by Jim Marquardt
Â “Oh yes, Christmas dinner with your family would be wonderful. We just don’t eat pork, but we will like anything else you serve…No, Muslims don’t drink wine or any other alcohol…We would be happy to be with you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Early in the afternoon on Christmas Day we drove 33-year old Firas, his younger brother Ali and their mother Malkia to our house. At the door Firas asked, “Should we take off our shoes?” Not a bad custom, but we said “Not necessary.” Firas proudly presented my wife Ann with a bag of Starbucks Coffee. Malkia wore a black head scarf called a “hijab” and we were afraid our grandchildren — five, three and two-years old — might be uneasy, but they were more interested in riding a plastic roller coaster than in noticing our Iraqi guests.
Because Firas had worked in Baghdad as an engineer for Bechtel, an American company, Al Qaeda killed one of his brothers, mistaking him for Firas, then kidnapped and killed his father. A surviving sister and brother are still in Iraq with their spouses and Malkia’s grandchildren. Whenever our two-year old grandson Sam went near her, Malkia smiled and finally he let her kiss and hug him. Firas told me that when they arrived in America last spring, his mother cried for weeks.
Before the Iraqi family joined us on Christmas, we thought about the strangeness and isolation of coming to America from Iraq, through Syria where Firas had fled, and being dropped down in North Haven. They lived for several months with Marie Maciak, a film-maker and instructor at the Ross School. Firas had worked for her as a translator in Damascus and she fought through a bureaucratic maze to gain refugee status for him, Ali and Malkia. They recently moved to a small cottage in Sag Harbor but must leave it before summer and are looking for a permanent place they can afford.
A couple of months ago we drove to the Suffolk County Social Service office in Riverhead to fill out Medicaid forms. Several uniformed officers kept watch in a large room where men and women, some with children, sat waiting to be interviewed. Others lined up at windows labeled “Medicaid Applications” or “Public Assistance.”Â A large sign on the wall said, “NO weapons, threats, cursing, alcohol or drugs, or disorderly conduct. Persons violating these rules will not be able to conduct their business for the day and may be subject to removal from the building.” Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Christmas dinner went well and we were pleased when Malkia felt comfortable enough to accept a second helping. Firas is determined to support his family without charitable assistance. He works part-time at Ross School and teaches Arabic classes while Malkia opens boxes in the storage room at TJ Max. She gets a ride to the food pantry at the Whaler’s Church on Tuesday and stretches the food for a week. Twenty-three year old Ali was a welder in Iraq, but lack of transportation makes it difficult for him to find work. He is gradually picking up English which Firas tells him is needed for life in America.
Malkia wants to return to Iraq, despite the dangers that remain, mostly because she desperately misses her grandchildren. She also suffers from the winter cold and would like to have access to a mosque where she could pray.
Firas told us that despite what we may have read in the media, life in Iraq before the “invasion” was quite normal. Healthcare and education were free, and Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds lived peacefully side by side. Intermarriage was unremarkable. He says that after the occupation, American civil authorities decided to allocate seats in the new parliament based on ethnic percentages. In his opinion this created rivalry among the Iraqis, and Al Qaeda exploited it to inflame the insurgency.
In unguarded moments Firas reveals ambivalent feelings about the war. While still in Iraq he had a friend who was held on unspecified charges in Abu Ghraib Prison. When the friend was released he showed Firas numerous wounds on his body from dog bites. Firas says, “He went a little crazy after that.” Firas exchanges emails with people in Iraq who tell him that the ”shoe thrower” has become a national hero.
But Firas suppresses such critical thoughts and talks more about his warmhearted feelings for Americans. He is amazed by the number of people in our community who have reached out to help him and his family. He contrasts this experience with that of Iraqi refugees he hears from in Sweden and Norway who say Arabs are discriminated against in those countries.
Asked what he likes most about the U.S., he says “your organization.” As simple a thing as busses and trains that run on schedules, which we take for granted, impresses him. (Apparently he hasn’t traveled on the LIRR too often.) Social services may entail miles of red tape but they eventually seem to accomplish results. Firas holds a master’s degree in environmental engineering from an Iraqi university and his ambition is to become a licensed engineer in the U.S. Through research on the Internet and phone calls to helpful educators and trade associations, he has learned the steps needed to achieve his goal.
Our adult children and their spouses talked to him about “networking” and using the Internet as a way to find someone who may know someone who may know of a job that fits his resume, while he works towards engineering certification. Unfortunately the Iraqis arrived in the U.S. in the middle of our economic turmoil. Sitting together after dinner, with the grandkids back on the roller coaster, we encouraged Firas not to give up, that most refugees in our history had to struggle through equally tough challenges. He knows it won’t be easy but he is eager to become part of the great American immigrant story. Despite all the problems ahead, his face lights up when he says that he and Ali and Malkia all love our new president.