Iraq war refugee loses mother and country, gains a home

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NEWTON, Mass. — When he and his mother were kidnapped by militia in Baghdad and only he returned, Mohammad knew he had to flee Iraq.

Today, Mohammad sits on a plush couch in the living room of an ornate house in a wealthy suburb of Boston. To look at him, his smiling wife, Marwa, and their exuberant little daughter, Noor, a visitor could not possibly guess that a grueling four-year odyssey of terror and flight had landed them here.

Just weeks ago, the family was leading the lives of refugees in a rundown neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, where they had been forced to flee four years earlier from hostile conditions in their home country of Iraq.

Mohammad’s journey, which ended this summer in Newton, began in 2006 in Baghdad from where, as an incisive political journalist in Iraq’s war-torn capitol, he was forced to flee to Syria. In Damascus, Mohammad’s life intersected with a young American college student who eventually helped bring Mohammad to the United States. Mohammad’s story is sadly not uncommon in Iraq, where seven years of war and ruthless militia have forced millions into exile.

Mohammad’s work as a journalist started in the first year after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It was 2004, and Mohammad (who has requested anonymity for safety reasons) began writing articles for an Iraqi publication, the name of which translates in English to “Time.” He wrote largely on politics and government, believing in the social importance of journalism and wishing to “expose crimes” and inform the public about important Iraqi issues.

Barely two years later, in May 2006, local hostilities and militia harassment forced Mohammad to flee Iraq for Syria, a country where more than a million Iraqi refugees have temporarily sought shelter. Mohammad’s family — his wife, 

Marwa, 5-year-old daughter, Noor, and father — joined him in Damascus shortly thereafter. 

Two weeks before his move, Mohammad and his family had been terrorized by a local militia in Iraq controlled by an officer whom Mohammad had spoken out against in an article. “I wrote about a high officer in Iraq. He is official officer and besides that he has a militia,” Mohammad said in an interview with GlobalPost. The militia, which is called “Mahdi Army,” sent its members wearing police uniforms to Mohammad’s house, where they kidnapped Mohammad and his mother.

Eventually Mohammad was released, but his mother was held captive. She remains missing. “After that, she is disappeared,” said Mohammad about his mother, “Just vanished, without anything, any trace to find her.”

Iraqi refugees in Syria are not legally permitted to work, and for four years Mohammad, Mawra and Noor lived there mostly on money borrowed from 

Marwa's mother, who lives in Sweden. Some meals were provided by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

When they arrived in Syria, Mohammad and his family registered with UNHCR to be resettled. However Mohammad, wary from his experience in Iraq and traumatized by the loss of his mother, omitted details about his profession as a journalist and the exact reasons for his exile in his registration process.

“I didn’t mention anything about my case. I didn’t mention I was a journalist, and I lost my mother, or anything like that to UNHCR because their employees are all Syrian people. … they have a relationship between them and the intelligence agency.”

Despite their uncomfortable and stressful conditions, Mohammad and 

Marwa became extraordinarily active in their Syrian community during their four years there. 

Marwa began work for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) helping other Iraqi refugees in Damascus, as well as spending five hours a day in a center for disabled Iraqi refugee children — all on a volunteer basis.

Mohammad described how he and 

Marwa were well-equipped to help various NGOs by acting as a liaison to other refugees. “We tried to move from our area, where we lived in Damascus, and move to another area where the Iraqi people lived,” Mohammad said. “We tried to teach them and know about their problems. … Some have disease. We meet many women who have cancer and no one can help them.”

Enter Michaela Yule, an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College. Yule, who is fluent in Arabic, was spending the summer of 2009 abroad in Syria when she met 

Marwa through an NGO where the two women were working. (Because of the nature of Yule’s work, she has requested that certain details, including the name of the NGO and the context of her connection with them, be omitted.)

The two women quickly developed a working relationship that evolved into an enduring friendship. Through 

Marwa, Yule was introduced to Mohammad and Noor, and the family soon became central to her daily life. “We’d go out to dinner together,” said Michaela. “We had them over to our apartment for dinner — and soon they were the only people I was seeing most beside my own roommates.”

When Yule left Syria, she felt endeared and indebted to the family. She offered a letter of recommendation to UNHCR in support of the family’s resettlement effort. Yule says her letter explained that Mohammad and 

Marwa were “professional and conscientious and diligent and smart and that I highly recommended them and that if anyone needed any info on them to get in touch with me.”

As Yule was writing her recommendation on his behalf, Mohammad had found a lawyer at UNHCR whom he felt he could trust with more details about his exile. After it became clear that Mohammad’s family faced immediate danger in the region, their name was moved higher on the list of those eligible for resettlement.

The role of Yule’s letter and of Mohammad’s appeal to the UNHCR lawyer are unknown, but on Wednesday, Aug. 4, Mohammad, 

Marwa and Noor arrived at Boston’s Logan International Airport where they began a temporary stay with Yule and her family in Newton until they can be properly settled in their own home. Mohammad’s father remains in Syria, where he hopes to find some trace of Mohammad’s mother while he, too, pursues resettlement.

In the interview with GlobalPost, Mohammad reflected on the dangers of a destabilized, fragmented Iraq, especially for journalists. “There are many problems and difficulties with journalism in Iraq,” Mohammad said. “We are free to write, but there are many problems. There are different militias.”

Mohammad is disillusioned with journalism in Iraq where writers are targeted by their political opponents (as his own experience testifies). These dynamics place a high price on freedom of the press in Iraq, which was only enacted after the occupation. And although Mohammed celebrates his right, he has no delusions about its success in practice.

“I always say that before 2003 we have one dictatorship, and after that we have many dictatorships,” he said. However, the risks never hampered Mohammed’s resolve to “expose the crimes in Iraq,” and even while in Syria he contributed to a New Jersey-based publication called “The Arab Voice.”

Yule said the plight of Iraqi refugees is largely unknown by the American public, and is an issue that receives inadequate attention considering its scope. “People need to hear about this," Yule said.

According to a 2008 UNHCR report, there are more than 6.7 million refugees in the Iraqi diaspora, and 1.5 million in Syria alone. That statistic excludes 1.5 million Internally Displaced Persons, who have fled their home but remain in Iraq. Yule said there is the risk that the refugee situation will remain unaddressed “as the war in Iraq fades into the background in light of everything happening in Afghanistan.”

When Mohammad, 

Marwa and Noor landed in Boston, it was their first visit to the United States. Both of them have ambitious plans for their new life — 

Marwa hopes to earn her law degree and Mohammad to continue with journalism — but the arduous process of resettlement looms on the horizon complicated by a storm of logistics: jobs, a residence, clothes, furniture, phones, a school for Noor and a dozen other items.

Each of the three family members took two suitcases on their flight from Syria. When asked about what was left behind in Iraq, Mohammad says they brought what was “important,” (including one suitcase stuffed with toys for Noor) and “hope.”

But still, their loss is immeasurable. In addition to a comfortable home with a garden, a car and a well-paying job, the three Iraqis lost their own country. Yet they remain positive. Asked if they ever wish to return home, Mohammad replied, without hesitation, “No.”

For Mohammad, 

Marwa and Noor, Baghdad is no longer “home.”

Instead, Mohammad said, “Home is where I live, and where my family can be safe.”