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About Amy Umble: Amy Umble writes about religion and social issues affecting the Fredericksburg community.
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.