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Ma-a Sa-leh-ma (Goodbye)

 I first met the Jawad family nearly five months ago. They were very new to America and not settling in very well. They welcomed me and a photographer into their home with a great deal of friendliness and generosity, eager to share their story. 

I wasn’t so eager to delve into the details. The Jawads are a refugee family from Iraq. When it comes to refugee resettlement, nothing is simple. I quickly learned that when it comes to Iraqi refugee resettlement, the process gets even more complex. For the Jawads, it was simple: They lived a good life in Baghdad. Then they didn’t. As refugees in Syria, they went to the U.N. for help. There, they say, they were promised a good life in America. They didn’t know they were coming to a country on the brink of a recession, facing record unemployment rates. 

The Jawads moved into a townhouse in north Stafford, signed a year’s lease to pay $1,500 a month in rent. Within months, it became clear they wouldn’t be able to pay that rent.

When you see a family suffering, when you see an adorable curly-haired preschooler and her older brothers worried about homelessness in a foreign land, you want to find bad guys. But when it comes to refugee resettlement, there isn’t a landscape of black and white, just a lot of gray areas.

Jawad was mad at the resettlement agency. He felt like he’d been treated unfairly, but, really, the process led to most of his bad feelings. The resettlement process is complex, hard to understand and some of the nuances can really make it seem like one refugee gets better treatment than another. 

And Jawad himself turned down a job. He made the point the low-wage job would never cover the rent. And he lacked transportation and English. But, for many, he lost sympathy points there.

Sometimes, honestly, I didn’t want to tell the Jawads’ story. It’s confusing, messy and the refugee resettlement plight goes way beyond the 85 Iraqis who came to Fredericksburg last year. So I waited. But the national news, which had often reported on the 13,000 Iraqis expected to arrive in the U.S. last year, stayed mum when it came to offering context as to their American life. 

But other times, I remembered Wafaa, Muoafaq’s wife and the look in her eyes when he told their story. She stayed in the kitchen for the most part, cooking us dinner as he told us about their life in Iraq.

Matter-of-factly, he rolled up his pants leg, showed me the scars from bullets. 

"Most Iraqis have such scars," the translator shrugged.

He opened the cabinet, dug out a picture, showed me the injuries his son sustained while kidnapped. At age 16, Ahmed was walking home from school. The kidnappers broke his legs and teeth. Sitting in his Stafford living room, he showed me the scars.

My mind wandered to a moment from my son’s babyhood. At age 9 months, he climbed into the dishwasher, helped himself to the food processor blade and slashed the bottom of his foot. I held him while the doctor put in 10 stitches and finally understood why people say, "This hurts me more than it hurts you." For months, I would stare at my own foot, surprised to see a smooth bottom instead of a ridge of scar tissue.

As Ahmed showed me his scars, I imagined his mother, running her hands over her own legs surprised to see them smooth. I imagined the days she waited for the ransom call, for her son’s return. For the other days, when she wondered which child would be kidnapped next. I looked toward the kitchen, met her eyes. Wafaa quickly looked away. But not before I recognized the pain.

Last week, they left for Syria Some will say good riddance. Some will say we should have done more. Some will say the refugee resettlement agencies should do more. Some will say we shouldn’t take in any refugees at all. Or any refugees during a recession.

This is what I know: Wafaa made us a delicious dinner. Even though they had little to give, the family made sure the photographer and I had plenty on our plates. And that I hope wherevever they go, they have a safe journey.


  • leclare

    writing this story.

  • adv1sor

    “There, they say, they were promised a good life in America.”

    Well then there is the problem right there.

    No one should be promised a good life in America.

    The promise is, and should always be, the opportunity for a good life.

    Most have to work very hard to take that opportunity. Often both the husband and wife have to work, sometimes even more than one job each.

    I didn’t know this family but I pray that they end up well. But if they are waiting for someone to give them something then, well, they need to rethink their position.

  • travelin_bone

    By our standards this appears to be an ungrateful man who let his pride come in the way of building a safe life for his family. The reality is the family did not mesh well into American way of life. It’s hard to start anew when you won’t shed a certain part of your comfort zone. I can’t say it’s right or wrong, it’s just the way it is. I’ve met other Middle Easterners who return home stating that life in the US is too hard. I hope for his family’s sake he finds a safe place. He blew a once in a lifetime opportunity for his family.

  • homercles82

    “And Jawad himself turned down a job. He made the point the low-wage job would never cover the rent. And he lacked transportation and English. But, for many, he lost sympathy points there.”

    Could he not enroll in welfare while learning English? Could he not take the low wage job and get a second? Save money, get a car and all the while learning english to better himself? We can’t give people everything. They need to earn it. Take some lumps, make mistakes and learn from them.
    Just because you come to America does not mean you are giving everything. You still need to work for it.

  • BLK

    Someone else stated , There is No Promise of a good life, But rather Opportunity. But that Involves Hard work. My Parents did it that way and we were all born here. No one Gave them a Good Life. They Earned it.
    I wonder, if this man had no Job. How did he pay the 1500. a month rent as long as he did ? Did someone Give that money to him? There is where the problem may have started. Maybe He got the Wrong Idea about America. We are the Land of the Free. But that Freedom
    comes at a cost. It’s Not Free.

  • fugyou

    that there are MANY generous people in Stafford to have supplied them a minimum of $1500 per month for rent for a minimim of FIVE months. Then they were able to raise airfare from the US to Syria for seven family members by “begging”. I fail to understand why the middle east is a safer and more prosperous than their time in Stafford. I’m assuming their children weren’t kidnapped, and that they added no bullet wounds to their legs while here. I don’t get this story, other than to point out just how ridiculous and backward thinking the father actually is. Interesting enough though.

  • tc_culpeper

    I read about the plight of this family earlier this week. I will not pass judgment on them but only wish them well.

  • minx

    It is sad that the father could not swallow his pride, enroll in English classes and take a lower paying job. It sounds like he couldn’t come to terms with what he lost in his home country & was still traumatized by it. However, I don’t think he would have been willing to accept counseling services either. In the end, his pride cost him and his family a second chance. Very sad.

  • Cncrndcitzen

    Great job on the story. Unfortunately it will neither satisfy “haters” or those that want to help. They are gone and there is nothing we can do about it. I do belive the resettlement program needs to be reviewed and modified if possible. Families such as these should only come to the US if and when they have family or someone willing to support them. This would help alleviate the cost factor of supporting refugees as they attempt to make a new beginning. For those that do not like this program, it is the US’ way of say, “We are here to help.” If we, the US, want to continue to be a world leader, we have to continue participating in programs like this.

  • tuggboat

    America is a land of opportunity but not all who come
    here succeed. This is not an indictment of their work
    ethic or character it is just reality. America offers so
    much but that doesn’t mean it is easily gotten. I am
    sorry for their troubles and the horrors that they have
    faced. Perhaps in a different time or under different
    circumstances that would have found what so many
    others have who have come before them have found.
    I wish them well and hope that peace and prosperity
    will soon be within their reach.

  • FORefugees

    Refugee resettlement agencies are supposed to place refugees in housing that will be affordable to them. The ten national refugee resettlement agencies also decide where in the country to place refugees, so that they may choose sites with affordable housing. Refugees should not be placed in apartments that are $1500 per month.

    Christopher Coen
    Friends of Refugees

  • historylover

    The problem, though, is that areas that are going to offer the most opportunities for employment, assimilation, and access to social services is in high rent areas. The cost of living is undoubtedly cheaper in Podunk Montana, but what are the opportunities for success?

    The plain fact is that any refugee family that comes anywhere in the US without family or a support system already here is going to have a tremendous struggle that necessitates dedicated sponsors to help them along for an extended period of time. The refugee settlement offices are not, for whatever reasons, that long term source of support a refugee family needs.

  • FORefugees

    There is not an inverse relationship to locations with affordable apartments and jobs. Fargo, North Dakota has had plentiful jobs and has cheap, affordable apartments. The problem with that location is that there is only one refugee resettlement agency and they repeatedly fail to provide the minimum required services and items, e.g. refugees are not given clothes, including winter clothing.