violence had succeeded to get to me, but I took a lot of pride in knowing that I’d help a lot of other families in conflict. I was hit by a bomb in a mission and that destroyed some of my hearing.
I was a translator, but now without hearing, I’d lost my job, because it wasn’t possible to do it. My life had turned completely upside down. Every single friend I had when I was young and most of my family were dead by this point. I’d survived it all by a miracle, and that’s when I decided to leave.
It took me two years to finish my application to move to the United States. I tried to escape Iraq the way you see immigrants, just jumping on a boat and get out of there, but it didn’t work. I wanted to do it properly, but it still took me two years to get here.
I arrived in the United States in 2010. But I couldn’t enjoy it when I first got here. I was getting invited to parties, and watching the TV, but I couldn’t comprehend the freedom. I was crying every day and night. I couldn’t enjoy anything, I just came from war and my brain was going crazy.
In a weird way, it was painful to have so much freedom. I needed something to keep me busy. I’d grown up loving a few things: theatre, art, photography and soccer. I joined the University of North Florida to study art and I decided to find a soccer team.
That’s when I met my rugby union team in college, because there was no soccer team. I’d never heard of rugby before. I saw the contact, the bit of violence and the team camaraderie and I was sold. Coming from the army, this is what I was missing.
I became a big part of the team once I learned the game and we reached the final of the National Championship. Once I left college there was no city team for men, only one at college. So that’s when I was pushed towards Jacksonville Axemen Rugby League.
We won the National Championship together and I also captained and was named MVP of the minor league team Jacksonville Hatchets. But, much more than that, it was the first time since I left Iraq that I felt like I belonged. On the rugby field, people don’t care about where you’re from or anything like that. They just want to win together as a team and be the best they can be. Everyone’s individual problems just weren’t relevant.
I loved it. Rugby really gave me my life. I started going back to the gym, getting into bodybuilding, and enjoying my life again. I started taking pictures at games and then other photographers told me I looked good and got me into modelling. Things just started to fall into place for me and it was through rugby.
When I was at a game one day, there was a scout coming down because I was applying to Orlando College for a scholarship and they were coming to watch me. After the game, someone came up to me and started asking me questions about my life.
I thought it was the scout. It wasn’t. It was a local reporter from the Florida Times Union. He then wrote a piece about me and it went viral, locally. I still had no idea about this, people were asking about my story. I still thought he was a scout from the college.
People were approaching me about it and that kindness rekindled my desire to live properly and integrate into society. It was built in my system not to trust people, but I started to share my life with people.
People started to notice me now, and the modelling agency that I met through photographers started to put me up for acting gigs. They started to submit me for little jobs as extras. I was in CSI Miami, sitting on a table drinking coffee, for $100.
Watching big actors. Live, like a theatre. But, I’m in it. This was only a few years after I couldn’t even turn on the TV because it was too much of a culture shock. I felt a real love again. In Iraq, I grew up with theatre because it was seen as high culture because we had no electricity.
After that I kept getting more and more jobs. I grew to eventually getting awards at film festivals and I wasn’t even intending to go into acting. I came to the US to escape war. My life began to get crazy at this point.
I decided to make my own film production company and that’s my main focus now. I started to shoot a few clips of the Jacksonville Axemen just for the practice, and I was also injured because of my ACL, then the coach Sean Rutgerson was named USA coach.
Then he invited me to come along and film the team in the World Cup qualifying stages against Jamaica, which obviously they lost but it was a huge story anyway. I filmed nine days of footage, just to put it together for myself. But, the idea developed for me. This can be a feature film. It fell in my hands.
I just needed a platform for it. Then I got a phone call almost a few days later from an Indian director called Sourav Chakraborty who is Netflix enlisted. He got my number through an actor friend, he approached me as a producer to produce his first project in America under my own production company, TriStallion LLC Productions, to be involved. You can imagine at this point I couldn’t believe it.
We’re now in pre-production for a film called ‘To Whom It May Concern’ which is an adaptation of a novel about an anti-immigration activist who finds out he’s an immigrant himself and is targeting a long list of international prestigious festivals such as Cannes and Sundance, before aiming to maybe releasing it to the public on accessible platforms such as Netflix and Premier Video, and we’re hoping to crack the UK.
We’re in the planning stages of the film about Jacksonville too. It would be a beautiful ending to my story, to put together all my loves. Rugby, film and acting. And I owe it to rugby, because without it, I would have never escaped the pain from the life that I left nine years ago.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 454 (Feb 2019)

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