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Originally published Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 8:28 PM

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Now beauty surrounds Iraqi immigrant, not fear

An Iraqi refugee has found new life as a security guard at Chihuly Garden and Glass.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“I don’t look to faces. My experience, my training, tells me to look to hands.” Muthanna Al-Nidawi is sitting in his living room, decorated with two large American flags pinned tightly to the clean white walls.

It’s Al-Nidawi’s day off, but he doesn’t seem to mind talking about his job. He’s proud of guarding some of our region’s most famous art at Chihuly Garden and Glass at Seattle Center. And he believes his experience as a news-camera operator in war-torn Iraq makes him particularly well suited to the work.

Al-Nidawi knows that his fear of sudden bloodshed, and his inclination to scan the hands of museum visitors for weapons or a detonator are a remnant of the traumas of war. But he says he still repeats to himself when guarding the museum’s entrance, “Keep the entry safe, that way everyone inside is safe.”

It was the end of 2011 when Al-Nidawi got the phone call that he, his wife and their two children were being resettled as refugees to the United States. The news didn’t come a moment too soon. The last American troops were leaving Iraq, and Al-Nidawi, through his work with Western news outlets and the US military, had become a target.

“To work inside the Green Zone and go back to the airport, both of which are ... army bases. [To] the militias that kind of meant I was a VIP,” says Al-Nidawi, who watched as his once peaceful neighborhood by the Baghdad airport became a target of mortar attacks and kidnappings.

A few months after the Al-Nidawi family arrived in the Pacific Northwest, Muthanna heard about a security-guard position at the soon-to-be-opening Chihuly Garden and Glass through a job-placement program with the International Rescue Committee.

“I knew that some of the churches had these very nice windows,” says Al-Nidawi, laughing about his initial lack of understanding about glass art. “I knew my mom had some special dishes — and that was it about glass.”

But one visit to the museum changed that forever. Seeing the colorful blown glass for the first time was “like heaven” and Al-Nidawi had an immediate impulse to protect it. “I was like ‘this thing really needs security.’ ”

Michelle Bufano, executive director of the museum, says Al-Nidawi is a “perfect example” of the museum’s goal of hiring staff that are welcoming and engaging.

“He has a pretty prominent role because he’s with the public all day long,” says Bufano “He has to do this balance between security ... and also engaging and understanding the artwork.”

But adjustment to life outside of a war zone isn’t easy, and the years of living with fear have left their mark. Al-Nidawi rattles off the locations of mass shootings since he arrived in the United States and says he can’t help but worry that violence could invade the peaceful world of the museum.

Safety and preparedness are crucial to Al-Nidawi. In 2007, he and his family were driving back from his father’s house when he noticed tiny clouds of dust bursting on the concrete wall alongside the highway. It took a moment before it registered they were being shot at. He sped toward the approaching check point, shooting at the attackers out the open window while his wife crouched on the floor of the passenger’s seat reloading guns.

It’s hard to reconcile that terrifying story with Al-Nidawi’s life now. As he tells it his family gathers pop bottles full of collected rainwater — a Shia Muslim tradition dictates that it’s healthful to drink April rain. Bright new bikes for his kids, one red and one pink, gleam from the deck outside.

It’s even a starker contrast at the museum. Walking through rooms of glowing tangerine, cobalt and lime sculptures, I try to imagine how surreal, even decadent, this might seem after years of insecurity and violence. I wonder what it feels like to be protecting this glass against the curious hands of tourists, armed with only a stern voice, after years of packing a gun just to go the grocery store.

“It’s very different,” says Al-Nidawi. “I still have the mentality of what I have been through back there ... but I’m converting it to the peaceful way,” he says with confidence, “My job now is just ‘please don’t touch.’ ”

Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle's international connections. Sarah Stuteville: sarah@seattleglobalist.com. Twitter: @SeaStute

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