By Josh Kelly
In Sheikhan, Iraq, police officers are only found at checkpoints surrounding the city. If a criminal can drive or run fast enough, they can usually get away — unpunished.
Diana Elias didn’t like that. When she came to the United States in 2010 as a 13-year-old and saw police officers out in the community helping people, she realized she wanted to wear the uniform herself.
Her ultimate goal is to become the Lincoln Police Department’s first Iraqi officer. Right now, the 19-year-old Yazidi is a step closer; she recently began an internship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Police Department.
For Elias, a police uniform symbolizes a helping hand; a way to improve the lives of others. She wants to some day proudly wear the “police” patch on her arm.
When she came to the U.S. — on April 29, 2010 (she remembers the exact date) — Elias said she knew there were opportunities she could take advantage of. The differences in the two countries were obvious.
“As a woman, you can work here,” she said. “Back home … no.”
• • •
When Elias was 18, she got to drive a police cruiser.
The Lincoln High School student had received an A in her criminal justice elective, and her teacher invited her to attend a special law enforcement training program in Grand Island in June 2015. She couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
She and a few classmates were made junior law cadets during a five-day program at the Nebraska State Patrol Training Academy.
The highlight for Elias was driving a standard cruiser on a closed-loop test course. She was given three tries with the main objective of avoiding 100 traffic cones. Admittedly, she was a tad nervous.
The first time, she knocked over three cones. She was disappointed that she didn’t get 100 out of 100.
The second time, she knocked over two — and she felt a little better.
The final time, she knocked over two cones again. The officer in the passenger seat reassured her that she did a good job.
Not too long into the program, the Nebraska state troopers gave her a nickname: Smiley.
“I like the troopers,” she said. “They were really nice. I just love them.”
That weekend, she fired a gun, used a taser and also watched the German shepherds search for sample drugs in a warehouse.
“I was really scared of the dogs,” she said, smiling.
The trip also gave Elias her first experience of what it’s like to stay in a college dormitory. The barracks building, which is located on the training grounds, had a similar feel — white cement walls, a shared closet and desk and two twin beds.
Elias was a little nervous because it was the first time she had to share a room with someone who isn’t related to her. But the experience in Grand Island gave her more inspiration.
• • •
In Elias’s hometown of Sheikhan, a city in the northern region of the country that’s close to Turkey, there were two separate schools — one for the boys and one for the girls. The girls had a dress code. They had to wear a plain white shirt, a dress and tennis shoes. It was strict, Elias said. As for the boys, “they were free,” she said.
Elias has many memories from her school days in Iraq. She remembers when she was six and there was bombing on the school grounds. She could feel the building shake as everyone darted for the exits.
Her school was normally a 20-minute walk. She set a personal best time when the principal announced that all the children had to run home as fast as they could to avoid the destruction.
“They were running everywhere,” she said. “It was crazy.”
Sometimes school would have to be cancelled because of the violence.
Now, in her senior year at Lincoln High, the only thing that cancels school is bad weather.
“I like it better here,” she said. “Even if I was still in Iraq, I wouldn’t be able to finish school and become something. I didn’t have the proper education.”
She fondly remembers her old home.
It was a two-story house without a roof. Elias and her family would sleep on the main floor during the winter because it had a ceiling, but when it was warm enough, they would sleep on the top floor and look up at the stars.
She also remembers playing hide and seek with her friends and siblings. There was a garden in the middle of the house where her father parked his tractor. The garden was mostly roses and was surrounded by five pear trees. Elias’ go-to hiding spot was usually in the trees.
The only rule during hide and seek was that whoever was “it” had to count to 20 and then look. Sometimes, Elias said, she would speed up the counting to tag people faster.
But as far as parameters went, she and her friends knew they didn’t have to remind each other about where to go and where not to go.
“I usually couldn’t go outside of the area because of the war,” she said.
The only time she ever saw police officers were at checkpoints when her family would travel to other cities. They would check identification and then let people go. That’s it.
“There weren’t any strict rules,” she said.
• • •
Another opportunity has presented itself to Elias.
Tri Pham, a member of the Asian Community and Cultural Center, approached Sarah Murtaugh, a human relations and public relations coordinator for the UNL Police Department, to see if the department had any openings. He knew a Yazidi teen who would be a perfect fit.
He told her Elias has already spent time at the Grand Island state patrol facility. That piqued Murtaugh’s interest.
So Elias was brought in for an interview with a group of officers.
“I was so scared,” Elias said. “I thought only one person would be interviewing me.”
Three weeks and a background check later, she was notified that the internship was hers. Her first day was April 12.
That day she came in at 2:45 p.m. for a light introduction and a briefing on what she was going to do. Her internship position entails helping the police department go paperless, which means tedious work getting all the print files into the department’s computer system. That’s what Elias remembers most from her first day — all of the computers and the people who were working at them.
Murtaugh was the first to greet Elias when she came in. She then showed the new intern around the office and told her that they go for a family atmosphere at the department.
“She was a little timid and shy at first,” Murtaugh said. “But I think she was just absorbing everything. She was allowing people to speak to her first.”
Murtaugh then quickly discovered the kind of person Elias is.
“She is a great listener and super enthusiastic,” Murtaugh said. “She’s always smiling and is in a good mood.
“She’s always a bright spot when she comes in. I’ll have a long day and she’ll come in smiling.”
Right now, Elias is getting exposed to a police department close to home and what it’s like to work in one. While she enjoys her internship, she eventually wants to be away from the fluorescent lighting and computer screens.
“I want to patrol,” she said. “I want to help people in the community.”
Despite a limited time spent with Elias, Murtaugh said, she thinks highly of the young intern.
“We want her to stay with us,” Murtaugh said. “But she shouldn’t have any trouble getting into any department.”
• • •
Elias will graduate from Lincoln High on May 22. From there, she has it all planned out.
• Go to Southeast Community College for a year
• Go to UNL for three years
• Graduate from UNL with a degree in criminal justice
• Get a job as a police officer
• Do the seven to eight weeks of training.
• Put on the uniform
Elias said she knows she would be a great fit for Lincoln because of her ability to speak English and Kurdish. She believes her background is an advantage.
“I think it’s a big thing,” Elias said. “My friends and teachers told me I can be a good cop by using my language skills since I speak more than one language.”
Murtaugh said she envisions Elias as an officer who is able to defuse tricky situations when she needs to. That’s why she thinks Elias will be a great officer.
“What makes her great is that she is really approachable,” Murtaugh said. “She has a calming presence.”
Whenever Elias walks around Lincoln with her parents, Seno and Aishe Murad, and sees a police cruiser pass by, she looks over to them and smiles.
“Someday I will have a car like that.”