Could you imagine, in a matter of minutes, making a decision to leave your home, family, and possessions to travel to an unknown destination? I have a hard time fathoming the reality of such a decision. I honestly had never thought about this question until I met people who were faced with this painful experience.
I met Alaa Alabbasi seven months ago and had the privilege to meet more of the Alabbasi family two months ago. Alaa and his brother’s family were willing to share their horrifying experience leaving their hometown in Samarra, Iraq to eventually find safety 6,867 miles away in Oregon. Both Alaa and his brother, Mahmood, were faced with the decision to flee their hometown leaving their house, jobs, family, friends, and possessions behind. The death threats they received were real.
In 2008, the American army made CLC, a group that belonged to the army in an indirect way to help make peace between the military and Iraqi people. The army also established CPS programs to help society after the war. Alaa was working with one of the organizations utilizing his computer and language skills. Working with the American army, even in an indirect way, his name was added to a list kept by Al-Qaeda. Alaa and 19 other men found their names written on a Mosque door. The message was from Al-Qaeda. The group must leave or be killed.
Alaa had to make a decision; stay and be killed or leave everything and everyone he knew behind to save his life. He made the difficult decision to travel to Irbil from Samarra. He was sad leaving everything and everyone, but felt happy to still be living in Iraq. Finding a job as a manager of a TV satellite channel that belonged to the Iraqi government added to his dilemma.
Al-Qaeda has the ideology that anyone who has anything to do with Americans or the government, becomes an enemy to Al-Qaeda. Living in Irbil from 2012 to 2014 had its challenges.
Trying to obtain a temporary permit to stay in North Iraq was difficult. After failing to obtain the permit, Alaa had to travel to the Irbil and Mosul checkpoint every week to receive permission to stay for the following week. This had to happen because he was a Sunni Arab from the South living in the North with Kurdish people.
After feeling like he had nowhere else to go. In 2011, Alaa decided to contact his old boss from the CLC company. They were honest with him that the process to become a refugee could take 3 years. Security background checks alone can take one year.
During the almost three years, he felt like he didn’t know where he was. Unable to return home, it was a hard time in his life. These years felt like a lifetime. Alaa was excited when he obtained refugee status, but faced the hard reality that he would have to leave his home country. What made the status particularly hard to accept was the fact that he was unable to bring family with him. Alaa’s oldest brother, an Imam at a Mosque, was against Al-Qaeda. Once Al-Qaeda heard word of this, he was killed. Alaa was financially caring for his brother’s wife and four children. Going to America meant leaving his brother’s family.
Alaa made the journey to Oregon in 2014. He was alone, spoke only a few words of English, and had no idea where he would work or how he would live without his family close by. He worried if people would hate him because he was a refugee. When asked who really helped him the most, the answer was not what I was expecting. A Christian couple from Texas happened to be on a mission trip and knocked on Alaa’s door on Mother’s day. Alaa didn’t understand what they meant about a mission trip. He was thinking it had something to do with the government. They asked where his mother was and he explained Iraq and that he was a refugee. Alaa welcomed them into his home and they asked to pray with him. Alaa recounted the experience, “They closed their eyes and I felt the real love between people at that time.” They prayed Alaa would see his mother again and she would remain safe. They handed him a card for a woman that could help him navigate his new life in America. He was very thankful for this couple from Texas.
Alaa told us that he wants everyone to know “only America and Jesus’ teachings make me feel like a human that I should live on this Earth. I love the people here especially the Christian community. They changed my life… Jesus is changing the black things to be white and hatred to love. I am so thankful for America.” He worked hard to help his brother and family obtain refugee status. Many nights he had a hard time sleeping and dreamed about the day they would arrive. That dream did come true at the end of September in 2016.
After only one week in America, Alaa’s family was willing to share their experience escaping the death threats of ISIS to finding peace in Oregon.
Alhmza, who is Alaa’s 12 year old nephew, explained that when ISIS came to Iraq, “They made a big mess.” Some of his friends were IDPs (internally displaced people) from other places because of ISIS.
He heard about his father’s decision to leave their hometown of Samarra. Alhmza wanted to stay with friends and family, however he remembers the day when ISIS came to their home. “They came to the city and asked for my father. The men said if you do not tell us where your father is, we will kill him.” Alhmza recalled how scared he was at the moment he was face to face with people of ISIS. At the time he was unsure why his body started feeling different. Later he would discover that doctors believed he was so stressed that he developed diabetes. His message to groups like ISIS is that they “should stop killing and threatening people.” His message to the American government, “I hope they help the refugees fast.”
Alhmza is just like any other 12 year old. He loves soccer and cars. His dream is to work at a car dealership. He says, “We just want to live and survive. I feel safe in America. I’m so thankful for the people who helped us. I want to learn English and build my future here. I hope to return to visit family and friends in Iraq. My family appreciates the people who have helped. We thank the church. We feel loved.” After residing in America one week, they received furniture, gifts, household supplies, and much love from people of Westside: A Jesus Church.
Suna, Alaa’s 18 year old niece, recalls growing up in Samarra. Her family had a good life. Everything changed and became a mess, scary, and unsafe. “My dad was threatened by ISIS and my brother came down with diabetes. I wanted to be safe with my family.”
She wants to learn English and then go to school to be a nurse. “I am excited to start school even with the language barrier. I don’t plan to live in Iraq again. I feel more safe in America and I love society here.” Her message to the people who want to help refugees, “I hope everyone can help refugees because they need much care. I want to help as well.”
What would she say to women or people who may view refugees as a threat to America? “We are not terrorists. We are not extremists. We disagree with them. We ask for acceptance because we don’t want to scare people. We want to live in peace.”
Yousif, 19 and Mohanad, 23 tell us, “We had a great life. We were happy until ISIS came to our city. Then there was a big mess. My dad was threatened to be killed by ISIS. My dad was so scared for our safety. He said not to be involved with political groups. Going to school was hard because of the constant fighting. One of my best friends was killed by ISIS. We were constantly worried who was going to die. Everyday it was normal for someone to die. Innocent people were killed just going to school or mosque.”
The brothers continue to explain, “We had mixed feelings about moving. We wanted us to be safe but we want to save our life. ISIS was taking many girls. We were worried about our sister and mother. This is why we were eager to move. We feel safe in America and look to learning English and finding jobs.”
Alaa’s brother, Mahmood never thought ISIS would go to Iraq. He explains, “I didn’t know the extremist beliefs would make them so scary. ISIS was so fast to form. There are many myths why this happened. But no one is sure. We didn’t do anything and we didn’t deserve to have to leave our home.”
Mahmood has 4 sisters and 5 brothers. Two of his brothers were killed by AL-Qaeda. He tells us,
“I lost my health and spirit when my brother was killed. I was at my work at the car dealership and heard someone was killed but didn’t know who it was. We used to go to the scene to see who was killed and why. I saw many people around the body and everyone looking at me differently. I found out it was my brother. It was so hard I can’t describe it.”
Mahmood has 4 sons and 1 daughter. His oldest son is living in Germany. He went to Ukraine to study medicine and later became a refugee in Germany. “I had to stop helping him because I lost my business.” After ISIS came to Iraq, he explains that, “We stopped doing everything. I lost my business and people did not return money. ISIS was killing so many people. I decided to leave our town because we would be next to become killed. I just wanted to save my family. I decided to leave.”
What about the night you left the city? “Three militant armed ISIS guys were looking for me by name. The next night we left. They pointed their guns to my wife and son looking for me.”
“I feel God wanted to save me. I was at my mom’s house and it was a matter of minutes that I missed being killed. I was told not to go home by my neighbor. I knew I needed to get home. I thought they might kill my family. We grabbed some clothes for winter and left everything behind.”
What was the worst checkpoint? “Samarra to Irbil was scary. We could be bombed or killed at any moment. It was a rural route and I was asking farmers the way. I took a wrong turn. Thankfully we met a farmer that said we were close to fighting between ISIS and Peshmerga. My wife, Maha, had our important stuff at her stomach to make her look pregnant. This road took half my life. I was so scared. I had no gas to put in my car. I was out of the city and fighting was everywhere. I had no idea I ran to the wrong place.”
How long were you in Irbil? “Living in Irbil for a month I made good friends there. A Kurdish man helped me to live for free and paid for gas.”
Why did you leave Irbil to Egypt? “Irbil was expensive and I had nothing. I was thinking about my family. I could not continue to live for free with my friend.”
Did you have family in Egypt? “No, I heard Egypt would make it easier to apply to come to America. I was in Egypt a year. It was hard there. It was very crowded and not safe. My kids could not go to school because they were foreigners or we had to pay a lot of money to send them to a special school. I applied with the UN (United Nations) and IOM (International Organization for Migration) to come to America. My two oldest sons found jobs at a car wash and were paid under the table. We had a cheap apartment and a Christian organization helped refugees with medical issues. My youngest son was given insulin and diabetic supplies. We were very thankful for this organization.”
The day you were approved as a refugee what happened? “We had a party. We were so happy.”
What were you thinking flying to America? “I felt born again. I was looking at the engines and praying for them not to break. I was happy and sad. We had a layover in Germany and realized my son, who I had not seen for three years was so close to me.”
When you arrived in Portland how did you feel? “I could not believe I was in Portland.
Where do you think you will be in a couple years? “We have to learn English and will help others who come to America as a refugee. We will be good people in this country. We will give back. We hope to start a business and my kids will go to school. We don’t want to be dependent on the government.”
What is your message to people in America who are scared of refugees? “America must concentrate on security and background checks for people coming to America. We don’t want bad people to come since we escaped them. We don’t want them to destroy this beautiful country.”
Will your family maintain Iraqi culture? “My daughter has her own freedom to do what she wants. I don’t think about that because people here accept people for who they are. I hope to learn English and have more friends.”
After the family relived their frightening experience, they shared a meal with us. Maha and Suna cooked beryani, kubba, tikka, and kebab. We told jokes, laughed, and ended the night in prayer. Men together in one group and women together in another. Despite the language barrier, I was able to tell what a loving, giving, and kind family I had the opportunity to meet and now call friends.
I’m so thankful I stepped out of my comfort zone to meet people who the media can so easily tell us to fear. Having met many refugee families this last year, I want to share what I have learned from them:
They know joy despite the suffering they experienced.
They cook amazing food and their hospitality is like nothing I have ever experienced.
They are resilient and persevere despite crazy, unpredictable circumstances they encounter.
Despite the trauma and violence experienced, they are thankful. They are welcoming of others who are different than them.
Alaa’s comment continues to remind me that in the midst of adversity and trials, Jesus is among us. He deeply cares for us. Jesus didn’t discriminate when he was picking His disciples, who he would heal, or who he would talk with. Jesus touched the leper, healed children, spoke to the Samaritan women, ate with sinners, and loved Peter despite the fact he denied knowing Him. Jesus turned Saul into Paul. Jesus can turn hatred to love. He turns the black things white. He tore down the social, political and economic status quo during His time.
My hope for people reading this is that they realize that despite our differences, we can still love people and call them friends. Our government spends years deciding whether or not people will become refugees. We should look beyond the fear the media wants us to believe in and move towards hospitality and love.
To followers of Jesus:
We have to emulate Jesus’ compassion, love, and mercy to others, not only to other believers, but all people – especially refugees. When we serve and show hospitality to others, we are serving Christ (Matthew 25:40). May we all continue to grow in loving our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). Let’s welcome strangers and foreigners to be our friends, not to try and convert them to Christianity, let the Holy Spirit do that.
Hebrews 13:2, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt” – Leviticus 19:33-34
May we be thankful for everything, even the hardships, each and every day.
*The family desired to use their real names. Sami and Alaa served as interpreters during the conversation. Photos taken by me.