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Safe at Last: For One Iraqi Refugee, Tragedy has a Silver Lining

Crimson curtains flow in the wind of the air conditioning unit—their color a gentle contrast against the stark white walls. In the kitchen, the spatter and sizzle of the fried chicken 35-year-old Sattar Naama is making can be heard. The warm, greasy smell wafts throughout the tiny, one-room Rogers Park apartment. It doesn’t matter that he and his wife don’t have a bed yet. Naama is happy. He is in America now.

“Here, anything is good,” said Naama. “It’s a good life—a nice one.”

Naama is one of an estimated 2,400 Iraqi refugees to resettle to Illinois over the last 2 ½ years, one of 18,000 who have resettled nationwide. The resettlement process, experts say, isn’t easy. But for those like Naama who fled a world of chaos, resettlement is the crisp red apple on the tree of freedom.

Naama, who had fled Iraq for Lebanon, arrived in the United States on July 27, 2009. His wife, Bernadette, 28, came with him. The two met in Lebanon where Bernadette Naama, originally from the Philippines, had originally gone to find work. But because she had been working without proper paperwork, her husband had to pay a hefty fine to get her out of the country.

“He insisted to pay because he didn’t want to go to America without me,” she said. “When we were inside the plane, we felt very safe.”

Once in Chicago, workers from the Heartland Alliance Refugee and Immigrant Community Services (RICS) met the couple and helped them get in touch with her aunt, who they lived with for about two months. But the tight living situation caused tension in their relationship. Bernadette said she and her husband were fighting all the time.

She said when her husband first came to the United States, he had a hard time getting used to the idea that he was a free person because he had gone from a dictatorial government to a democracy.

“It was so hard for my husband,” she said.

But now that the couple has their own apartment, Bernadette said things have become much more pleasant. Still, she said there is a lot of hurt hiding behind her husband’s broad smile and jovial laughter.

“He’s just pretending to be happy,” she said.

Sattar Naama left Iraq for Lebanon in 2000 in hopes of finding work. He returned for a visit in May 2008 after finding out his brother, Muhammad, had been killed by terrorists. On May 13, when Naama and his sister were in his car, a white car with four men wearing black masks showing only their eyes pulled alongside them. Naama noticed at least one of the men had a gun. The man pointed the gun at him and questioned him.

“They said, ‘Why did you come to Iraq—because your father died?’” said Naama. His father had died recently as well. Then the man said, “’I kill you now.’”

Tires screeched as Naama pulled away from the men and made a U-turn in the narrow street; one of the masked men pointed a gun at him again. As he started driving off, the pop of a gunshot echoed through the air. When Naama looked over at his sister, she was dead.

“I need to forget it, but I can’t,” said Naama. He said his family is the biggest thing he misses about Iraq now and that he has no plans of ever going back. He also misses the perks of his job in Lebanon as a supervisor of a cleaning company.

“I had money, a car—I had everything,” said Naama. He said he’s happy, though, because he just got a job working six days a week at Little Lady Foods, a frozen food manufacturer in Elk Grove Village, Ill.

The job requires him to make a 2½-hour trip each morning, which means he has to leave his apartment by 3 a.m. to make it there on time. The reddish tint to his dark eyes shows how the traveling has affected him. But he has a job nonetheless.

Sarah Cady, senior program officer of reception and placement at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), said it’s often hard for refugees to find employment once in the country.

“We really want clients to become self-sufficient earlier, and with the economic downturn,” said Cady, “it’s become more of a challenge.”

She said the steps for successful resettlement in the U.S. involve having an adequate amount of culturally competent people on staff to help refugees and the ability for refugees to have access to employment, housing, case management and English language services.

Naama is taking an English class at the Heartland Alliance and though he has progressed a lot, his English still waivers at some points.

“It’s very hard for him to learn English,” said Bernadette Naama. Thankfully, she is relatively fluent in English and helps her husband when she can.

Ed Silverman, bureau chief of Immigrant and Refugee Services at the Illinois Department of Human Services, said learning English is crucial.

“The fact of the matter is, the better your English, the higher your pay is going to be,” said Silverman. “Learning English is a primary survival tool.”

Silverman said refugee resettlement is a long process. He said it takes a minimum of three years before refugee families find economic stability. And in Lebanon, where Naama and his wife had been living prior to coming to the United States, things are very unstable.

“In Lebanon, the situation is challenging,” said Elizabeth Campbell, a senior advocate for Refugees International. She said Lebanon has a history of political instability and division. USCRI estimates there are 50,600 Iraqi asylum seekers and refugees in Lebanon. Those refugees, said Campbell, are “generally viewed with a certain amount of suspicion and fear.”

Bernadette Naama said she and her husband were definitely an oddity to the Lebanese. She said that though the people at first came across as very kind and polite, they would regularly talk about her behind her back.

“The people there are all biting you at the back,” she said.

One afternoon, while Naama was waiting for his wife to come down from getting something in an apartment, a group of about 11 Lebanese men threatened to attack him because he wouldn’t move his car from the side of the road.

They said “’you better move your car or we’re going to kick you.”’ When his answer was no, one of the men came over to Naama and slapped him. What saved him was the screwdriver he had in his glove compartment. He waved the screwdriver around and the group of men disappeared.

Bernadette Naama said she only misses her friends in Lebanon—not the country itself. “If there is worse than hell, we can compare it to that,” she said.

Campbell said the Lebanese government does not recognize any refugees other than those from Palestine. Lebanon, she said, does not regard the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was put in place by the United Nations to protect refugees worldwide. The U.S. is one of the 147 countries the United Nations Refugee Agency lists as compliant to the guidelines set up by the 1951 convention.

Campbell said the U.S. resettles a maximum of 70,000 to 80,000 refugees each year—a number more than all other countries combined. She said Australia and Canada had the next largest numbers, resettling about 15,000 refugees worldwide. European countries, she said, had the smallest numbers, resettling between 30 and 2,500 refugees annually.

Silverman said Iraqi refugees were the most recent to come to the U.S. and that he didn’t expect them to stop coming any time soon. “I expect Iraqi refugees to be coming for the next 20 years,” said Silverman. He mentioned that it took 25 years for Vietnamese and Bosnian refugees to go back to their countries.

What often anchors refugees to the U.S., said Silverman, is having children.

Bernadette Naama said she hopes to have children someday, but right now they are focused on saving enough money to move to a different apartment and escape their noisy neighbors—who are often heard partying through the apartment’s unforgiving thin walls.

Naama said he hopes the move will happen within the next few months. He wants to get a car and move to either Des Plaines or Skokie.

He said coming to America had been his dream ever since he was about 15 years old and saw America for the first time on TV. “I love America,” he said.

Another thing he loves is soccer. Every month or so, Naama and a few other Iraqis play soccer on the street corner. His favorite soccer team is from Barcelona. He rarely misses a game on TV and looks up team scores online.

“That’s his addiction—Barcelona,” said Bernadette Naama, laughing.

“I love Barcelona,” said Naama. “My wife and then Barcelona.”

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