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Seeking a New Life to Heal the Wounds of War

Posted on 04 September 2008

Navigating the red tape of governmental agencies is something no one enjoys, but for Firas Al-Kahlidi, a 32-year-old Iraqi refugee who arrived on the East End two weeks ago with his mother, Malkia, and brother, Ali, the process is baffling.

“What is this number for?” Firas asks after a visit to Riverhead to apply for his social security card. “Who do I give it to?”

It’s just one of Firas’ many questions. An environmental engineer who worked for the American firm Bechtel in Baghdad until the murders of both his younger brother and father drove him and his family to Syria, Firas must find a way to support Malkia, 57, and Ali, 23, neither of whom speak English.

The Al-Kahlidi family is currently staying in North Haven with Ross School filmmaker and teacher Maria Maciak. Maciak met Firas in Damascus last summer while making a documentary on the plight of Iraqi refugees in Syria. Fluent in English, he became her translator and a main subject in her film. When she left, Marie told Firas that she would do what she could to help the family relocate to the United States.

The family applied for admission to the U.S. through the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) and Marie and her students wrote letters and petitions on their behalf. Marie is now the “anchor family” for the Al-Kahlidis until they are able to manage on their own. Earlier this week, the family sat down to talk about life in Iraq before and after the U.S. invasion.

“Before we were living just like every other human being,” explained Firas. “We do picnics, go shopping, had our jobs, relatives, do anything we would like just as you are doing here in the States.”

“There was safety,” added Malkia. “We went to work, shopping it was normal.”

But after the invasion, Malkia notes, that sense of security was gone.

“It was fear, people killing, stealing,” she said.

Firas was finishing his master’s degree in environmental engineering at the time. He graduated the day before the war began.

“It was the 19th of March 2003, one day before war exactly,” he said. “I received two papers — one from the Iraqi union to correct my bachelor to masters degree. The second was to join the military. The next day there was just a war. No life, just bombing and attacking.”

Firas  managed to find work with a British firm in the petroleum fields. Then he joined Bechtel, one of the largest U.S. contractors in Iraq, as an engineer.

“I spent 16 or 17 months inside the Green Zone,” said Firas. “In the beginning of 2004, everything was cool. There was no danger to work with Americans. Sometimes when I left the Green Zone, I would forget to remove my badge and was still wearing it. It wasn’t a big deal then.”

But at the end of 2004, Firas noted that the situation became far more complicated.

“Governmental and political issues happened and everything turned bad,” he said. “We start to hide our badges, keep mouth shut. When going to work, for 30 or 40 minutes we wander so no one follow.”

What changed, noted Firas were the militias. The difficulties, he said, began when the Americans doled out power to the three groups – Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds. Because no one from the Bath party, Saddam’s party, was allowed responsibility, those who had been running the country were removed from their jobs.

“The state controlled everything, then the responsibilities went to those three,” said Firas. “The conflict starts at this part.”

On September 10, 2006, Firas received a threat in the form of a handwritten letter found in the family’s garage by his father, Razzaq, that demanded Firas quit his job with the Ameircans. It was signed “Al Qaeda.”

“They asked me to prove I quit by raising a white flag over house,” he said.

Whether the letter actually was from Al Qaeda, Firas never knew. But he quit Bechtel and moved into his uncle’s home north of Baghdad.

“My brother, Muhanni, was driving my car. When returning to home, my father and two brothers heard a shotgun in front of our house and run outside.” They didn’t imagine it had been their brother who had gotten hit. They opened the door and took him to the hospital but it was too late.

Muhanni, 29, was married with a child. His wife and child, now six, still live in Baghdad with his widow’s mother.

Not long afterwards, Firas’ uncle’s home was broken into and he had to stay with a friend. On December 10, 2006, he fled to Damascus.

Then in April of 2007, his father and a friend were kidnapped while Razzaq was visiting the friend.

“A militia had taken them,” said Firas.

Twenty-four days and another threat later, Malkia and Ali found a photo of Razzaq on a computer at a morgue.

“They had shot him,” said Firas. “I saw the description, two bullets in his face and two in his back.”

They also found a photo of the friend.

In fall of 2007, Firas had Ali and Malkia joined him and they applied for asylum as a family. Another brother and sister still remain in Iraq and are living with their own families.

“It was a full year of paperwork and interviews until we get here,” said Firas. “You have no idea how many petitions Marie did for me to the government with the help of her students and faculty. To make the petition not only helped practically, but almost emotionally.”

And now that they are here, Firas is anxious to figure out his next move.

“We’re lost in this new community,” he confided. “We feel we are a burden on this family and this house. Marie’s place is wonderful. But I need a job, people dealing with me as an engineer to work, not just feeling sympathy.”

Still, Firas knows how lucky he is to be here at all. Most of the 5,000 Iraqis that have made it to the U.S. did so only in 2008.

“The number of Iraqi immigrants accepted by the U.S. is less than 30 percent of what has been accepted by Sweden,” noted Firas. Syria, by contrast, has taken in 1.5 million Iraqi refugees.

 Photo: Ali, Firas and Malkia in North Haven with the letter from “al Qaeda” demanding that Firas quit his job with Americans in Baghdad.

A. Hinkle photo


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