Bajhat Abdulwahed has a face familiar to many Iraqis. On occasion, he's even recognized here in Philadelphia, half a world away. His wife, Hayfaa Ibrahim, tells a story of how a group of his English-language classmates once approached him. “One of them [said], 'I know you,'” she explains. “'I have seen your face. But where, I don’t know. Tell me please, what’s your name?'”
People recognize Abdulwahed because he was a news announcer for three decades on Iraqi state TV and radio. He read the news as bombs fell on Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War.
But those moments of recognition are rare. Indeed, for some refugees, starting over from scratch means going from being minor celebrities in their home country to being completely unknown in their new country. When Abdulwahed’s classmates realized who he was, “They were shouting, 'We know you! You are here in Philadelphia with us?'” his wife says.
Today, the couple live in a small apartment in northeast Philadelphia.
Following the US invasion of Iraq and more violence, Abdulwahed started receiving threats because of his public profile. In the mail one day, he received an envelope with two bullets: one apparently meant for him, the other for his wife. They fled to Jordan after a second envelope came and got permission to come to the United States in 2009.
“Many people said to me, 'Oh, in Pennsylvania there are many studios, many TV, many newspaper,” Abdulwahed says.
He thought he would go to work. “I [was] very happy,” he says. But it turns out no Arabic-language TV is produced in Philadelphia. Plus, Abdulwahed’s health had deteriorated, limiting his options. He travels with an oxygen tank.
“I am old man now, but I feel sometimes now I am ready to read news or to do everything I can,” he says. “When I sit, I can work for five, six months.”
It’s a sense of displacement many retired people can feel and that some refugees feel even more strongly.
The couple have made a small community of friends, mostly Arabic-speaking refugees: Palestinians, North Africans and a few Iraqis like the men who recognized Abdulwahed at his English class. His wife says that she gets emotional when she makes new friends here. “Myself, I cry. I cry because it's nice to be to have friends this way from the same country even if we have been in our country maybe we don't know them. But when we are in the [US] we are now friends with them,” she says.
In their home, they also have a set of beautiful, leather-bound books Abdulwahed wrote about Arabic grammar. After he retired from the news business, he taught young Iraqi broadcasters formal Arabic and how to present themselves on air. Every couple of weeks, he still gets emails from students in Baghdad with questions about classical Arabic. He writes back and jokes with them that his Arabic is getting rusty now that he’s in the US. “I forgot my language because I am American now," he tells them. "They say, 'No, you are still our teacher.'”
He’s working on his English. He knows he makes mistakes, and that’s OK in his second language. But it's a different life for this former news broadcaster, who now spends his life quietly watching the news from Iraq read on television by someone else.