An Iraqi war cameraman finds a home in America

(CBS News) Lancaster, Pa., is not where I thought I'd find him. But here in a place where the old so easily meshes with the new, maybe there was no better place to find an old friend's new home.

We hadn't seen each other in more than a decade, since the unwelcome circumstance that first brought us together: the war in Iraq.

It was in Baghdad on the eve of the U.S. invasion that I first met Atheer Hameed.

He was an Iraqi photographer, a cameraman, well-known in Baghdad for his work shooting soap operas and documentaries. CBS News hired him not only for his eye, but for his language and local knowledge.

But it turned out Atheer's greatest asset was his courage.

When the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad was attacked in 2003, Hameed was inside. He kept his compassion, his composure -- and kept his camera rolling.

"After the blast happened, everything became dark," Hameed said. "Too dark. Even I can't see my hand. All of the people around me laying in the floor, some of them dead, some of them injured, some of them crying, some of them screaming, and only me, I am good."

He led people to safety using the light on his camera.


WEB EXTRA: Watch raw video from Atheer Hameed's camera which was running when a truck bomb struck the United Nations Assistance Mission in Baghdad on August 19, 2003 - and kept running in the chaotic aftermath of the attack which killed at least 17 people. WARNING: Graphic images.

But it wasn't just the violence he covered. In his battered Volkswagen Bug, we'd go bouncing around Baghdad to find the touching, too.

We found the Baghdad Symphony getting back to playing music again. We ventured to the Baghdad Zoo -- stormed by looters who took every morsel of food -- where starving animals were fed and watered thanks to the U.S. military.

And we went to a hospital maternity ward to witness the first of a generation NOT born under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

"Nice, nice memories," said Hameed. "They are nice. Even though it was a tough time, difficult. But when you remember when you see them, remember that you think you did something."

"We did do something, didn't we?" Cowan said.

"Yes we did, we did something yes, for sure."

He still has that venerable Volkswagen in a garage in Baghdad, though now it's mostly been lost to the dust of the desert.

In the months and years that followed, we couldn't drive it anyway; Baghdad's security situation had deteriorated so much, we rarely got outside at all.

"I used to have hope that things will be better," said Hameed.

"Do you remember a point when you were covering all this that you thought to yourself, maybe things aren't going to get any better?" Cowan asked.

"I also have this feeling. And I am afraid from that feeling."

For good reason. It wasn't only Westerners in danger; anyone in the media was a target.

Atheer's brother, who worked for a local TV channel in Baghdad, was murdered by one of the many militia groups that had surfaced in the chaos.

"It was a big shock for us," said Hameed. "And it was a big sign for me. Some people told me, 'You will be the next, so take care and leave the country. Better for you.' That's why I left my country."

It was a difficult decision, but Hameed didn't only have himself to worry about -- he had a wife and two children.

The threats against his family allowed him to gain refugee status from the U.S. government, and four years ago Hameed and his family arrived in the U.S. to face both the promise and the hurdles of immigrant life in America.

  • Lee Cowan

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