U.S.

Iraq's refugees: Reborn in the USA

Years after escaping the war, two Iraqi refugees tread different paths as they build lives in America.

A recently-arrived refugee from Iraq gives a finger print during a class held by the Arizona Department of Economic Security at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), office on March 1, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2007 the U.S. government has resettled nearly 85,000 Iraqi refugees who had worked in Iraq with the U.S. military, American media or non-governmental organizations.
John Moore/Getty Images

Once, Adil Ibrahim worked as a translator with American soldiers, introducing them to Iraqi culture and the streets of Baghdad and trying to bridge gaps of understanding. Now, he’s one of them.

Ibrahim, an Iraqi who came to the United States on a media scholarship in 2008 and then sought asylum, is now a U.S. citizen and member of the U.S. military. He’s even been deployed to Afghanistan.

Because of his work for the U.S. military, he has asked that his real name and rank and the names of his family be withheld for this story. For their own protection, his family in Iraq doesn’t know about his work.

He’ll never go back. His wife will soon take her oath of allegiance, and their three young children are well-versed in the peripatetic life of American military brats, uprooting their lives every few years to a new base in a new town with a new school.

While Ibrahim wants to remain in his adopted country, another Iraqi refugee, Haydar al-Jumaily, still harbors dreams of returning to his war-torn homeland.

Al-Jumaily, also from Baghdad, endured a years-long wait to come to the United States as part of the government’s Iraqi refugee settlement plan to help Iraqis who’d worked with the U.S. military, news organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). When he first came to the country, he was settled in Houston, but he moved to the small town of Katy, Texas (population approximately 14,000), soon after.

A mechanical engineer back home, he studies at night to get a U.S. master’s degree in the same field. He also has a commercial driver’s license but can’t take assignments that keep him on the road for several weeks at a time, because that would mean leaving his wife home alone with their two small boys.

Al-Jumaily worries that his children are becoming too American. He is concerned that they are forgetting their religion and their language and leaving their culture behind. He thinks about going back to Iraq or even to Kurdistan — Iraq’s thriving autonomous region to the north, where there is less violence and more investment — once he has U.S. citizenship, to be closer to his family and the world he knows best.

The stories of these two Iraqi refugees now rebuilding their lives in a foreign land encapsulate the quintessential immigrant experience in the United States. People who have heard so much about America have expectations of their new home that come up against reality when they arrive. When people are displaced from their homelands, whether through economic or political hardship, they bring with them their traditions, culture, language and closely held attachments to the place and the people they left behind. For many the struggle to acclimate to a new land and a new life with strange people is thwarted by that attachment. Others, ready to shake off past misfortune, embrace their new world wholeheartedly, hoping their dreams about a new life come true.

Life, then

When the U.S. military invaded Iraq in 2003, troops spread throughout the country, taking over towns and unseating Saddam-era leaders. In fanning out across the capital, the military eventually made its way to the quiet middle-class neighborhood in Baghdad where Ibrahim lived. Soldiers from a unit of the 101st Airborne Division were walking in the streets, as freely as they ever would — talking to strangers without fear of attack — trying to learn more about the people living there. They were missing a translator, Ibrahim saw, and he stepped in to interpret what the locals were trying to describe: a secret cell hidden in one of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palaces, with prisoners trapped inside. The soldiers, grateful for Ibrahim’s help, asked him to come back to the base and work with them. And when they transferred north, Ibrahim went too.

He returned a few months later to Baghdad to resume his studies — he’d been working on an English graduate degree — but the escalation in violence shut down his university and sent his professors fleeing the country. So he moved on to work with American news organizations.

“I never thought I’d leave Iraq,” Ibrahim says, speaking from his latest posting in Kentucky, newly arrived to take up a military commission and surrounded by hundreds of unpacked moving boxes. “I thought it was home. But after the events of 2005 to 2007, these events were telling me I needed to leave. My friends were getting killed, getting kidnapped, it [was] becoming hard to live your life.” In 2006 Ibrahim’s own father was kidnapped, and even after a ransom was paid, his father wasn’t returned to them. Ibrahim married the widow of his close friend, adopting her daughter, and soon welcomed a son. “It was difficult for me to stay there and see that there would be a future for me and my family,” Ibrahim says. “Those events basically forced me out.”

Her first husband was shot and killed by an American military sniper while driving down a Baghdad street in 2005. The U.S. military paid her family $2,500 in compensation for her husband, and another $2,500 for his car.

For al-Jumaily, the decision to leave Iraq came with the bitter realization that it would be many years before the country was safe enough for him and his family to ever live there again. “My country, there is no hope; for me, there is no hope things will get better, or at least what we used to get under Saddam Hussein,” he says, speaking from his home in Katy.

Al-Jumaily, tall and rotund with a persistent sheen of sweat across his brow, used to be a happy presence in the Baghdad reporting world. Like so many professionals in Iraq, al-Jumaily, an engineer, was left unemployed after the American-led invasion. There was little work and many of Baghdad’s white-collar professionals used what money they had to leave the country, trying to find work overseas. Those who remained, like al-Jumaily, often relied on their passable English to find work with foreigners, including journalists. Al-Jumaily had a curiosity about his city that he brought with him when he came to work as a fixer for U.S. media organizations in late 2006. His keen eye and sense of humor saw him through difficult moments watching other Iraqis struggle, particularly those trying to get out.

The post-invasion ethnic shift in Baghdad’s landscape sent cracks through society that went right up to al-Jumaily’s doorstep. His wife is a Sunni; he is Shiite. In the grip of civil war, Iraq’s conflict had come home.

His cousin, a policeman, was stopped at an illegal checkpoint manned by gunmen in a Sunni neighborhood. A Shiite, he was shot to death, his body dragged through the streets. Mad with grief at hearing the news, al-Jumaily’s uncle grabbed a weapon and stumbled out of his house. He tried to shoot one of his own Sunni neighbors. Then, when al-Jumaily started getting death threats himself, he decided to pack up and leave Iraq with his wife and boys, eventually making the journey from Baghdad to Houston.

In America

Most Americans find life in New York City very hectic. For Iraqis newly transplanted from the languid heat of the Arabian desert, it can be a whirlwind. That was where Ibrahim and his wife first made their home in America, after he received a scholarship to study at a university in the city. His American friends would stop by to check up on him. “We were living in a matchbox, but when people came to visit they’d say our apartment was huge,” Ibrahim says, laughing at the memory. “Using the subway, the buses, not having a car — New York is crowded; it’s a very busy, fast-paced city, and it wasn’t easy. The only thing that kept us going was that we’re safe here. We don’t have people chasing us, trying to kidnap us — all the dangers we faced every single day back home.”

For Ibrahim and his family, the paranoia of everyday life in Baghdad still hung in the Manhattan air. “Even when I was in class, my wife called every single hour: ‘Are you OK? Are you OK?’” Ibrahim recalls. “It still happens now; if I forget to call her, she’s freaked out about it; she’s never been able to overcome that apprehension. We knew we were safe, but that feeling never goes away.”

After his schooling was over Ibrahim didn’t want to return to Iraq. The reports he got from his family back home weren’t good. He applied for asylum. He got a job at a radio station in upstate New York, and moved there with his family. They had another son. Soon, though, the radio job dried up from lack of funding. Resettlement programs require applicants to be employed when they apply for permanent residency.  With the economic crisis in full effect and Ibrahim constantly worrying about their situation, he did something he would have never have imagined: enlist in the U.S. military.

“It’s more than one thing that made me do this, in addition to the security [of being able to stay in the country],” he says. “I know it’s crazy volunteering to go into harm’s way. It took a long time,” he adds, but “it feels normal now.”

He joined in 2010. The following year, he was deployed to Afghanistan.

Al-Jumaily and his family arrived in Houston in January 2009, renting an apartment in a middle-class neighborhood. “There were no Iraqis there,” he remembers. “I didn’t know anything about the U.S., I didn’t have any friends. It was hard for me when I started working and [to] go on the road, try to know the names of the roads; then I was able to save and buy a GPS.” His first job was as a cab driver. His wife, Zeinab, went to work at a day care center. They both studied at night, al-Jumaily for his master’s in mechanical engineering, Zeinab for child care certification, and eventually moved out of Houston to the nearby town of Katy, where they were approved for a loan and bought a house.

“We’re used to living in a house [in Baghdad]; I can’t live in an apartment with one gate, and all the people come in the same gate,” al-Jumaily says. “I can’t do that. We’ve got our traditional ways of living.”

Initial elation

Since 2007, when the U.S. government began its program of resettling Iraqi refugees who’d worked with the U.S. military or American organizations, nearly 85,000 have been admitted to the country, according to Kelly Gauger, deputy director for refugee admissions.

The majority of refugees are settled in smaller towns because “it’s just too expensive and they don’t receive a lot of community support” in big cities, Gauger says. “A lot of people say later they were happy to be resettled in a smaller place; they find a community that helps them navigate the system.”

Some refugees leave the first place they’re brought to, perhaps because the people they know live elsewhere, they don’t like the area or they’ve heard they can get better jobs if they move. The decision about where they are settled depends on several factors that are decided by the nine agencies the State Department works with to resettle refugees.

“At the beginning of every fiscal year we get together with the agencies who present their proposals, towns where they have good relationships with clinics that treat post-traumatic stress … and then they match that with a number of refugees they think the agency can handle,” says Gauger.

Some refugees ask not to be sent to places where there are already established communities from the same nationality, Gauger says, especially those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Also, women from very strict male-dominated cultures sometimes request to be settled far away, so as to avoid cultural pressures.

The State Department doesn’t keep numbers on Iraqis who return to Iraq. “All we know is, anecdotally, you hear plenty of stories of people who come here, decide to go back after three to six months; some go back because they’ve left family or property, some when they get their green card,” Gauger says.

She describes the initial elation families have when they first arrive, filled with excitement and expectation, and how predictable the letdown is after that. They’re given financial support, enrolled in English classes, and assisted in navigating local communities and job markets. To be eligible for permanent resident status, they must be employed, and that causes anxiety for those without a job. “Around the nine-month hit, they get concerned about the cutoff in aid. A lot of them came with certification [in degrees earned abroad]” that is not valid here, Gauger says. “There’s a lot of that in the six- to nine- to 12-month period; if not depression, then close to depression — they see their kids becoming too American.”

She could have been describing Haydar al-Jumaily.

Initial elation

Since 2007, when the U.S. government began its program of resettling Iraqi refugees who’d worked with the U.S. military or American organizations, nearly 85,000 have been admitted to the country, according to Kelly Gauger, deputy director for refugee admissions.

The majority of refugees are settled in smaller towns because “it’s just too expensive and they don’t receive a lot of community support” in big cities, Gauger says. “A lot of people say later they were happy to be resettled in a smaller place; they find a community that helps them navigate the system.”

Some refugees leave the first place they’re brought to, perhaps because the people they know live elsewhere, they don’t like the area, or they’ve heard they can get better jobs if they move. The decision about where they are settled depends on several factors that are decided by the nine agencies the State Department works with to resettle refugees in every state except Wyoming.

“At the beginning of every fiscal year we get together with the agencies who present their proposals, towns where they have good relationships with clinics that treat post-traumatic stress … and then they match that with a number of refugees they think the agency can handle,” says Gauger.

Some refugees ask not to be sent to places where there are already established communities from the same nationality, Gauger says, especially those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Also, women from very strict male-dominated cultures sometimes request to be settled far away, so as to avoid cultural pressures.

The State Department doesn’t keep numbers on Iraqis who return to Iraq. “All we know is, anecdotally, you hear plenty of stories of people who come here, decide to go back after three to six months; some go back because they’ve left family or property, some when they get their green card,” Gauger says.

She describes the initial elation families have when they first arrive, filled with excitement and expectation, and how predictable the letdown is after that. They’re given financial support, enrolled in English classes, and assisted in navigating local communities and job markets. To be eligible for permanent resident status, they must be employed, and that causes anxiety for those without a job. “Around the nine-month hit, they get concerned about the cutoff in aid. A lot of them came with certification [in degrees earned abroad]” that is not valid here, Gauger says. “There’s a lot of that in the six- to nine- to 12-month period; if not depression, then close to depression — they see their kids becoming too American.”

She could have been describing Haydar al-Jumaily.

Making a home

Al-Jumaily and his wife, Zeinab, work very hard to keep 7-year-old Ali and 5-year-old Ammar in touch with the old life in Iraq. “I have to pay more, for example, for another school to teach them Arabic, the holy book, the religion,” al-Jumaily says. “It’s hard for them, and in spite of all that work, they’re still living in America and they are learning American habits.”

Other things are improving. Zeinab is six months away from a degree that will allow her to become a day care center director, which means more money and a better position. Al-Jumaily continues to work toward his postgraduate degree in engineering and is looking for better driving assignments.

Yet the thought of returning home lingers. “I’ve got some friends who graduated from Baghdad University, they keep calling me,” he said, outlining possible job offers around the capital and in Kurdistan. “Some of the mountain provinces, Irbil or Dohuk, because there’s plenty of jobs up there — after I get my citizenship, I might go and apply for different jobs in Irbil.” The possibility of being closer to a world he still sees every day via Facebook and Skype and emails with friends keeps al-Jumaily from fully embracing an American life for himself and his family.

On the other hand, Ibrahim and his wife believe those who want to go back to Iraq can’t make it in America because their expectations got in the way.

“I have friends who have degrees and wanted to come here and lecture; they pin their hopes on something that’s equivalent to what they did at home. In a bad economy, I said, if you can get an opening at Walmart, take it,” Ibrahim says. “This was the American dream, they thought they were going to come here and have a great job and middle-class life; they couldn’t come to terms with reality.”

His wife adds, “I think our story is different because when we came here we made the decision we are never going back, except to visit family, because we’re done. Even if Iraq becomes safe, [because of the] tragedies we went through, we can’t.”

The tragedies she speaks of didn’t only concern Ibrahim’s father’s disappearance. Her first husband was shot and killed by an American military sniper while driving down a Baghdad street in 2005. The U.S. military paid her family $2,500 in compensation for her husband, and another $2,500 for his car. She struggles to describe how it feels to see her husband wearing the same uniform. But their lives are here now, and they, like al-Jumaily, are raising their three children with the language and religion of the old country. They fast during Ramadan, take the children to mosque every Friday, and pray every day. All things, they note, they can do here in complete safety.

“You always have some connection with Iraq based on the fact that your family still lives there,” Ibrahim says. “I am a U.S. citizen now. I’m a serviceman. Iraq is a country that I feel [my] emotional attachment [to] is gone. The things I experienced in Iraq basically erased that connection.”

The military, he says, has made him a better person. He’s fitter too, having lost more than 60 pounds through his physical training, He still speaks to his family almost every day. His mother, he says, comes up with poems on the spot during their conversations. He responds in kind. Here is something he composed to mark spending another Eid away from her:

My tears have filled my well of sorrow

Missing you has flooded my land

My love for you has made my soul greener

I miss kissing your hand

 

How can I celebrate the holiday when you’re far away

Living without you has always been hard

This holiday I wished we meet again

And next holiday we light candles in Baghdad

Initial elation

Since 2007, when the U.S. government began its program of resettling Iraqi refugees who’d worked with the U.S. military or American organizations, nearly 85,000 have been admitted to the country, according to Kelly Gauger, deputy director for refugee admissions.

The majority of refugees are settled in smaller towns because “it’s just too expensive and they don’t receive a lot of community support” in big cities, Gauger says. “A lot of people say later they were happy to be resettled in a smaller place; they find a community that helps them navigate the system.”

Some refugees leave the first place they’re brought to, perhaps because the people they know live elsewhere, they don’t like the area, or they’ve heard they can get better jobs if they move. The decision about where they are settled depends on several factors that are decided by the nine agencies the State Department works with to resettle refugees in every state except Wyoming.

“At the beginning of every fiscal year we get together with the agencies who present their proposals, towns where they have good relationships with clinics that treat post-traumatic stress … and then they match that with a number of refugees they think the agency can handle,” says Gauger.

Some refugees ask not to be sent to places where there are already established communities from the same nationality, Gauger says, especially those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Also, women from very strict male-dominated cultures sometimes request to be settled far away, so as to avoid cultural pressures.

The State Department doesn’t keep numbers on Iraqis who return to Iraq. “All we know is, anecdotally, you hear plenty of stories of people who come here, decide to go back after three to six months; some go back because they’ve left family or property, some when they get their green card,” Gauger says.

She describes the initial elation families have when they first arrive, filled with excitement and expectation, and how predictable the letdown is after that. They’re given financial support, enrolled in English classes, and assisted in navigating local communities and job markets. To be eligible for permanent resident status, they must be employed, and that causes anxiety for those without a job. “Around the nine-month hit, they get concerned about the cutoff in aid. A lot of them came with certification [in degrees earned abroad]” that is not valid here, Gauger says. “There’s a lot of that in the six- to nine- to 12-month period; if not depression, then close to depression — they see their kids becoming too American.”

She could have been describing Haydar al-Jumaily.

Making a home

Al-Jumaily and his wife, Zeinab, work very hard to keep 7-year-old Ali and 5-year-old Ammar in touch with the old life in Iraq. “I have to pay more, for example, for another school to teach them Arabic, the holy book, the religion,” al-Jumaily says. “It’s hard for them, and in spite of all that work, they’re still living in America and they are learning American habits.”

Other things are improving. Zeinab is six months away from a degree that will allow her to become a day care center director, which means more money and a better position. Al-Jumaily continues to work toward his postgraduate degree in engineering and is looking for better driving assignments.

Yet the thought of returning home lingers. “I’ve got some friends who graduated from Baghdad University, they keep calling me,” he said, outlining possible job offers around the capital and in Kurdistan. “Some of the mountain provinces, Irbil or Dohuk, because there’s plenty of jobs up there — after I get my citizenship, I might go and apply for different jobs in Irbil.” The possibility of being closer to a world he still sees every day via Facebook and Skype and emails with friends keeps al-Jumaily from fully embracing an American life for himself and his family.

On the other hand, Ibrahim and his wife believe those who want to go back to Iraq can’t make it in America because their expectations got in the way.

“I have friends who have degrees and wanted to come here and lecture; they pin their hopes on something that’s equivalent to what they did at home. In a bad economy, I said, if you can get an opening at Walmart, take it,” Ibrahim says. “This was the American dream, they thought they were going to come here and have a great job and middle-class life; they couldn’t come to terms with reality.”

His wife adds, “I think our story is different because when we came here we made the decision we are never going back, except to visit family, because we’re done. Even if Iraq becomes safe, [because of the] tragedies we went through, we can’t.”

The tragedies she speaks of didn’t only concern Ibrahim’s father’s disappearance. Her first husband was shot and killed by an American military sniper while driving down a Baghdad street in 2005. The U.S. military paid her family $2,500 in compensation for her husband, and another $2,500 for his car. She struggles to describe how it feels to see her husband wearing the same uniform. But their lives are here now, and they, like al-Jumaily, are raising their three children with the language and religion of the old country. They fast during Ramadan, take the children to mosque every Friday, and pray every day. All things, they note, they can do here in complete safety.

“You always have some connection with Iraq based on the fact that your family still lives there,” Ibrahim says. “I am a U.S. citizen now. I’m a serviceman. Iraq is a country that I feel [my] emotional attachment [to] is gone. The things I experienced in Iraq basically erased that connection.”

The military, he says, has made him a better person. He’s fitter too, having lost more than 60 pounds through his physical training, He still speaks to his family almost every day. His mother, he says, comes up with poems on the spot during their conversations. He responds in kind. Here is something he composed to mark spending another Eid away from her:

My tears have filled my well of sorrow

Missing you has flooded my land

My love for you has made my soul greener

I miss kissing your hand

 

How can I celebrate the holiday when you’re far away

Living without you has always been hard

This holiday I wished we meet again

And next holiday we light candles in Baghdad

Making a home

Al-Jumaily and his wife, Zeinab, work very hard to keep 7-year-old Ali and 5-year-old Ammar in touch with the old life in Iraq. “I have to pay more, for example, for another school to teach them Arabic, the holy book, the religion,” al-Jumaily says. “It’s hard for them, and in spite of all that work, they’re still living in America and they are learning American habits.”

Other things are improving. Zeinab is six months away from a degree that will allow her to become a day care center director, which means more money and a better position. Al-Jumaily continues to work toward his postgraduate degree in engineering and is looking for better driving assignments.

Yet the thought of returning home lingers. “I’ve got some friends who graduated from Baghdad University, they keep calling me,” he said, outlining possible job offers around the capital and in Kurdistan. “Some of the mountain provinces, Irbil or Dohuk, because there’s plenty of jobs up there — after I get my citizenship, I might go and apply for different jobs in Irbil.” The possibility of being closer to a world he still sees every day via Facebook and Skype and emails with friends keeps al-Jumaily from fully embracing an American life for himself and his family.

My tears have filled my well of sorrow / Missing you has flooded my land

On the other hand, Ibrahim and his wife believe those who want to go back to Iraq can’t make it in America because their expectations got in the way.

“I have friends who have degrees and wanted to come here and lecture; they pin their hopes on something that’s equivalent to what they did at home. In a bad economy, I said, if you can get an opening at Walmart, take it,” Ibrahim says. “This was the American dream, they thought they were going to come here and have a great job and middle-class life; they couldn’t come to terms with reality.”

His wife adds, “I think our story is different because when we came here we made the decision we are never going back, except to visit family, because we’re done. Even if Iraq becomes safe, [because of the] tragedies we went through, we can’t.”

The tragedies she speaks of didn’t only concern Ibrahim’s father’s disappearance. Her first husband was shot and killed by an American military sniper while driving down a Baghdad street in 2005. The U.S. military paid her family $2,500 in compensation for her husband, and another $2,500 for his car. She struggles to describe how it feels to see her husband wearing the same uniform. But their lives are here now, and they, like al-Jumaily, are raising their three children with the language and religion of the old country. They fast during Ramadan, take the children to mosque every Friday, and pray every day. All things, they note, they can do here in complete safety.

“You always have some connection with Iraq based on the fact that your family still lives there,” Ibrahim says. “I am a U.S. citizen now. I’m a serviceman. Iraq is a country that I feel [my] emotional attachment [to] is gone. The things I experienced in Iraq basically erased that connection.”

The military, he says, has made him a better person. He’s fitter too, having lost more than 60 pounds through his physical training, He still speaks to his family almost every day. His mother, he says, comes up with poems on the spot during their conversations. He responds in kind. Here is something he composed to mark spending another Eid away from her:

My tears have filled my well of sorrow
Missing you has flooded my land
My love for you has made my soul greener
I miss kissing your hand

How can I celebrate the holiday when you’re far away
Living without you has always been hard
This holiday I wished we meet again
And next holiday we light candles in Baghdad

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter