Omar and Mustafa were amazed by the emptiness and size of the United States. We would drive for hours without seeing a real town. We went from D.C., to the Appalachian mountains, through the south, to desert, then pine trees and mountains. We saw tumbleweeds, snow, rain, lots of ice. There was the grand canyon, big sky and huge pine trees. Omar loved the pine trees…and that there were so many different types in so many different landscapes.

“I still haven’t seen America,” Mustafa said, while we drove somewhere in Arizona. Omar agreed…they meant that in the movies you basically only see New York or LA representing the US. But in reality it is mostly small towns and countryside…which is all we saw on the trip.

I’ve known Omar and his family since 2003, when he started working for The Washington Post. At the time I was a staff photographer for the newspaper and we were a photographer/driver team. He didn’t mind the dangers involved in working with photographers and his quiet-confidence made him the best working partner I’ve ever had. He has saved my life, quite literally, and was one of my closest friends. 

Before we left D.C. with his 15 year old son Mustafa (his wife and two younger children flew to Portland, OR, ahead of time to find an apartment), I bought a driving map of the United States to show the scale of the trip we were taking. But it wasn’t until we reached California that the size of the US was truly apparent to Mustafa, Omar and myself. I’ve never made a trip across the US like this. Few Americans have, I told him.

After the first couple of days on the road, the stress from the first few months of living in the US seemed to wear off. He smoked less. He laughed more. He seemed more relaxed, his quiet confidence on display even as I was white-knuckle driving through the snow of Oregon.

When Omar and his family arrived in DC, I hadn’t seen him since 2011 when I was in Iraq covering the U.S. withdrawal. He had been trying to get a visa for years and thanks to the NY-based Iraq Refugee Assistance Project, he and his family finally made it. Of all of the Iraqis who worked with The Washington Post, he was the most optimistic about his country. He decided, almost too late, that it would be best for his children to leave.