Iraqi brothers' fates here show successes and pitfalls

Hamza Albahadly (second from right), his brother Hussein (right), and Hamza's wife and son. The brothers worked with U.S. forces in Iraq before being forced to leave and settling here.
Hamza Albahadly (second from right), his brother Hussein (right), and Hamza's wife and son. The brothers worked with U.S. forces in Iraq before being forced to leave and settling here. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 26, 2013

Hamza and Hussein Albahadly knew they had to leave Iraq in 2009, when an envelope containing a bullet and a note was shoved under the door of the home they shared with their families.

"You must leave," the note warned.

For years, the brothers had spent each day walking the most dangerous tightrope for an Iraqi: By day, they earned a living working for the U.S. military in the protected Green Zone. At night, they returned home to the outskirts of Baghdad, knowing their jobs helping Americans could cost them - or their families - their lives at the hands of insurgents.

Four years later, the path that took the two brothers to the Philadelphia area offers a stark look at possibilities and pitfalls for such emigres and the American groups that seek to help them.

Hamza, 27, resettled with his family in Villanova, received his green card, and has a full-time job with benefits at Villanova University. But Hussein, 35, has stumbled in his attempts to build a stable life for his family. A year after arriving in Northeast Philadelphia, he is unemployed, behind on his bills, and facing eviction.

More than 800 Iraqi refugees have resettled in the Philadelphia region in the last decade, a wave that grew when Safa Ismael, a former translator for the United States near Mosul, became the first person granted asylum in this country under a law allowing the resettlement of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters.

Advocates say success stories are plentiful, but they also acknowledge getting ahead in America depends on strong community support, perseverance, and some luck.

"I often tell them the first year is the hardest, but really it's three years," said Juliane Ramic, director of social services for the Nationalities Service Center, which helps about 400 immigrants worldwide settle in the Philadelphia area each year. "Many have had different expectations for what life would be like here. And nothing is easy."

Hamza and Hussein Albahadly say they would have been lost without the churches that sponsored them, in Hamza's case, Our Mother of Good Counsel in Bryn Mawr and Saint Thomas of Villanova; in Hussein's, St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Ardmore.

Those congregations helped with money, apartments, jobs, food, and a car. They also assisted with navigating complex processes, such as applying for benefits and jobs, and helped the families feel less alone by welcoming them for holidays and Sunday services.

"If I didn't have the church's help, I maybe can't live here," Hussein said. "For my family, it's best to be here, but life is hard. It is hard, but it's better than Iraq."

But after more than a year of providing extensive support to Hussein, members of St. Paul's are unsure how much longer they can continue. Though he had a part-time job at a gas station, he lost it after going home last month.

He traveled to Iraq to comfort relatives after a suicide bomber killed his and Hamza's 22-year-old brother.

Since returning to the Philadelphia area, church members say, Hussein has been slow to find work and is behind on rent, and his landlord has threatened to evict him, his wife, and their three children.

Denette Stetler, a member of St. Paul's and a main sponsor of Hussein's family, acknowledged last week she was frustrated and saddened by his struggles. The church sponsored two other immigrant families in past years, she said, both success stories, and church members want to believe they can turn a family's life around.

"People in my community realize how fortunate they are," she said. "We realize we are privileged for being born and raised here. And we see this as Christian, to help a brother in need. So we have really tried to do all that we can."

Many refugees who arrive in the United States receive financial assistance at first, as well as food stamps and Medicare. But after a few months, the benefits often decrease, advocates said.

"You're expected to get on your feet in a relatively short period of time," said Janet Panning of Lutheran Child and Family Service, which refers refugees to churches for sponsorship.

Everything a recent refugee experiences is new, even going to the grocery store, Ramic of the Nationalities Service Center said. Many Iraqis have little experience dealing with government bureaucracy, and many have left behind extensive support systems in exchange for a world of sometimes hostile strangers.

"You become very weighed down by it until you're able to adjust," she said. "Many regret coming here at first. Everyone goes through some depression and that sense of deep isolation."

Getting sponsorship through a church can alleviate some of that pain, Panning said. It can also help refugees who face discrimination.

"We wish we could find a congregation for every family," Panning said. "So many people still look at a foreign-born person and see a terrorist."

For years, working for the United States in Iraq provided stability and a good living for the Albahadly brothers. Both worked for companies that provided security and support services to the U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone.

But by 2008, anyone who helped America became a target of death threats and worse. Even speaking broken English to the wrong person drew suspicion, Hamza said.

Their work made them eligible to come to the United States, and Hamza and his family arrived in March 2010.

His sponsoring churches got him housing, and at first Hamza worked three part-time jobs. One congregant knew the head of the food services department at Villanova University, and a year and a half later, Hamza was hired there. He and his wife now live with their two children in a Bryn Mawr apartment.

His youngest, born two years ago, is a U.S. citizen.

His brother's immigration was approved in 2011, due in part to Hamza's success, but his move was delayed by the government for more than a year.

When Hussein and his family arrived in November 2012, members of St. Paul's found an apartment in Northeast Philadelphia, took them to doctor's appointments, helped with rent and food, and got Hussein get a part-time job at a gas station in Ardmore. His commute took two hours by bus - until a member of the congregation donated a car.

That was the job he lost after returning to Iraq last month following his brother's death.

Despite his work troubles, Hussein's children are thriving in school, Stetler said, though they did not speak English a year ago. No matter what, she said, the family is better off here than in Iraq.

"I still have hope that this will turn out to be the best thing for them," she said. "Part of me thinks there are just too many good intentions at work for it to fail."


asteele@phillynews.com

610-313-8113

@AESteele

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|