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Given up for dead, Iraqi refugee struggles to survive in Temple Terrace

Hayder Abdulwahab's life as a refugee can be traced to the day he awoke on a pile of bodies in a Baghdad morgue.

That morning in 2004, he had stepped onto the balcony of his apartment, a 26-year-old Iraqi man ready for work. He was a bodyguard for an American employee with the U.S. military. But American soldiers in the street warned him to stay inside. In that moment, a car bomb exploded, shredding his body with metal and launching him on a journey to a small apartment near Tampa. Along the way he would endure broken promises from people he trusted, he would beg for help and hate himself for having to beg, he would struggle to decipher a bureaucracy that seemed indifferent to the medical care he needed most.

In short, he would become like the thousands of other Iraqi refugees who have been brought to the United States, who have traded the physical danger of their home for the financial insecurity of forging a new life in a country weighed down by recession. They are brought here by a national refugee system that is ill-equipped to help them once they arrive. It is an existence so disorienting and frightening that some of the Iraqi refugees have contemplated returning to the violence in Iraq just so they could earn enough to support their families.

But all those problems would come later for Hayder. The first and largest problem on that day that his life changed was that doctors thought he was dead.

Paralyzed, blinded, unable to scream, Hayder lay in a jumble of bodies. Knobby bones poked him from underneath, a still-warm arm lay across his side. The smell of rot was overwhelming.

"I'm going to die here," he thought.

Then he heard the voice of his brother fighting to get inside, followed by the yell of a doctor who saw a pulse thumping in the open wound of his throat.

Hayder was a university-trained boxing coach before the United States invaded in 2003, but sporting events quickly shut down when the fighting started and Hayder lost his job.

His English was a halting mix of Top Gun dialogue and Madonna lyrics, but in those early days of the war it was good enough to get a job as an interpreter at a military checkpoint. After that, he became a bodyguard for an American woman in charge of restoring a park near the Green Zone.

Death threats came regularly for those employed by the Americans — text messages and bullets sealed in an envelope. For Hayder, al-Qaida found him on the street.

"Quit with the Americans or you're going to die," Hayder remembers the man said.

But if he didn't work, how would he and his family survive? Though if he continued to work, he might die anyway.

Driving his boss one day on the highway, a car rushed at the side of their SUV. A man in the car took aim with a pistol. Hayder shot out one of the car's tires and they sped away.

A month later, the car bomb detonated in front of his apartment. His boss was there at his bedside when he woke up after surgery. Hayder remembers her weeping, stroking his arm. She promised to help with his treatment, to fly him outside of Iraq for surgery, if needed, even if she had to pay out of her own pocket.

Weeks later, when Hayder could walk again, he visited her. He had lost the use of one eye. The other barely worked and he feared he would lose it, too, without surgery. Could she help?

There was nothing she could do, he recalls her saying. Her tone was cold. He left and he hasn't seen or heard from her since.

He couldn't work at all, much less for the Americans, but the death threats continued. And people around him kept dying.

One day, his brother-in-law was shot to death in an ambush in traffic. Hayder, sitting in the passenger seat and still blind from the bombing, reached over and felt holes in his face.

Two months later, insurgents kidnapped two of Hayder's uncles. The family found their bodies at a morgue. Both had been tortured.

"I have to leave this country," Hayder decided.

In early 2007, Hayder, his wife, Iman, and their two sons escaped to Syria by bus. Fellow Iraqis — up to 50,000 a month — poured over the border, joining hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in Syria and Jordan.

Hayder registered his family with the United Nations as refugees. The agency — facing the biggest population displacement in the Middle East in 60 years — frantically sought to resettle the most vulnerable in third countries. But the process was agonizingly slow. Hayder and his family waited 18 months, tormented as their oldest son, Gailan, suffered nightmares and refused to eat. The second-grader returned from school every day bruised and crying, beaten by Syrian classmates.

Last summer, after months of interviews and background checks, Hayder got a phone call. They had been cleared to go to the United States.

Hayder was elated. America, he thought, was a very civilized place. They would be safe and treated with respect there, he thought. But during cultural orientation, a Syrian refugee worker painted a bleak picture: no jobs, no help, no health insurance. Iman began to cry.

"Don't worry," Hayder told her. "God will protect us over there."

In late August 2008, they landed in Tampa.

Their sponsor, an Iraqi man who has lived in the United States since the Persian Gulf War, picked them up. They settled into a room of his Lakeland home.

Weeks went by and the sponsor's single lifestyle and drinking wore on Hayder and Iman. Wasn't someone supposed to contact them, help them find an apartment, enroll Gailan in school? Iman would need a job; the family had to repay $3,500 in airfare.

They had no car of their own, so they asked their sponsor to take them to Lutheran Services Florida in Tampa, the refugee resettlement agency. They were hopeful: They had heard the agency covered security deposits and months of rent until Iraqi families could get on their feet.

They learned quickly that this sort of help was not available.

The agency, through its federal contract, gives out $425 per person, said Rubis Castro of Lutheran Services in Tampa. In the past, private donations would supplement that stipend, but the recession has dried up that pool.

Before the recession hit, refugees had little problem finding employment. Many of the Iraqi refugees were professionals back home and arrived hoping to continue work here as engineers, doctors or teachers. But their licenses aren't accepted, and recertification programs are time-consuming and expensive. In this economy, the Iraqis are hard-pressed to find any job.

Also, more than other refugee groups, Iraqis suffered high rates of war injuries and trauma from witnessing murders or living through the kidnapping of relatives as Shiite and Sunni militias terrorized Iraqi cities.

Even if the Iraqis risked their lives for U.S. troops and contract workers, as Hayder did, the settlement agency has to treat them the same, Castro said.

"We've got people from MacDill calling saying, 'Hey, treat them as VIPs,' " she said. "We always say every single client gets treated like a VIP."

Hayder's family received a total of $1,700 from Lutheran Services. He said he spent $500 of that to buy a sofa, television, throw rug and bunk beds from their sponsor. Last fall, they moved into an apartment of their own in Temple Terrace near Tampa.

Hayder, worried about paying the rent, went back to Lutheran Services. Was there anything more they could do?

A caseworker signed them up for food stamps, Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income so Hayder could receive disability checks. The SSI checks totaled $674 a month, but their rent was almost $800 and utility bills another $100. They were desperate for Iman to find a job.

In the past, churches or families would sponsor Sudanese youth or Bosnian families for months if not longer, helping with rent, furniture, used cars and clothes. Just as important, they might serve as ambassadors in a new country, helping navigate a maze of confusing government bureaucracy and customs.

While never easy, resettlement for groups like Cubans is aided by a broad network of Spanish speakers, relatives and countrymen who came before.

Hayder soon learned for Iraqis that support network is fraught with political and religious tensions brought from home.

On one of his visits to a Tampa mosque, Hayder, a Sunni Muslim, said he was asked about his work in Iraq. He left thinking they wouldn't help him because of his job with U.S. forces. When Hayder returned with his caseworker, the mosque gave him money to cover two months of rent, but Hayder felt too uncomfortable to go back.

Hayder found another mosque where the school's principal agreed to pay for a few months' rent. When the next month came due, Hayder still didn't have enough.

"I feel so embarrassed," he said in Arabic through an interpreter. "What am I going to tell her? It's embarrassing to go over and ask for money."

Mostly, Hayder and Iman keep to themselves and pray at home. When they go out — to shop or to take Gailan to school — they walk. Iman points out the cracks in the sidewalk so Hayder won't trip.

Hayder, now 30, has so much that he is grateful for — the donations from kind people, the government aid, that Gailan's nightmares have subsided, and that he no longer worries about school bullies or car bombs in the street.

But if there is one thing that is getting in the way of his family's transition it's Hayder's near blindness. He wants to work to support his family.

"If I had my vision back, you'd see the man that I am," he said.

Before he left Iraq, a doctor told him he could regain vision in his right eye with the proper surgery. But nearly a year after his arrival, Hayder still hasn't seen a specialist. This fills him with despair.

With Hayder's limited English, calls to Medicaid or the doctor's office are almost impossible to negotiate. Sometimes what happens doesn't even make sense in English.

One time, he arrived at an appointment with a doctor, who he hoped would refer him to a specialist, only to find out from the receptionist that they couldn't be seen because Medicaid had changed their insurance. Medicaid had assigned all four family members to different coverage and four different doctors.

Ali Alzubaidi, the interpreter who has befriended Hayder and helps on his own time, managed to call the new primary care doctor for Hayder and made another appointment. On the drive over, Hayder slid a CD into the car stereo. He hummed along to Madonna's La Isla Bonita.

During a basic eye test, Hayder removed his sunglasses. A nurse pointed to the big E. Hayder stared straight ahead.

"Nothing," he said.

The doctor said he would try to get Hayder seen by a specialist at the University of South Florida — assuming they would take his insurance.

"We'll get you headed in the right direction" the doctor said.

Hayder nodded, thanked him, not understanding everything.

Recently, at the apartment, Hayder and Iman put their wedding video into the DVD player their sponsor sold them. Iman says a name to Hayder when he can't see the image, and the two laugh, enjoying a memory.

On the screen, the two are 10 years younger. They sit side by side in chairs, Iman looking nervous in her white, billowing gown. Hayder is in a suit, his dark hair glistening. His face is handsome and smooth.

A singer whines a festive Iraqi song and Hayder laughs, recalling how much he hated the singer's music.

The singer is now dead, Hayder says from the couch. He was killed a few years ago in a blast in Baghdad. So is Hayder's cousin, dancing there, elbows flying wildly on the dance floor. His two uncles who were kidnapped and murdered mingle in the crowd. And there is his brother-in-law who was shot beside him, sitting at a table against a wall.

His younger brother, the one who pulled Hayder from the morgue, is twirling and jiving on the dance floor. Now he lives in Syria, as a refugee. Recently he was stabbed by a Palestinian.

The other day he called Hayder. He was crying. It's so bad in Syria, he says, he's considering returning to Iraq.

Hayder pleaded with him to wait. He could be brought soon to the United States. As hard as life is here, they are safe.

"I believe in the future," Hayder says. "How and when and where, I don't know. But there's going to be a way to solve these problems."

But Hayder wonders how long before he'll resemble the man who stood on that balcony five years ago, ready for work.

• • •

Last week, Hayder received good news. With the help of a persistent caseworker at Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, he got an appointment Tuesday with an ophthalmologist at USF.

Times photographer Kathleen Flynn and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441.

Iraqi diaspora

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and subsequent sectarian violence spurred one of the biggest refugee crises in the world. More than 2 million Iraqi refugees live in exile and an additional 2.7 million are internally displaced, most of that occurring after 2003. Most fled to Syria and Jordan.

In 2007, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees began a large-scale resettlement operation to relocate Iraqis from Syria and Jordan to 16 countries. .

Iraqi refugees resettled:

• United States: 31,000 from 2007 to mid June.

• Florida: 311 from October 2008 to June.

• Tampa Bay area: 41 from October 2008 to June.

Sources: United Nations; Florida Department of Children and Families; Lutheran Services Florida

Given up for dead, Iraqi refugee struggles to survive in Temple Terrace 07/11/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 14, 2009 12:25pm]

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