Pursuing the American dream
interview BY Cameron Rasmusson
NAME: Faiza Sultan
BIRTH PLACE: Erbil, Iraq
EDUCATION: University of Mosul (BA), City University of Seattle (MS), Harvard Business School Online (Certification of Specialty in Strategy)
FAVORITE FOOD: The Kurdish Dolam (different from the Greek dolma!)
FAVORITE PLACES VISITED: Spain, Granada, Alhambra Palace
Everyone has challenges to overcome while pursuing their career. It’s rare that anything worth pursuing comes easily. But Faiza Sultan may be a bit more familiar with facing hardship than most.
Arriving in America as a refugee with almost nothing to her name, she quickly established herself as a hardworking and reliable linguist, which set the foundation for a career of impressive achievements. Through it all, she never lost touch with her roots or the love of literature and art that attracted her to language in the first place.
We go over it all in our conversation with Faiza, so let’s get right to it.
Tell us a little about your background and how you came to America. What were the circumstances that led to you coming to America?
I came to the US in March 1997 with a smile and $20 in my pocket. In August 1996, political relations deteriorated into all-out fighting between the two major Kurdish political parties — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) — starting a civil war in my city Erbil. Then, in a surprise move, the KDP allied with the Iraqi army to seize the PUK-controlled city of Erbil. With his new allies, Saddam Hussein launched a 40,000-man force into the city. As a result, the Iraqi army executed 450 members of the Iraqi National Congress that opposed the Iraqi government in a field outside the city.
I was working as an interpreter for an American NGO at the children’s hospital. The Iraqi government had issued a decree to prosecute any Iraqi citizen working with American NGOs. The penalty was a death sentence since we were considered traitors. The Department of State (DOS) received presidential approval to implement a voluntary evacuation. In November of 1996, the US military evacuated me along with 5,000 others in an operation called Operation Pacific Haven. The US Army placed us at the Andersen Air Force Base in Guam for five months. My group arrived in Guam on what was considered “parole” without preliminary visas. We were deemed asylum seekers, according to US law.
Can you tell us a little of what you felt during that time? It must be a scary thing to be forced to leave your home and come to a strange country.
It was hard to leave my family behind going to the unknown. I was only 25 years old and had never been on a plane or outside my country. There was a mixed feeling of having wings for the first time to fly and be safe and leave all my family, my history, and my memories behind. I knew about the USA from the lenses of Hollywood movies only. I knew I had to fly like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon; I was getting out of a war zone where I had lived since I was 8 years old. It was a feeling of relief mixed with bitterness.
You have a great story you mentioned earlier about how you arrived here with only $20 to your name. Can you tell that story here for readers?
Before the evacuation, I had no money left; we spent whatever we had in the safe house on the border of Iraq and Turkey. In Guam, I volunteered to work as an interpreter with us Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and as an ESL teacher for the children in the camp. I was granted political asylee status and was set to go to Seattle in Washington State as my destination. Before my departure, a US official from USCIS handed me the paperwork of about 80 people from the camp heading to the USA with me. He asked me to help them with the language services on their first US entry and help them with the interview. I accepted the task with a smile. He offered me a handshake before I boarded the bus heading to the airport; when I opened my hand, there was a folded $20. That is what I had when I landed on US soil with unlimited dreams packed in my luggage that were given to us as donations.
How did you get started with language work? Am I correct that it wasn’t something you exactly planned on?
I earned my BA in Arts from the College of the Education/ University of Mosul. My degree in Iraq prepared me to be an English teacher in a high school. After graduation, I worked as a teacher at the same high school I graduated from, then I started teaching English at the Institute of Arts in Erbil. I was offered to join one of the two major Kurdish parties to have a permanent job as a teacher. But I refused to be affiliated with political parties and wanted to be independent. I got a chance to work part-time as an interpreter with an American NGO. My first American boss, Ellen, was from Texas; she hired me after my interview, which was only five minutes. My journey as an interpreter and translator started with American women believing in me.
What kind of work did you do after you were recruited? Were there any moments that stuck out to you?
I started as a part-time Kurdish interpreter translating the health education messages by the NGO members at the children’s hospital in Erbil. We were helping mothers hospitalized with their children suffering from malnutrition due to the sanctions on Iraq in the ‘90s. They were staying for months in some cases. I noticed that they were not very receptive to taking the international nurses’ advice regarding their children’s health. So, I submitted my proposal to the NGO director to convey the same message but in a more creative way. She approved my proposal and gave me about 15 books regarding health education to read. I hired three of the best students I used to teach and established my first acting group, incorporating Kurdish folk stories that were well known even by uneducated people and integrated the health education messages.
We started our first short play at one of the meeting rooms at the hospital, using hospital sheets as our stage curtain. Our audience was 25 mothers staying at the hospital with their sick children. They were laughing and interacting with the story and the scenes. At the end of the play, I would come out dressed as a doctor and ask them a question about what they have learned from the play. The project was very successful, and later we traveled around the region to villages to perform our short health education plays. UNICEF heard about us and offered us a TV show. We agreed to have a monthly radio show broadcasting to all three major cities in Iraq’s Kurdish region. I was the screenwriter, actor, and director of that show and worked as the program manager for that project for UNICEF. I incorporated language services with acting, something I used to do as a college student.
What were some of the things you found most meaningful about the work?
Being an interpreter is more than transferring words from one party to another like a machine. I worked as an advocate for the mothers after sensing their frustration from hours of lecturing them about how to take care of their children. Most of them were very poor and had no means to survive if they got out of the hospital. I wanted to give them the knowledge, but convey it with empathy and creativity. It was a chance to be entertained while staying in a hospital for months and dealing with the loss of innocent lives every morning. It was a rewarding job; I felt that I could help in more than one way, and knowing languages was only a means to help others, not the purpose.
How did your career progress from there? Where were some of the places you’ve worked since then?
Landing at the San Francisco airport was my first stop in my journey to the USA; my destination was Seattle. When I landed, I was helping about 80 people in my group with interpretation services. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) staff tasked with taking us to the hotel and then to our destination the next day witnessed my efforts in helping with the translation. They offered me a job on the spot to work with them as an interpreter. This offer came only five minutes after my arrival, even before going to my destination in Seattle.
Since then, I have worn many hats — or scarves, in my case. First, I worked as an interpreter with IOM, Seattle Public Health, Washington State courts, and many other agencies. Next, I worked as a warehouse worker at a significant traveling clothes company called ExOfficio; then I worked as a teacher at the Islamic School of Seattle. Finally, in 2003, I worked as an Arabic teacher and curriculum developer with Foreign Language Services at Fort Lewis, working for Defense Language Institute (DLI).
I wanted to give back to the community; I volunteered with American Translation Association (ATA), served as the president of Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society (NOTIS), and then as a board member for two terms with ATA. I then established the Arabic division (ALD) and served as an administrator for two years.
Tell us a little about your work at Amazon.
I wanted to bring my expertise to a great company like Amazon and impact the localization quality as a service offered to Amazon customers. I have worked as a senior program manager managing machine translation (MT) quality in a team called CATALST at Amazon. I oversaw the MT quality output serving our internal customers, working with a team of scientists, engineers, and linguists to improve MT quality at Amazon. Amazon is committed to offering language services to its customers to have a better experience with Amazon services.
Your story is a remarkable one of finding success through your own talent and hard work. Is there anything else you credit for building a new life?
I used to hear about the American dream; I never knew that I would chase it one day or even accomplish it. I think my story is a raw and true story of a dreamer chasing the American dream. I never stopped dreaming and working hard to accomplish the dreams of a humble Kurdish girl coming from the land of war and sorrow.
I earned my MS in Leadership and Management from the City University of Seattle. The university awarded me a lifetime membership of the City University of Seattle, Pi Kappa Chapter of the International Business Honor Society, Delta Mu Delta (DMD). I also got my certification in Business Strategy with Harvard Business School online.
I hope my story will inspire every broken refugee looking for a new life in a new country. I started my life in the Usa from zero, and after 25 years of hard work, I established a family, raised four children, and founded more than one business. Finally, I experienced the freedom of practicing my religion and starting a business without the condition of being affiliated with political parties. I am blessed with the freedom of thought and the freedom to vote.
You’re also a poet and have a passion for publishing. You’ve even started your own publishing company. How did you decide to do that, and what has the company published?
Along with my passion for languages, I have a passion for literature. In 2013, I established Darsafi, LLC. It is a small publishing house specialized in translating Arabic and Kurdish literature into English. My goal has been to build a bridge between East and West. I wanted to introduce the East and especially the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region through literature rather than horrific stories in the news outlets. I wanted people to know the stories of the “other” on a human level. As a teenager, I learned about Latin American people through Gabriel García Márquez’s works. I knew about Bengali people through the beautiful Rabindranath Tagore poetry, and learned about Russian people through Dostoyevsky, and the US through TS Eliot’s works.
Darsafi published over 20 books; among these were novels, poetry, and an eyewitness encounter of a journalist in 2003 after the war in Iraq. As a poet, I published two books, Let Us Give War a Chance and I am a Visitor on this Earth. My third book, Words Dripping from my Fingertips, is forthcoming. I also translated two poetry books of two Arab poets. I was honored to lecture at the Library of Congress about promoting Arab culture through translation.
In addition, you’re the founder of Translation4all. What was the experience of building your own company, and what type of work did you specialize in?
In 2004, after my divorce, I wanted extra income to keep my first house and raise my two kids as a single mother; I worked as a freelancer and then established my own company called Translation4all. I felt that nothing was in my way to stop me from trying and working hard. Unfortunately, my ex-husband set me up for failure. He told me that I would lose the house and, ultimately, the custody of my kids. As a strong Kurdish woman, I challenged him. I worked three jobs, even on the weekends. I kept my first house, invested in more houses, and had two more kids when I remarried in 2005.
In 2010, I incorporated Translation4all and became my company’s full-time CEO. We started to offer language services to government agencies like the Department of State, US military, and UN. We also offered localization services to major tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Netflix, and LG. We localized the first Kurdish LG phone to Kurdish Sorani, where the LG CEO handed the phone in a ceremony to the Kurdish prime minister. I worked as the language moderator for Microsoft Office 15 Kurdish localization project. I was honored to be invited to the White House to meet President Obama’s administration as one of 40 businessmen and businesswomen.
In 2020, I asked my husband, Hussam Fares, to run the business and wanted to be a part of the success of a great company like Amazon.
Translation4all, Inc. is now a thriving company specializing in conference interpreting and written translation serving our clients from the Department of Justice, State Department, and US military for over 100 languages. Our services are global; we have served customers in Afghanistan, MENA region, Europe, and Africa. My husband is now the CEO and the force behind the company’s success; he has over 20 years of experience working as an interpreter with the US government in Iraq and the USA.
You mentioned you hope to one day start a nonprofit that helps people facing similar challenges you overcame. Could you tell us more about that?
I plan to establish an NGO to help refugee women start their journey and become entrepreneurs in the USA. In addition, I want to be a mentor to help other women to chase their American dreams.
Is there anything else you want to mention?
As Maya Angelou said, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” I have faced many difficulties in my personal and professional life, which is a consistent challenge. Being a woman is a challenge. Being a Muslim woman with a duty to my beliefs and ethics is more challenging. I had to create my path. I did not come from a wealthy family with an established last name, but I maintained my integrity at work and in my personal life, which is the legacy that I will leave behind. I have had great support from my family since I was a child. My strong Kurdish mother helped me to be strong. Without the support of strong women in my life, I would not have achieved the things I did and be where I am. I am grateful to the women who paved the way and allowed me to start my career. I am so grateful to my family and my husband, who has been a force pushing me to success, and a true partner who sees his success in my success.
Cameron Rasmusson is the editor-in-chief of MultiLingual Media.
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