Eye surgery brings focus to Iraqi refugee family's future

TEMPLE TERRACE

He came with his family seeking refuge from war, but couldn't see his way in his new home.

Hayder Abdulwahab arrived in Tampa two years ago, an Iraqi refugee, blind in one eye, his sight almost gone in the other due to a bomb blast in Baghdad that he'd barely survived.

With limited vision, everything proved daunting if not impossible: finding a job in the recession, learning more English, walking his sons to school.

Struggling to pay the rent each month, Hayder learned his family was safer physically but not financially, just like thousands of other arriving Iraqi refugees who'd hoped for help from America. Unable to support his wife and sons, the former bodyguard with a love of American pop music and Rocky movies grew isolated and despondent.

His future, like the shadowy figures in his line of vision, seemed unclear.

Then in June, Hayder underwent laser surgery at the University of South Florida Eye Institute. A doctor cut away scar tissue on his cornea.

The world came back to him in the form of stripes in the carpet and figures in the pool. He saw houses in front of his Temple Terrace apartment complex.

"When did they start building these houses?" he asked his wife, Iman.

"They've been here a long time," she answered. "Haven't you seen them before?"

For the first time in six years, he began to make out the features of his family. At first he said nothing, afraid to startle Iman. He would stare at her when she wasn't watching — her round cheeks, the curve of her lips when she smiled, her warm, dark eyes.

As he stood in the kitchen one afternoon, sunlight flooded the room and all the edges that had been dull and dark for so long seemed sharp. Hayder watched Iman as she made a lunch of dolma, wrapping beef, onions, tomato and garlic in grape leaves.

"Hayder," she said, catching his gaze, "why are you looking at my face?"

"Because," he told her, "my vision is better. I see you."

• • •

Hayder, 32, waited for the doctor's assistant to leave the examining room on a recent checkup in early August.

Then he looked around with a big grin.

"I see letters? Correct?" he asked. "Before, just the E."

A year ago, Hayder couldn't even see the E. The surgery made a big difference, but there is still a dark spot in the center of his vision. The D on the second row of the chart looked like an O. The P looked like an F. He got the Z right.

This checkup at the USF Eye Institute was part of the continuing treatment that Hayder hopes will restore even more of his sight. There has been progress on so many fronts since he was featured in a story in the St. Petersburg Times a year ago, but he wants more.

When the family arrived in August 2008, Hayder's injuries meant that it fell to Iman to look for work. With limited English and no transportation she wasn't a competitive candidate. Hayder wanted to work, but he had to survive on Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income, a total of $674 a month. Rent was almost $800 and utilities another $100. They turned to strangers and a mosque for help to get by each month.

The story in the Times prompted an outpouring of donations. Readers gave the family $10,000.

Hayder and Iman bought a 1999 Toyota Camry for $2,000. (After his laser surgery, Hayder discovered the car had a dent that Iman hadn't told him about before they bought it. He paid $300 to get it fixed.)

A local Iraqi friend taught Iman how to drive; Hayder stayed in the backseat, teasing Iman as she bounced off curbs during her lessons.

They visited discount stores and pawn shops, brightening up their home with modest sofas with leaf prints, throw rugs to put over the worn carpet, and a big-screen television so Hayder could see it better. Hayder liked to help decorate the home, even though he couldn't really see what he was buying.

The donations helped cover months' worth of rent, bills and food.

Last fall, Iman got a job at a day care center, helping to supplement Hayder's disability checks.

The boys blossomed in school, both now chattering up a storm in English. Gailan, 10 and entering fifth grade, has made lots of friends and loves soccer; he no longer suffers nightmares or cringes at the sound of thunder. Hussein, 6 and entering first grade, has endless energy; he loves to swim in the pool at the apartment complex.

Hayder began to study English every Monday with a tutor sent by nonprofit Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, one of the agencies that helped the family when it first arrived.

Hayder has formed friendships with some of the Iraqi families that have recently resettled in Tampa and moved into his complex. One man, an athlete, recognized Hayder; he used to work out in the same gym in Baghdad where Hayder taught boxing.

Hayder shows them the ropes. With Iman driving, Hayder takes them to the bank, helps them open accounts, brings them to the grocery store. They knock on his door and ask his help translating mail or paperwork.

But one by one, they disappear during the day for jobs in coffee shops, making deliveries or repairing cars. Their English is more limited than Hayder's, but their bodies are intact.

"Now all my friends get jobs," Hayder says. "I see them at night. They come to my house, and we drink coffee, tea and juice, talking Iraq situation."

Hayder also frets about his mother and three sisters in Baghdad. They talk mostly through instant messaging on the computer and sometimes phone calls.

"It's very dangerous," Hayder says. "Every day explosion, shots. They don't feel safe." He fears more chaos will befall Baghdad as U.S. troops pull out this year.

Hayder, who now has his permanent residency, or green card, is attempting to sponsor his mother and sisters to be resettled with him in Tampa. He envisions his sisters working and living in a nearby apartment; his mother staying with him and Iman and the boys. He'll no longer have to turn to strangers for help.

To help him express how important this is, he turns to an interpreter to translate his words:

"Everything will change if my family comes here."

In the meantime, he worries about surviving month to month. This spring, Iman was laid off. She might be able to get her job back in September, but only after she passes a certification exam, all the more difficult as she tries to master English. A local mosque helped with the electric and gas bill for a few months, but only through June.

• • •

At the eye clinic in August, an ultrasound on Hayder's eye confirmed for the doctor what he already knew: Hayder's retina was damaged beyond repair. The good news was that it hadn't gotten worse, but an operation likely wouldn't succeed in removing the dark spot at the center of his vision.

For now, Hayder's only hope for improved sight is a special contact lens.

Hayder can't afford the $369 deposit for the exam, much less the total cost, which could be $800. But Medicaid, which has paid for all his treatment, considers the lens as cosmetic and won't cover it.

If he can find a way to pay for it, or to get the referral changed to eyeglasses, which would be cheaper, he hopes his work prospects might improve.

"Maybe with glasses if I see good or better maybe I'm looking for job," he says.

Hayder can now read letters in 14-point type. (This story is 9.5-point type.) He's able to help more in the home, cleaning the entire apartment, hanging those bargain decorations he likes to find — including recently a pair of samurai swords for the wall.

The strongest incentive for better vision becomes apparent in the moments before the eye doctor enters the room to talk with Hayder.

"What time is it?" Hayder says, scrambling to find his cell phone. He calls Iman. She is just a few miles away, at a different doctor's office, undergoing her own ultrasound.

Iman, 31, is four months pregnant. This morning, they are expecting to learn the sex of their baby.

"I wish for girl, because you know, I have two boys," Hayder has said, adding, "Healthy is good, boy or girl."

The baby is due on Jan. 1. Hayder will be the main caretaker while Iman works, something he says he'll enjoy because he loves babies. He's already caring for their sons. At a recent birthday party for both Hayder and Hussein, he swept their youngest boy up into his arms, dancing with family and friends in their living room to music by Iraqi and Lebanese singers, by Shakira and Ricky Martin. In this joyous moment his priorities are clear.

"I don't need to drive or do other things," he says. "I just need to see my kids and my wife."

Saundra Amrhein is a writer living in St. Petersburg. Kathleen Flynn can be reached at kflynn@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8049.

ON THE WEB

A different struggle

To read the first story about Hayder Abdulwahab, go to tampabay.com/features.

To help

If you would like to help, send
donations in the name of Hayder Abdulwahab, P.O. Box 290957, Temple Terrace, FL 33687-0957.

Eye surgery brings focus to Iraqi refugee family's future 08/13/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 16, 2010 12:48pm]

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