From Baghdad to Beaverton: A Story of Bravery and Hope
By: Savannah DiMarco
Photos by: Jazmen Draper
Note: This interview took place in July 2016. Since then, Nawar and Suroor have lost their father, and Nawar has taken a second job to send money to her brother, who remains in Lebanon and still lacks the right to work. Suroor and Nawar have given their permission for their story to be told today.
One year ago, the notion of a colossal wave of refugees terrified me.
I was living in the United Kingdom at the time. In closer proximity to Turkey and Hungary, the threat felt ever-more present. “If thousands of refugees came to the UK, wouldn’t there be a heightened risk of terrorism?,” I reasoned. “Shouldn’t this violence be reserved to unstable regions like the Middle East? What would asylum seekers’ resettlement mean for our world? For Europe? America?—Violence everywhere?”
Though I sympathized for refugees’ painful journeys, my understanding of the complex and polychromatic asylum seeker’s narrative was elementary at best.
My questions and misgivings festered for weeks. Huddled under a blanket in my room in Fife, Scotland on one ordinary afternoon, God’s voice erupted in my anxious heart. All at once I felt God speaking firmly and gently: These refugees are your fellow humans. They are your family. They have been through trauma. They have lost mothers, fathers, spouses, and children. They are seeking safety. No matter what the cost, with all you have, you must love.
Before long, God began wrecking my worldview on all sides. By the time I moved to Portland in May, I was determined not only to befriend and advocate for refugees, but also to share my own story of prejudiced fear. I write this article today in the hope that others who have historically felt paralyzed by fear will be empowered to live in courageous love.
In recent months, I have been moved and challenged by refugees’ stories. Stories are powerful. Narrative allow us to step into an otherwise totally unknown experience; one lived out by another complicated, burdened, and uniquely gifted person. Through shared storytelling, we can imagine undergoing the same journeys, and even to feel another’s sorrows, joys, disappointments, and victories.
While thousands have come to Portland to escape violence in their home countries, every person has a distinct story to tell. Through connections made by Sami Zangana (see article on his family’s story here), this summer I had the honor of joining a Hear the Cry team in meeting a radiant Iraqi family who arrived in Oregon in 2014.
This is their story.
From the parking lot, we could hear laughter echoing from Nawar’s and Khitam’s apartment even before reaching their front door. By the time we’d shaken hands, given hugs, and exchanged names, we sensed already that we had been welcomed as family.
Seated in the family’s sun-soaked living room, we’re offered plates upon plates of baklava, honey pastries, and glasses of fruit juice—generously refilled again and again by Nawar and Suroor. The two sisters had ordered the special pastry selection from a Middle Eastern store in Michigan, which they testified is quite authentic. “It’s amazing…it’s perfect!,” they exclaimed. It did not take long to see that for Nawar, Suroor, and their elderly mother, Khitam, time spent with loved ones is paramount: it is life’s heartbeat.
For many years, Nawar and Suroor’s family spent their days together—studying, working, and enjoying time with relatives and cherished friends in Baghdad.
“It was a really normal and sweet life,” Suroor remembered, “because my father is a professor, so it was going really well with us… we were going out with friends… and attending really good schools.”
In 2011, everything changed. One day when they returned home, they found a letter covered in blood. “We were threatened,” Khitam recalled. “From Shia militia,” Nawar added.
Within two hours they had called their relatives and packed their most valued possessions. “We were afraid to be near our home,” Nawar recounted, and “it was not safe to take everything.”
“We just took the precious stuff and we left,” said Suroor.
That evening, the family stole away to a different part of the city. For three days, they remained in hiding. Night after night, their relatives revisited the family’s home to pack their belongings. Since it was difficult to transport large furniture across borders, they were forced to abandon many of their most treasured possessions, including their prized chandelier.
Nawar and Suroor’s family was in danger due to their father’s work with an American NGO. From 2009 to 2011, the family had managed to keep their father’s work a secret. However, when the Shia militia found out, the militia sent the threatening note and marked the family as infidels. If Nawar and Suroor had not left their home behind, the note stated that they would have had only three days to live.
While in hiding, Suroor called Lebanese friends she had met through her work with a Lebanon-based medical NGO. Through Suroor’s connections, the family made plans to escape to Lebanon. After staying with relatives for a couple weeks, they boarded a flight to north Lebanon. There, the four family members lived in close quarters for over two years.
According to Khitam, the country was safe. Yet, while many people were friendly, life in Lebanon was still very hard.
As Iraqi refugees, they were not allowed to work, and since they had so little money, they could not afford to buy nutritious food. When asked how they occupied their time in Lebanon, Suroor responded, “just sitting and waiting. Nothing…because you’re not supposed to do anything. You just sit, go to the UN, apply, and do the interviews and wait.”
For Nawar’s family, the most painful aspect of the family’s time in Lebanon relates to Mustafa. Although his mother, sisters, and nephew received United States immigration status two years ago, 23-year-old Mustafa was left in Lebanon alone.
“Habibi!” Dropping her head to her chest, Khitam began to cry and mourn for her son. In Arabic, “habibi” is a term of endearment, meaning “sweetheart” or “my love.” Suroor leaned over, wrapping her arm around her mother’s back to hold her closely as she continued to explain her younger brother’s immigration status.
“He’s the only one who stayed there,” Suroor explained. “It’s now been four years…no decision…he’s just received a declined status. They gave him 90 days to apply for appeal, and we’re trying to write a letter…but they didn’t tell us why he was rejected.”
Lack of information about legal processes has been an overwhelming motif in Suroor’s family’s experience. On multiple occasions, when they met with officials in Lebanon, it was unclear whether certain judges and interviewers represented the UN, Lebanese government, CIA, or another NGO or political entity.
For Mustafa, such bureaucratic idiosyncrasies have caused serious problems. Since 2011, Mustafa has not been permitted to work, to finish his studies, or to leave his apartment in after 8 PM (due to a refugee curfew.) Even today, he remains 6788 miles from his family, who can reach him only via the internet—and with whom he has no guarantee he will be reunited.
Though wait times are long and vital case data seems all-too-often misconstrued, altered, or inaccurate, the family has felt afraid to voice complaints, particularly while in Lebanon.
“We were afraid,” Nawar explained, “alone in a strange place…we were strangers. We couldn’t talk to an official about it…because we were afraid.”
As the family wades through complex family reunification processes (often conducted in legal jargon nearly impossible for native English speakers to understand), for Nawar, Suroor, Khitam, and Ahmed, life in Portland carries onward with its own challenges.
Some are unique to their situation as refugees, and others—like ever-increasing rent prices and barriers to receiving student loans—are common to many native Portlanders.
When asked about cultural difficulties she has encountered in the United States, Nawar replied that she has not encountered many because she is open minded.
“Because I am free and I am open minded, I did not find any problems,” she explained. “Maybe another woman would find a problem, but me…? No.”
Suroor moved to Portland three years before her family’s arrival, coming directly from Baghdad on a Fulbright scholarship. Both women stated emphatically that their friends belong to a wide range of faiths and ethnic backgrounds, and spoke earnestly about Yazidi and Christian friends from school and university.
“Muslim people…here or back home…are like, open minded people. What you hear about in the media, this is not true,” said Suroor.
“A lot of us are open minded,” Nawar agreed.
“Like me! I wear makeup and I do my hair, even in Baghdad. So many people think…because of the media…Islamic people to be all terrorists, or not comfortable with Christians or Jews….no! The media always copies the wrong things. Whether they are Muslims or Christians, I don’t care. I care about the human. Believe me…so many people…they’re like us. They care about the human.”
Nawar’s eight-year-old son, Ahmed, was more impacted by the cultural change. When his family left Baghdad, he was only three years old, and he arrived in Portland at age six.
Since his Lebanese neighbors were older men and women, he did not learn how to connect with other children. When he arrived at school in Portland, Ahmed was bullied because he struggled to relate to other young people and because of his Arabic accent.
Despite the unkindness of some, Ahmed has made many friends at school and has quickly caught onto the English language. In fact, according to Suroor and Nawar, his English is already better than his mother’s. Recently, when Nawar called an Uber, Ahmed interrupted her conversation with the driver. “No, mom, you said it wrong!,” he insisted, proceeding to clarify his mother’s grammar and directions. “It’s cute, yeah!,” Nawar laughed.
Thinking back upon her first few months in Oregon, although she could speak English, Nawar recalls her empty house. She remembers having no friends at all, and “very little money”—not enough to afford thrift-store furniture.
Thankfully, another Iraqi family came to Nawar’s aid by offering car rides and helping to provide furniture for her new home. Though her new friends’ help with transporting furniture and running errands may seem to be merely one small act of kindness, Nawar’s family counts their support among the miraculous acts of kindness on their journey.
One such act of generosity took place in Lebanon. During their two and a half years in the country, Khitam suffered from more than one heart attack. Even worse, she was notified that she required a bypass operation to live. The bypass operation cost approximately $45,000, but at the time, the family did not even have $1,000. Since they lacked insurance, Nawar and Khitam were desperate.
When one of their new Lebanese friends heard about the situation, she contacted her brother, who is a surgeon.
‘’He was a Christian, a very good man,” Suroor told us. The surgeon, financially backed by his church, gave Nawar’s family an open check to pay for the surgery in full and to cover Khitam’s medicine until she arranged insurance in the United States. “He saved the life of my mom,” Nawar concluded. “Thanks, God.”
Another friendship began over a year ago when Nawar was waiting for the MAX. That day, she happened to meet one of her best friends, Alaa.
“At first he thought I was Español!,” Nawar laughed. “And then he said, ‘OMG! You are from my country!’’
Ever since then, Alaa has been a tremendous support for Nawar and her family.
“Alaa was with me, all my road. He would call me, “what do you need? You don’t have a car. It’s raining now. Let me get you to go get medicine for your mom.”
For months, Alaa helped Nawar’s family with many aspects of life: English language learning, translation, emergency trips to the hospital, and tips on what to buy from the grocery store. He is now a close friend of the family, and he continues to help them with anything they might need.
When asked how Portlanders can support refugees who are new to the area, Nawar flung her arms in the air and proclaimed, “every refugee must get Alaa!” As the room exploded into unabashed laughter, Noora grinned, but continued seriously: “Now I am settled down, after two years. Good people in my life, like Alaa, helped me. If I didn’t meet them…it would have been difficult, you know? I swear! Alaa was such a good friend.”
Listening to Nawar for only a few moments, I could tell that she and her family are deeply loyal toward their friends, too. Indeed, if many refugees are like Nawar, Suroor, and Khitam, then I am sure of two things: first, that they need practical help from Portland-area locals (particularly during their first several months in the United States), and second, that they are among the most enduring and open-hearted people I may ever have the chance to meet.
Refugees need help from Portlanders, but Portlanders also need refugees. One needs help with paperwork, Goodwill sofas, and grocery shopping, while another needs to hear stories of valiant hope.
Above all, the world needs friendships that challenge ethnic, religious, and cultural boundaries—friendships that choose love over fear and boldly claim that we are friends and we are family.
To become involved with helping new refugees as they adjust to life in Portland, or to reach out to Nawar and Suroor’s family for advice or support, please visit www.refugeecarecollective.org.