|Yassir Khattab, an Iraqi refugee who now lives in Murfreesboro, shares a photo of one of his elementary school teachers. Although he is Muslim, Khattab attended Catholic and Christian schools in Baghdad. He and his family resettled in Middle Tennessee with assistance from the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Office. Photo by Theresa Laurence
When visitors enter the home of Iraqi refugees Yassir Khattab and Mays Alsaman, they are welcomed with a spread of snacks and hot tea. As the couple shares their story of leaving war-torn Iraq and settling in the United States, it quickly becomes clear that theirs was an emotionally wrenching journey.
“It was very difficult to leave Iraq,” said Khattab, who resettled in Nashville in 2014 with the help of Catholic Charities of Tennessee. Leaving his parents and other family members behind, as well as his homeland and culture, was tough but necessary.
“There is no safety for anyone” in Iraq, Khattab said. “You can’t move freely, it is too dangerous.”
Khattab, who comes from a Shiite family, and Alsaman, who comes from a Sunni family, could not cross into each other’s Baghdad neighborhoods without fear. With no strong central government or criminal justice system in Iraq, extremist militant groups have taken control of many areas.
“If they catch me they will kill me,” Khattab said. “Sometimes people will kidnap you for the ransom money,” he added, which happened to his brother-in-law twice. “There is no safety place in Iraq,” he repeats.
Khattab and his family are just one example of the millions of people, Muslims and Christians alike, who have been forced to flee their homes in the Middle East to escape civil war or personal threats of violence in recent years. They were among the fraction of a percent of refugees worldwide chosen to resettle in the United States in 2014. Like many refugees in their situation, Khattab and Aslsaman, resilient and strong-willed, have adjusted quickly to their new life.
“I feel sad when I hear talk about no Muslims, no refugees,” said Khattab, referring to the current rhetoric from local and national politicians seeking to ban refugees from entering the U.S. While he has not personally felt any backlash because of his ethnicity, he knows some Americans are wary of refugees like him. “I’ve never held a gun in my life,” he said. “I’m just here to find a good future for my family.”
Khattab, 33, was raised Muslim, but attended Catholic and Christian schools in Baghdad. He is angry that the terrorist group ISIS aligns itself with Islam. “ISIS doesn’t belong to a religion. It’s a business. It’s a mafia,” he said. It is groups like ISIS, and al-Queda before them, that forced Khattab and his family to flee, he said.
Khattab and Alsaman left Iraq in 2005, passing through Jordan, Libya and Syria before settling in Malaysia, where he eventually got a job in the Iraqi embassy there. He applied as a refugee with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2007 and began the long process to come to the United States. It wasn’t until 2014 that Khattab, Alsaman, and their two young children were approved to resettle in the U.S. “I’m very happy when I get a chance to come to the United States,” he said.
While in Malaysia, Khattab lived a comfortable life, learned English and met people from a wide range of nationalities and religions, so adjusting to life in Middle Tennessee has not been too difficult, he said. After initially moving into a Nashville apartment complex with the help of Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement Office, Khattab and his family wanted to move to a quieter and safer neighborhood.
They settled in Murfreesboro because of the highly rated public schools in the area and access to Khattab’s job at the Nissan manufacturing plant. In the future he hopes to utilize his background in computer science; Alsaman, who is a software engineer, wants to work once her 3-year-old son starts school.
If there was any doubt about refugees assimilating quickly to American life, Khattab said his 6-year-old daughter “enjoys every single moment in school,” and has decided she wants to be a dentist and get a dog. She is already losing the ability to understand and speak Arabic, her parents’ first language, even though they still speak it at home.
‘It was dangerous’
Many Iraqi nationals, who account for the fourth largest group of refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, are fleeing indiscriminate violence at the hands of extremist and terrorist groups like ISIS. Others have faced more direct threats.
Ahmed, who worked as a translator for the U.S. Army, was targeted as a traitor by al-Queda and his family was threatened. “It was dangerous for him to drive place to place. Many interpreters covered their faces, but he didn’t. He didn’t want to be a coward,” his wife Raya said. “He was proud of what he was doing even though the enemy knew his name and face.”
“It was very common at that time” for interpreters to face death threats, said Raya, and their family took the threat very seriously. “We had to pack small bags and leave without anyone knowing,” said Raya, who asked that their last names not be used.
Ahmed also had two sisters who worked as translators for the Army. They escaped to Jordan and were not in touch with the rest of their family for two years. “We were terrified, we didn’t know what happened,” Raya said.
Ahmed and Raya fled Iraq in 2008 for Turkey, where they applied for refugee status. They were quickly approved for resettlement and in 2010 arrived in Nashville. They came with few material possessions, but did bring with them a fierce work ethic. “If you’re a hard worker and don’t mind working you can find a job,” said Raya, whose family was also resettled by Catholic Charities.
When they first arrived, “we qualified for food stamps, but we didn’t like the idea. We’re young and we can work and do something,” she said. “We like to work hard and not get help from the government.”
Within three months of their arrival, Raya and Ahmed were both working at a printing company, where they proved themselves and gained several promotions. However, the company closed last April and they both lost their jobs.
Since then, Ahmed worked for Uber, and at a driving instruction school. Raya is currently staying home to care for their 2-year-old son. She has a law degree from Iraq, but wants to return to school in the new year to study computer science. “We are hard workers,” she said.
Working long hours away from their families, refugees like Ahmed are eager to prove themselves in their new communities. Ahmed works so much, in fact, that he rarely has time to see his wife and child these days, and he didn’t have time to participate in the interview with his wife.
As refugees like Khattab, Alsaman, Ahmed and Raya continue to find their place in America, and forge ahead making a better path for their children, the hardest thing may be the powerlessness they feel as they watch the news unfold in the Middle East. While both families hope to be reunited with separated family members one day, they know it may not be for many years.
“I live in stress and worries because my parents are in Libya,” said Khattab. They left Baghdad years ago and began a new, temporary life there, which has stretched on much longer than they hoped. “Sometimes I try for three or four days to call and no answer,” said Khattab. “We’re facing very difficult times.”
Legislators may address resettlement process in 2016
Theresa Laurence, Tennessee Register
As the 109th General Assembly of the Tennessee state legislature prepares to convene on Jan. 12, Jennifer Murphy, executive director of the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission, will be keeping a close eye on bills of interest to the state’s three bishops, including legislation that could affect refugees.
“I feel certain some legislation will be introduced,” she said, but most lawmakers will wait until closer to the deadline of Jan. 18 to file specific bills.
As a lobbyist for the Catholic Public Policy Commission, which represents the state’s three bishops in public policy matters, Murphy said she will continue to educate state lawmakers about refugees and Catholic Charities’ role in resettling them in Nashville.
A joint state and local government committee hearing in December that focused on refugees could spur some new bills in 2016, or revive at least one from 2015. One issue discussed at the hearing was whether the state could reacquire administration of Tennessee’s refugee resettlement program, which Catholic Charities’ Tennessee Office for Refugees currently runs, through an agreement with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
One bill last session would have the state reacquire control of the refugee program, but that would not be possible until a four-year contract agreement between Catholic Charities and the federal ORR ended, Murphy said.
Most questions at the December hearing centered around the screening and resettlement process of refugees, with some legislators asking witnesses whether they could guarantee the safety of their constituents if refugees lived in their communities.
“We will never be 100 percent safe and secure,” Murphy said. “But we have the most stringent vetting of refugees than any other country.” All screening of refugees is done at the federal level; Catholic Charities of Tennessee has two departments that work with refugees once they have been cleared to resettle here.
One goal of Murphy’s for the next session is to continue to engage legislators about refugees and help them understand who they are and the arduous process they must undergo to come to the United States. “I understand this is a time of tension,” she said. But “the weak link of national security is not the refugee program.”
Catholic Charities of Tennessee has decades of experience resettling refugees in this state, and “we do it because we are compassionate and its part of our mission,” Murphy said. “I’m proud of the work Catholic Charities does and I look forward to a chance to get out the facts.”