Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel
The Ali family — Ahmed; Rasha; Mustafa, 11; and Almas, 5 — fled Iraq in 2014 after living in fear for years. Because of a journalism career with Western ties, Ahmed was a target of al-Qaida, which at one point occupied his house and used it as a base.

Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel

The Ali family — Ahmed; Rasha; Mustafa, 11; and Almas, 5 — fled Iraq in 2014 after living in fear for years. Because of a journalism career with Western ties, Ahmed was a target of al-Qaida, which at one point occupied his house and used it as a base.

Next to her heart it dangles — an outline of the country she loves and fled. Printed within its gold boarders is the name of her husband, “Ahmed,” whose life was threatened for years. 

Rasha Ali is sitting in an immaculate front room in her family’s ranch-style house in suburban Portland when she looks down at the necklace and smiles sadly. Life as a refugee is a painful gift.

Two years ago, Rasha, Ahmed and their two young children left their native Iraq, fearing al-Qaida, social and governmental instability, and the terror of Islamic State group fighters. They left danger but they also said goodbye, perhaps forever, to family, a successful journalism career and friends. 

Aided by Catholic Charities of Oregon and other organizations, the family has since pieced together a new life in the United States. They live with a mix of loss and gratitude.

“What happened to us,” says Ahmed, “I don’t want to happen to my kids.” 

‘You should disappear’

Two years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition that toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, an event took place that Ahmed and Rasha will never forget: They were married.

His eyes twinkling, Ahmed tells the story of their courtship from his couch during a recent interview alongside Rasha and their children, 5-year-old Almas, whose name means “diamonds” in Arabic, and 11-year-old Mustafa, whose name means “the chosen.” 

Ahmed fell in love with Rasha in college, but it took persistence — and an imam putting in some good words for him — to earn her father’s approval. 

Having secured work as a journalist after the start of the Iraq War, Ahmed provided for his family with a job he loved. He reported in print and for radio and television, filing stories for Al-Jazeera, the BBC and NBC. He also worked for the U.S.-funded Radio Free Iraq and was embedded with the U.S. Army for 22 days. 

Yet his success and ties to the United States made him a target of al-Qaida, the extremist group that emerged in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and rose to prominence in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion. 

One day in 2006, he came home to find a message pinned to his front gate. It read: “You should disappear.”

“I ran away from my house and they occupied my house (and used it) as a base,” says Ahmed. “Anything you can carry, they stole it. Even our clothes.”

The occupiers were not strangers. 

“It was so tough because I know these people, I fed them many times,” says Ahmed. “They come to our house, we eat together, play together.” 

He believes al-Qaida thought he was a spy or agent for the U.S. government and therefore felt “we need to kill you,” he says, adding that he knew they would not stop with him. They might kidnap or hurt his wife, children, parents or four brothers.  

Through his work with the U.S. government, Ahmed and his family were eligible for a visa giving them refuge in the United States. He applied in 2007, but it took seven years to be approved.  

During those intervening years, the family moved nine times in an attempt to keep safe. 

Every morning before Ahmed left for work, Rasha scoured her husband’s car for bombs. 

“When I wake up, I walk with him and I say goodbye,” says Rasha, her Arabic translated into English by Ahmed. “But before that, I search the car carefully. And after he leaves I watch the news until he’s back, because if something happens, I’ll see it on the news before someone calls me.” Her voice trails off as she wipes away tears. 

“It was too tough,” says Ahmed. “There were too many things.” 

Along with their fear of al-Qaida, the country was politically unstable, the Islamic State group (also known as ISIS) was inflicting violence, and civilians had amassed “more weapons than the government” in an effort to protect themselves, says Ahmed.

Once granted a visa, the Alis had five days to pack and tell their families they were leaving.

“We use white lies because I care for them,” Ahmed says, explaining that he told them he needed surgery in the United States and would remain for a while to secure a green card. 

“They thought I might be coming back,” he says.  “I act. I lie. If I tell my mom (she might) not see me again, she would have heart attack.

“My mother … she loves me a lot,” Ahmed adds.  

Even with the white lie, the family grew “silent from the shock” when they heard the news, Ahmed recalls. 

Forty-eight hours later, the Alis boarded a plane in Baghdad. Along with clothes, they brought the family Quran, prayer rugs and a few pieces of traditional, cherished art. 

“It’s hard, super hard,” says Ahmed, trying to find the right words. “It’s your house (you are leaving), it’s your country, your people, your family, mom, dad, brothers.”

A new life

After nearly 36 hours and four layovers, the family arrived in the United States with eight bags and no idea what to expect.  

When you “start life from the beginning” there is an onslaught of information about everything from health insurance to food and finances, says Ahmed. For example, they’d never used a credit card and had no idea what a credit score was. “Even traffic laws are different,” he says. 

They have found Oregon a welcoming place, however. 

“Here, when you make eye contact with anyone, they smile,” Ahmed says. “Here I feel comfortable. Even my wife, no one (has said) anything about her (head) scarf.”

Catholic Charities of Oregon was one of the organizations that helped the family get their bearings.

Through contracts with the U.S. Department of State and the Oregon Department of Human Services, Catholic Charities offers a large refugee resettlement program. It assists with housing, food stamps, medical screenings and referrals to a variety of agencies. The federally funded portion offers support for 90 days; state-funded services are provided for eight months.

“A key part of Catholic Charities’ effort is getting families connected to volunteers in the community, because their long-term needs far surpass what case managers can do,” says Michelle Welton, program support and outreach manager for Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program. 

Catholic Charities of Oregon is one of around 80 Catholic Charities nationwide that offer refugee resettlement, and it’s one of three resettlement agencies in the state.

Last year, there were 85,000 refugees granted entry into the United States. The target for 2017 was set at 110,000. 

The annual totals are based on a number presented by the president and approved by Congress. The U.S. has budgeted money for next year, but there’s no legal requirement to resettle a single refugee.

Welton has some concerns about how the new administration will affect refugees. “A lot is unknown, but I don’t see the number admitted into the U.S. growing,” she says. 

Ahmed says the help his family has received in the States inspired him to assist others. 

“I will not make (such generosity) stop with me,” he says.

Along with volunteering with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, based in Portland, and serving on the board of the Iraqi Society of Oregon, Ahmed works full time for Catholic Charities — helping fellow refugees navigate their life in a new country.

“I try to provide the best service ever to new refugees,” Ahmed says. “We are the first people they meet, so they trust us. We need to work hard.”

‘I want to say thank you’

Taped next to Avengers posters in Mustafa’s bedroom is a piece of lined paper with red lettering. It reads: “This is my dream. My dream is to be a dentist.”

Dreams are important in this family, says Ahmed. Mustafa “told me he wanted to be a dentist, so I told him to write it, so every morning when you wake up you can see it.”

Rasha and Ahmed are trying not only to navigate their new life but also to ensure their children remain connected to a country and culture they hold dear. 

“We are trying to bring the best things from our culture and the best things from U.S. culture,” Ahmed says. 

They hope their children will understand why they had to leave behind their beloved cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. 

“I hope one day they will say, ‘Thank you, Dad, because you (took) all this tragedy to yourself to provide the best life for (us),’” says Ahmed.

As Mustafa and Almas watch television in the next room, Ahmed says he wants people to know that no one hates the Islamic State group more than Muslims living in a Muslim country. 

“Everyone tries to (label) ISIS as a Muslim group; they are not,” he says. “Please, they are not, they are not. They are people with mental issues, they are criminals, bad people with a long, bad history. They have teenagers with washed minds; they are not real Islam.”

It saddens him Iraq is associated with extremism and violence, and he says the news does not capture all the beautiful elements of his homeland. 

“There are lots of religious places, historical places, natural places. Don’t just look at the news,” he says, encouraging people to speak with Iraqis.

“We have good people there,” says Ahmed. “We have people that care for human beings, like here.”

Ahmed says he has something important to add. “I want to say thank you to the American people for giving me this chance to move.”

He says he knows many families in Iraq who are worried they might be killed and long to be in his shoes. 

“If the American people close the door, they will die there,” says Ahmed. “We would lose them.”

How to help

To support Catholic Charities of Oregon refugee resettlement efforts, go here.