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Iraqi-born linguist shines on the dance floor

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The military may be known for marching in formation, but in the case of Sgt. Mustafa Al-Ibraheem, he may be more comfortable stepping in rhythm on the dance floor to salsa music.

Taking his talents to the post USO, Sgt. Al-Ibraheem, who goes by Tom, teaches the dance on Thursday nights, confidently moving to show his students how to keep in line with to the beat.

“I was born with confidence,” Sgt. Al-Ibraheem said. “I don’t have any problem teaching and dancing with people.”

Unbeknownst to many of his students, the 26-year-old unit supply specialist was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and has only been in the U.S. for about three years.

“They don’t believe I’m Middle Eastern,” Sgt. Al-Ibraheem said. He said many of his Spanish-speaking students call him Thomas, emphasizing the “oh” sound.

Sgt. Al-Ibraheem’s path to citizenship began when he was convinced by friends to work as a translator for the U.S. Marines.

“I talked to my friends Friday, took the English test in the green zone Saturday, Sunday I was hired and Monday I started working,” Sgt. Al-Ibraheem said.

He picked the name Tom when he was asked for a Western-sounding security name, as homage to his favorite actor, Tom Hanks.

“It’s like Muhammad in the Middle East. Everybody knows Tom. ... It’s too easy,” Sgt. Al-Ibraheem said.

He first learned about salsa at the Tallit Air Base, in the southeastern part of the country.

“I thought they were talking about food,” Sgt. Al-Ibraheem said. The class, taught by a civilian contractor, was short of men, forcing him right into action.

“I said ‘What? I don’t know what I’m doing,’” he said.

However, his skills grew so quickly that when the contractor left three weeks later, he was asked to take over the class. Despite his inexperience, he said making the transition from student to teacher was “not a big deal.”

“I just love people too much,” he said.

While he began learning and teaching salsa dancing, his translating work would take him across the country, from Ramadi to Basra to Nasiriya.

However, he said his plans were to come to America, and join the Army. He said when he informed the colonel he was working with of his plans, he was told he was crazy.

“Yeah, but I’m crazy enough to do it,” Sgt. Al-Ibraheem remembered saying.

Receiving his visa in June 2009, he came to America that October. Settling in Harrisonburg, Va., Sgt. Al-Ibraheem ended up taking the test four times to get his English score close to his perfect math score.

He then drove 21 hours to a recruiting station in Miami, where a slot had opened in a dual-language program, and officially joined June 2, 2010. He earned his citizenship after completing basic training the next month.

Sgt. Al-Ibraheem arrived at Fort Drum in January 2011. Only months after arriving, he was off with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team on its yearlong deployment to southern Afghanistan.

Returning to Fort Drum in March, he was dismayed to see there was no salsa night on post. He then spent several months setting up the class with the USO. His first salsa night took place in August.

While Sgt. Al-Ibraheem has found success through teaching dance, he said he plans on making the transition to crypto-linguistic work, taking advantage of his advanced language skills for higher end translation services.

Acknowledging that he may be deploying in 2013, Sgt. Al-Ibraheem said he is not looking forward to saying goodbye to his students and fellow dancers.

“It’s going to be a hard day,” Sgt. Al-Ibraheem said. “(They’re) very loyal. ... I love my people here.”

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