My Refugee Friends
By Kelsey McKain
I first met Wurood, Alaa, and their son, Rayan, through the Kentucky Refugee Ministry Cultural Exchange program that connects local residents with newly settled refugees to help acclimate them to their new city. I’ve known them for about six months, but because of the language barrier, I’ve only recently (with the help of a translator) been able to learn more about their lives as refugees.
We sat down in their modest, two-bedroom apartment in the south side of Louisville. The furniture doesn’t match and the walls aren’t decorated, but it’s cozy and it feels like a home. To Wurood and Alaa, it’s a dream come true.
Wurood and Alaa, both in their mid-20s, grew up in Baghdad, Iraq. “It was not safe,” Alaa (the husband) told me. “There were always bombs and killing, always fighting, even in the daytime. It was never safe to be on the streets.” It was so dangerous that Wurood had never been to a shopping mall (although there were many nearby) for fear of being attacked or killed in a bombing.
Large public facilities were avoided at all cost, including schools. Wurood went only as far as elementary school because, as she explained, many young girls are kidnapped from schools in Iraq, so most families pull their daughters out of public school by the fifth or sixth grade.
Their fear is understandable. According to a recent United Nations report, almost 34,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq in the last four years “in acts of terrorism, violence and armed conflict.” That’s more than 23 people every day killed in some sort of attack. The couple realized they needed to escape if they were to have a better future.
Alaa left first, fleeing to Jordan in 2012. Their romance was like something out of a movie. Their fathers were friends, and they’d known each other their entire lives, but it definitely wasn’t love at first sight. “I didn’t like him at all,” Wurood laughed.
But as the situation in Iraq grew worse, her affection for him grew stronger. She decided to start a new life with him and joined him in Jordan in 2013. They were married in a nontraditional ceremony, with only their parents attending. Her family then went home to Iraq, leaving Wurood in a new country with a new husband.
“Life in Jordan was hard,” she sighed. “There was not a lot of work. We lived in one room with no windows or air conditioning, very little furniture, just something to cook on. It was very small.” Since it’s illegal to work as a refugee in Jordan, they received no assistance from the government or the United Nations. Like so many other refugees who are not permitted to work, yet receive no assistance, Wurood and Alaa were stuck in a terrible cycle of hardship and poverty.
Alaa found some unsanctioned work, but things were still extremely tight. They had to sell everything of value they owned to survive, including her wedding ring and the wedding presents from their family, giving up the last memories of their past in hope of a better future.
They spent three years in Jordan, filling out paperwork and hoping to be resettled to America. In 2015, while the couple were living in Jordan, their son, Rayan, was born. “It was very scary,” she remembered. “I had no parents or family there to help. It was just me and Alaa.” Through tears she added, “My family has still never met Rayan.
“That,” she said, “is the hardest part of being a refugee. I miss my family. Getting together to eat, spending holidays together, just being with them. I miss my family.” The couple said it’s especially hard knowing their family members who are still in Iraq live in constant fear. Wurood and Alaa are also fearful, never knowing if their families are safe or injured or if the bomb they heard about on the news has claimed them.
Wurood and Alaa were finally cleared to resettle in America in February 2016. They loaded all of their possessions into just three suitcases and traveled by plane—the first time for either of them—from Jordan to France to Texas, and finally to Louisville.
They were both nervous and excited to start their new life. Wurood was afraid of how she’d be treated as a Muslim woman. “I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to live here and go out with my hijab (head covering). I was afraid they wouldn’t let me work here because of how I was dressed.” Thankfully, she said, she hasn’t been treated differently at all. “People have been very nice,” she smiled.
Alaa was also nervous, but eager for the future. “I knew it would be better than Jordan. I could work and settle here. It would be safer, we’d have more opportunities, and we could do different things we’ve never done before.”
They feel very blessed to be living in America, citing safety and health care as their favorite things about living here. “And the pizza!” Alaa added.
“We thank God we’re here,” he said. “It’s a hard life, but we’re very happy to be here.”
They are indeed very fortunate to have been chosen for resettlement. Many aren’t so lucky. In fact, more than 10 million Iraqis still need humanitarian aid, including 4.7 million children who are in danger of “separation from their families, abduction, recruitment into the fighting, and sexual violence.” They’re also at risk of long-term mental health issues due to their current conditions.1 Iraq is a dangerous and difficult place to be, and Wurood and Alaa are thankful to have escaped.
While their life is markedly different in Louisville than Jordan and Iraq, it’s still difficult, especially in the beginning, they said. The hardest thing, Wurood said, is that “life is expensive here, and transportation is difficult.” It sometimes takes Alaa over an hour to get to work, even though his job is just three miles away. They rely solely on public transportation, which can be confusing (especially if you don’t speak English). Wurood is mostly confined to their neighborhood since she doesn’t understand the buses. “I walk to Aldi and to the park—that’s about it,” she said.
The language barrier is the most difficult thing they face. They are both working on their English, but it’s challenging, and their progress is slower than they’d like. They’ve found ways around it, however. “My best friend is my neighbor from Burma. She doesn’t speak Arabic or English, so we don’t talk much, but our kids play together, and we smile a lot,” Wurood said.
When I asked what she wished to be different, Wurood replied, “I want Alaa to find a better, more stable job.” He currently works at a department store but was a plumber in Iraq and hopes to find a job in that field. He also wants to learn to drive and buy a car. “I want to drive, too!” Wurood chimed in. “And I want to work.”
Though their life is difficult, they’re very excited for their future. “We want Rayan to have a good future. That’s why we came here. We want him to be a doctor!” Their future is about to take another exciting turn: they recently found out they’re pregnant again and due in May!
“Alaa wants another boy, but I want a girl,” Wurood laughed. “But anything is good! Just a healthy baby.”
¹According to the UNICEF website, accessed at www.unicef.org/infobycountry/iraq_74784.html.
Kelsey McKain serves as director of communications with Team Expansion, Louisville, Kentucky.