An Iraqi Family Finds its Way to Des Moines

An estimated four million people have been displaced because of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. This is a short story about five of them now living in Des Moines.

 Aseel Saaeed, Ashraf Rashad and their two children were Sunni Muslims living in a predominately Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and subsequent sectarian violence resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, and eventually Ashraf’s life was threatened.

Along with at least two million others, he fled to Syria and eventually was able to bring his family along. Later, Syrian authorities told Ashraf, a food wholesaler, that he and his family needed to return to Iraq. Still fearing for his life, he applied for refugee status through the United Nations.

“The UN asked me why I couldn’t go back to Iraq, and I told them because I have family, and my work and my house were not safe places,” he said. “They killed many friends. They killed a friend of mine who worked in the same place I did. My friend’s aunt came to my home in the middle of the night and told me, ‘You need to leave because they’ll come tomorrow to kill you.’”

After numerous interviews and anxious cell phone calls with UN officials, and 10 days following the birth of another child, the family heard the good news—they’d been accepted to go to the U.S. Months later, in February of 2009, they were told they had 13 days to pare all their belongings down to eight bags for the journey to Iowa.

The U.S. accepts only a few thousand Iraqi refugees each year, so they were incredibly lucky.

In a different sense, we at the American Friends Service Committee feel fortunate, too. Jody Mashek, the legal services director of AFSC’s Iowa Immigrants Voice Program, is grateful for the opportunity to know and assist over 1000 people from 50 countries each year with their immigration paperwork. AFSC is assisting Aseel and Ashraf’s family in applying for their “green cards,” or legal permanent residency, which is available for refugees who’ve lived in the U.S. for a year.

But AFSC isn’t the only one doing the helping. Ashraf now volunteers by welcoming other refugees from numerous countries who arrive at the Des Moines airport. Aseel says there’s a small but mutually-supportive group of Iraqis living in Des Moines, and she’s been enthusiastically referring other Iraqi refugees to AFSC for paperwork assistance.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the news of the day. Wars continue, and newcomers are too often shunned rather than welcomed in our midst. Yet hope lives in the faces of Assel and Ashraf’s children.

Their son, Anas, recently celebrated his 12th birthday and shared with us that the “Happy Birthday” tune is similar in Arabic. Their oldest daughter, Asal, is a voracious reader who’s actually bummed about summer because she’ll miss school so much.

But it’s their youngest daughter, Ales, who really lights up Friends House whenever she and her parents visit. The sheer sparkle of her eyes and the beam of her smile reassure us that love and peace still have a chance in our world today.

View a slideshow of their visit to AFSC