By ROBYN MURRAY
It was 4:30 in the afternoon; people were getting ready to leave work and head home. The bustle of the city hummed in the background—pedestrians shuffling through crowded sidewalks, yellow taxis honking in staccato bursts. On a tree-lined street to the north, foreign aid workers busily prepared for a late-afternoon news conference. It was set to take place at the United Nations headquarters—a three-story converted hotel that loomed above Baghdad’s Tigris River. Amid the flurry, no one heard a cement truck pulling up to the side of the building.
The explosion was deafening. It ripped a six-foot crater in the ground and hurtled through the building’s concrete roof, causing it to collapse into rubble. It cut the electricity and plunged the building into darkness.
“You can’t imagine—” Mohammed al-Kadhim tries to find the words as he recalls that bloody afternoon. “I never imagined the things I—you just see things flying everywhere, walls collapsing, people running with blood on their face.”
“It’s just like watching a movie in slow motion,” he says. “Your brain doesn’t react because it’s so severe.”
Al-Kadhim was working at the UN building that day. A Baghdad native, he had started as a driver for the international aid group and quickly worked his way into an administrative position. It was a good job; he was paid in U.S. dollars. But he knew it was dangerous work. It was August, 2003—the first months of the Iraq War—and any Western organization was a target. At least 22 people were killed in the bombing, and more than 100 were injured. Al-Kadhim escaped with minor injuries. “I didn’t realize I was covered with blood, and I was injured until someone saw me,” he recalls. “I was just running, trying to get out of the building. The building was dark, the dust, the fumes and everything. It was terrible.” Al-Kadhim is uncomfortable as he tells the story. More than a decade later, he is still tormented by flashbacks, and sometimes woken from nightmares. “It was like hell,” he says, as he stirs a cup of traditional Iraqi tea. He’s seated across from his wife, Hadeel Haider, in their immaculately kept west-Omaha home, which overlooks a peaceful grove of trees and green, open space. Five years ago, the couple arrived on U.S. soil with their two sons—greeted at Omaha’s airport by refugee resettlers from Lutheran Family Services. The agency helped them move into their first American apartment and fill it with used furniture. Today, after years of war, fear and upheaval, they are finally finding peace.
The UN bombing was a single event in a litany that shook al-Kadhim and his family, eventually prompting them to risk their lives by fleeing Iraq. “We were trying as much as we can to survive,” he says, “and hoping it was going to get better.” But it only got worse. Speaking both of insurgents and opportunistic gang members, al-Kadhim says, “They just randomly killed people. They killed kids; they killed women, for nothing, just to spread chaos and horror among people.”
Al-Kadhim’s family was often a target. He speaks fluent English (his parents were educated in the U.S.), and so he was sought by Western companies looking for translators in Iraq. But that put a price on his head. He received death threats directly and sometimes by letter. “You don’t know what’s going to happen to you in the next minute,” he says. Mostly, the couple feared for the safety of their children. Kidnappers had targeted their sons’ school, which left them in a panic. But the moment that broke them came on a hot summer night. Baghdad was enduring a recurrent electricity blackout, and inside their home, the rooms baked without air conditioning. The family decided to camp out on the flat roof of their house – a fateful decision that spared them another attack. In the middle of the night, they woke to the sound of machine guns tearing through their walls, bullets spraying throughout their home.
“We were scared to death,” al-Kadhim says.
The next morning, they packed up to leave. “We couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. “We decided to leave no matter what.”
That decision was fraught with its own dangers. To get to the border, the family had to travel by car through the worst of the fighting. “You’re in a battlefield,” al-Kadhim says. “It was very, very risky.” Border agents would turn people away on a whim, and many died on their way back to Baghdad. But, “with God’s mercy,” al-Kadhim says, they made it through.
The family crossed the border into Jordan, and al-Kadhim was able to find work for another U.S. company in Amman. They worked hard to establish a life for themselves in a new, though culturally familiar, country, but Jordan was inundated with Iraqi refugees, and permanent residency seemed perpetually out of reach. “It was not easy to live there,” Haider says. “It wasn’t a good solution for us,” her husband adds. “We were always in panic that we’d have to go back.”
Four years later, the family discovered a U.S. program for Iraqis whose work had placed them in particular danger: refugee status for those who could not return home. They decided to apply. “We were hoping this would save us from the hopeless situation,” al-Kadhim says, and it did. Soon, they found themselves on a plane bound for the heart of the United States.
In the middle of winter, at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield, refugee re-settlers from LFS were ready to greet the weary family. Haider’s cousin, who had settled in Omaha ahead of them, had prepared them for the gesture, but to be welcomed by strangers still meant everything, al-Kadhim says. Later they were escorted to their new apartment, where they found a refrigerator filled with groceries and a pantry with essentials. “These things really matter,” al-Kadhim says. “It means a lot.”
LFS staff helped the family apply for social security cards, driver’s licenses, and food stamps; they got Haider signed up for English classes, and helped the couple find work. Al-Kadhim took a job as “They killed kids; they killed women, for nothing, just to spread chaos and horror among people. —Mohammed al-Kadhim, refugee from Iraq an international program specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which he continues to supplement with part-time work as a translator. Haider took two jobs: one at Sears, and another at an after-school program. Within months, they had bought cars and found a bigger apartment. Within a few years, they had four cars, their own home, one son in pre-med, and another a freshman at the University of Nebraska Omaha—both with their choice of scholarships. “We are dedicated,” al-Kadhim says. “We have goals, and we want to achieve our goals. And in this country, if you have a goal and you work hard, you will get to it.”
But even after they found safety and security in the U.S., life has been a struggle for the al-Kadhim family. In 2012, doctors found a lump on their youngest son’s skull, and a few months later, Haider was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Their son underwent brain surgery, which was successful, and Haider turned to UNMC, home to some of the best Hodgkins specialists in the country. “We could have gone to any city that we want in US.,” Haider says. “Maybe it was meant to be.”
By the end of 2012, after months of chemotherapy, Haider was cancer-free. Today – just 18 months later – she teaches high-energy Zumba fitness at the local YMCA. “She was very strong,” al-Kadhim says. “She didn’t collapse. She didn’t miss one day of work.” Haider says it wasn’t easy to stay positive, but she did it for her family. “If I be down, they will be down too,” she says, “and I didn’t want to—they were already down.”
Al-Kadhim says he is proud of his family and the courage they’ve shown through times of tumult. “We are a team,” he says. “We work together. We do everything together.”
For now, their future seems secure, and much of that is due to promises delivered. When the family arrived in the U.S., they were told they could apply for permanent residency after one year in the country. They were given a similar line in Jordan—that never materialized. But on their first-year anniversary in Omaha, they were eligible for permanent residency; and after another five, citizenship. Haider proudly shows off a framed photograph of the family with the words “My fellow Americans” inscribed in shimmering red, white and blue. “This is not something that we could take for granted,” al-Kadhim says. “This is something that is really huge, and we really appreciate that.”
Al-Kadhim says he once worried his family wouldn’t be accepted in America, but he found the opposite to be true. “You can find people who become your closest friends and your family who’ll love you and support you in any place that you could be,” he says. He has since brought his elderly mother and sister to Omaha (Haider’s family lives mostly in Canada), and the couple tries to give back however they can, to return the opportunities they’ve been given. “We feel that people are supposed to help each other,” al-Kadhim says, “just like we were helped at the beginning.”
Though they sometimes miss Iraq – the Iraq of their youth, that is – al-Kadhim says he is thankful for a fresh start, and a chance to live a peaceful life in a quiet city.
“We are so grateful for being here,” he says. “It’s like a reward that God kept for us.”