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CBS 3 Photographer’s Extraordinary Journey From Baghdad To Philadelphia

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Chris May is anchor of CBS 3’s Eyewitness News at 5, 6 an...
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By Chris May

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Atheer Hussein is an Iraqi by birth. He’s an American by choice.

He made that official on a recent Friday morning in Philadelphia when he recited the “Oath of Allegiance” and became a U.S. citizen. His entire family was there to share the moment. His oldest daughter Haneen called him her hero.

PHOTOS: CBS 3 Photographer’s Extraordinary Journey From Baghdad To Philadelphia

“I am so proud of him,” she said. “He’s come so far to just be here.”

So far, indeed.

WATCH: WEB EXTRA: Life In Baghdad

Atheer grew up in Baghdad, the youngest of ten children. After earning a degree in French studies, he followed his older brother into a career as a cameraman, shooting soap operas and documentaries. But in 2003 when the war came to Iraq Atheer discovered a new line of work — using his camera to capture the conflict for CBS News.

“Everyone as a journalist over there was a target,” he says. “We were risking our life to cover the story.”

WATCH: WEB EXTRA: Working In A War Zone

Atheer says no place was truly safe during the war. Not even the U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad. He was there in 2003 covering a press conference when a truck bomb exploded outside. Twenty-two people died in the terrorist attack.

“I realized after five-six seconds, I realized we have been attacked. It’s a bomb,” he says. “People were laying around, some of them dead some of them injured… I forget I am one of these target people I forget that and I continue to do my job.”

He kept his cool, and kept his camera rolling, and used its light to help lead others to safety. But it wouldn’t take long before Atheer’s own safety became compromised.

WATCH: WEB EXTRA: Atheer’s Brother

In 2006, Atheer’s older brother, while working as a cameraman for a local TV station, was murdered. He was shot along with his driver on their way to work.

“We don’t know who killed him,” Athher told Eyewitness News. “Terrorist, insurgent, nobody knows. It was chaos.”

WATCH: WEB EXTRA: Coming To America

What Atheer did know was that if his brother was a target, he would be next. And with a wife and two young children he could no longer take that risk. So along with his family he left Iraq. Initially, they traveled to Jordan and then to the United States, where at the suggestion of a friend they settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was quiet, small, and safe.

All it lacked was a job for a war photographer.

Atheer found other work. First, at a chicken processing plant and later as a school custodian. He was doing what he needed to do to take care of his family. He was proud of his work. But ultimately, it left him feeling unfulfilled.

“It was nice experience,” he says, “but this is not me I don’t want to do that I am a cameraman.”

WATCH: WEB EXTRA: Working For CBS 3

Eventually, word of Atheer’s story and his sterling reputation within CBS News reached Philadelphia.

In August 2013 he received a call from CBS3. The station needed a cameraman. And it wanted Atheer. He still gets emotional remembering the moment.

“It’s a great thing, Chris,” he tells Eyewitness News anchor Chris May as tears well in his eyes. “Really it is… This is me. I find myself with a camera.”

WATCH: WEB EXTRA: An American Citizen

For the past year he’s been out capturing the news around the Delaware Valley. At first he commuted from Lancaster, often spending four hours in his car each work day. But recently the family moved to Collegeville, Montgomery County. It’s closer to work, yet still safe and quiet. The perfect home, Atheer says, for his two-year old twins Nadeen and Nermeen, his son Haider, and his daughter Haneen. And, of course, for Areej — the diligent wife and mother who became an American citizen on her own just a few weeks after Atheer recited the oath.

They are, in every way, a classic American family.

“Do you think you’re an example of someone who’s living the American dream?” May asked.  “Why do you call it a dream?” Atheer responds. “It’s real. it’s a truth. It’s a nice life. A good life. Safety. A safe environment. It’s not an American dream. It’s an American reality.”

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