Ahlam Mahmoud’s mission: Easing the Iraqi struggle

Ahlam Mahmoud helps an Iraqi man who arrived in the U.S. a month ago

[Read the related story – From a Syrian prison to a Chicago apartment: Iraqi refugees find each other]

The night she arrived in Chicago as an Iraqi refugee, Ahlam Mahmood got lost.

As she realized she didn’t know how to return from Walgreens to her two children in her new apartment, Ahlam experienced a gut-wrenching feeling of isolation,

Crying, and clutching her stomach to keep herself from succumbing to overwhelming panic, Ahlam made up her mind.

“From that second, I swore to God I would never leave any Iraqis to suffer what I suffered, to feel when I first came,” she says.

Ahlam went on to found and lead the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society (IMAS). The nonprofit, designed to support recent Iraqi immigrants and refugees, started three years ago from the back of an old used car. Ahlam would hand out food and clothing to Iraqis across Chicago. She aims to make their transition less painful than the one she faced.

A Difficult Beginning

When American troops arrived in Iraq in 2003, Ahlam says, she felt a deep sense of powerlessness.

“We didn’t choose the American military to come to our country,” she says incredulously. “Nobody wants their country to be invaded.”

She pauses. “But we are just people. We have no control over anything.”

For the first month of America’s occupation of Iraq, the danger was constant. Visibly tensing up, Ahlam says, “It’s war – before it began to be positive, and everything settled for the American military, there was war, there were explosions, there were bullets, there was every kind of shooting.”

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Startofwar.mp3] Ahlam describes her thoughts and fears upon the arrival of U.S. troops in April 2003

Though the invasion of Baghdad put everyone in danger, including civilians, there were also hopes for the democracy that American forces could usher in.

“Our expectations were so high. What’s happened to Afghanistan, it will happen here, we will have our own government and our own leaders and everything will be set,” Ahlam says, reflecting on her hopes in 2003.

Once the initial surge was over, much of the fear subsided. What remained was caused by private security forces dispatched to Iraq to gather intelligence or provide protection.  Working with both local Iraqis and the American forces, Ahlam processed grievances brought against the Americans for property damage. She also dealt with people wondering whether their family members were being held in custody.

“We had some cases [brought against] American security [forces], for damage to the houses, damage to the properties, damage to the cars. They had no results because they had no proof,” she says. The U.S. security forces dressed in civilian clothing were nearly impossible to hold accountable for the destruction they caused, she explains.

With the rise of security forces not beholden to any military chain of command, and increased fighting against the U.S. troops by Iraqi tribal factions, the environment of Baghdad worsened.

Ahlam describes it succinctly, with pursed lips. “Killing in the streets. Disorder.”

Looking back, Ahlam details the times before the U.S. invasion with mixed emotion.  There’s too much pain in her expression for it to be nostalgia, but there is a sense of a slightly safer past.

“Saddam Hussein was a dictator, but at the same time, the security system was very good. Nobody could do anything because he would be punished. The people were sleeping in their beds without any kind of worry. And starting in 2003, until now, the people don’t know if they will be attacked during the night, or if they can have a safe night’s sleep.”

*****

The process of coming to the U.S was disorderly, despite the year and a half of paperwork to make her journey possible.

Refugees do not have the opportunity to choose what country they are sent to. When refugees arrive in a new nation, it is often without much knowledge of what their new lives will be like.

Smirking to herself, she recalls touching down in the U.S. for the first time in New York, and asking where her next flight would take her. Upon hearing that she’d be going to Chicago, she replied:

“Is it a state or a city?”

According to Ahlam, for most Iraqi refugees, “All they know about Chicago is its gangs and Al Capone.”

Ahlam spent her first few weeks in Chicago terrified. On one of her first days, she

Visa documentation of Ahlam and her two children, Abdullah and Roqaya, that allowed their entry into the United States

took her two children, Abdullah and Roqaya, to an Internet café to contact friends and family in Baghdad.

She describes squeezing each of her children’s hands as tightly as possible.

“I was grabbing them so as not to lose them. I was thinking, ‘Someone will come and kidnap my children.’”

Her experience is not unique.

Because she deals with recent arrivals to the U.S., Ahlam has seen her share of hardship among Iraqi immigrants. With one word, she describes their typical experience: “struggle.”

Finding work is one struggle. Rent support from local refugee aid organizations typically runs out after just three months. Ahlam did what most refugees do – she picked up survival jobs.

“I was cooking, I was doing delivery, I was taking children to school and returning them home. You can’t imagine how many jobs!”

A large part of her work at the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society is connecting refugees with such jobs. In most cases, this is a difficult first step. Jobs are hard to find, and even when one is available, many Iraqis are inexperienced in that kind of work.

“Sometimes they say no,” relates Ahlam. “‘We’re not used to that kind of work, we were doctors, we were engineers – how can they insult us with that?’” she intones, channeling the incredulity of a recent immigrant.

Ahlam in her Evanston apartment, looking over travel documents that allowed her immigration to the U.S.

In fact, Ahlam concedes that some small fraction of Iraqi refugees decide they cannot adjust to life in America. This is especially common for those who had relatively comfortable, albeit unsafe, lives in Iraq.

“They cannot handle life here in the United States because what they heard outside is totally different from the real life here in this economic crisis,” she says. She supposes that most people who decide to go back realize, “‘If I work a survival job with eight hours a day, I will never find the life I was dreaming of.’”

*****

Work in the U.S. was scarce and underpaid, but her job in Iraq was dangerous, especially as she spent more time with Americans. By working as “the face of Iraqi citizens there in front of the American military,” some Iraqis saw her contact with Americans as a betrayal.

“I was dealing with the American government – so I’m a terrorist – no, a spy – I’m a spy for the Americans,” she relates bitterly, walking through the thought process of tribal factions and militant Iraqi groups.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Serveorleave.mp3] Ahlam describes how she justified working a dangerous job in Baghdad, for the sake of the Iraqi community

It was risky to be seen in this light. Even riskier was her visibility. Because she had the list of detainees, people came to her from all parts of Baghdad to search for their friends and family.

“I was ignoring the danger that I saw in front of my eyes. And then I kept on ignoring it, ignoring it, until it caused me to be detained for eight days.”

But “detained” doesn’t really describe the severity of Ahlam’s experience.

Kidnapped from her home by a militia in 2005, she was taken to a facility underground, blindfolded the entire time. She was not told where she was.

“It’s like somebody could be executed any second, so I was waiting for the bullet that would be in my head, every second…”

She still does not know who kidnapped her. She’s been told Al Quaida might have been behind it, but nobody knows for sure.

She was finally released on ransom for $50,000. Even after she removed her blindfold, it took a moment before she could see – she was blinded by light. As her eyes adjusted, she saw her brother-in-law and sister, and her front door. She had been dropped off at home as if nothing had happened.

Her captors told her that she was being released on the condition that she leave Iraq.

This was enough for Ahlam. Though she felt a deep duty to her Iraqi community and was proud of her work, she knew that her family could no longer stay in their homeland.

“I really respect the work [in Baghdad] that I’ve done. But on the other hand, at this time I had three children and I had to take care of them. It’s not about me anymore. It’s about my children.”

After living briefly in both Jordan and Egypt, she moved her family to Syria and started to work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In 2006, her oldest son, 11 years old at the time, became seriously ill. She took him to a Syrian hospital. They gave him medicine that provoked internal bleeding. Under rather uncertain medical circumstances, her son died suddenly.

Then, when the Syrian government got wind of her work, they pressured her to spy on UNHCR’s activities. When Ahlam flatly refused, she was jailed for five months underground.

She has only pieced together part of the story of what happened to her children, nine and eleven years old at the time. Ahlam knows they stayed with their father for the last month and a half, but the first three and a half months are still a mystery. All she knows is that they rotated, week by week, among Iraqi families who would accept two children into their custody.

Building a Life

Ahlam’s struggle in the U.S. is motivated by a deep commitment to her children. She considers providing for her children to be her “destiny.”

“It’s not shameful for me to have to work any kind of work to make a living for my children,” she says, beaming. “I’m established!”

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Survived.mp3] Ahlam expresses her pride at surviving in the U.S., for the sake of her children

When she describes her children’s progress, Ahlam’s smile, up to this point close-lipped, breaks open, toothy and full of pride. She brushes her brown hijab, or hair scarf, to the side, drawing attention to how it contrasts with her thoroughly American winter fleece.

Initially, her children had trouble in school. They were silent for their first two months.  In Iraq, teachers would beat students for asking questions, let alone for talking. They have since opened up, riding bikes with neighborhood kids and learning English.

“Not me,” jokes Ahlam.“I still have this accent, and trouble with memorizing words I’ve been taught.”

Iraqi immigrants’ newfound comfort reflects Ahlam’s greatest successes in forming a strong Iraqi community in Chicago. She relates that, in a recent grant application, several refugees whom she helped when they arrived provided testimonials. As Ahlam remembers their responses, her eyes brighten noticeably.

“Every one of them wrote the same thing,” says Ahlam. “‘When we first saw Ahlam, we saw there is security. A familiar face that we can contact, and we feel so lucky because she found us and made it easier for us.’”

For recent Iraqi immigrants, she describes their day-to-day as “the life of security.”

“They were in the survival mode,” she says of people living in Iraq. “But it’s different than the survival mode here. There, they survive because they don’t want to be killed or kidnapped. Here, they just want to pay the rent.”

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/AhlamBirds.mp3] Ahlam describes an everyday occurrence that, to her, speaks volumes about the safety of the United States.

Her anxieties have also shifted. Upon arriving in Chicago, she first worried about her hijab and whether people would judge her for wearing one. After seeing that nobody disrespected her on the basis of her Muslim faith, she started to open up.

“I recognized how if you smile in front of a person, they will smile to you too,” says Ahlam. “This is gorgeous. This is something unbelievable.”

The idea of Americans as friendly directly contrasts with what she had heard in Iraq and Syria.

“I’ve been told that the Americans are heartless, they will never care if you live or die, if you are starving or not, so you have to be by yourself there in the United States,” says Ahlam.

“This is wrong.” Ahlam came upon a different reality in America: “I found that great hearts surrounded me since I arrived in the States.”

The future for  occupation and immigration

Despite Ahlam’s contentions about America’s role in Iraq, she describes the U.S. troops with a similar positivity that she uses to describe Americans in the U.S.

“My experiences with the military, especially the civil military unit, were quite good,” says Ahlam, in reference to the group that helped connect her to lists of detained persons, and did many of the public service engineering projects in Baghdad.

She remembers the American troops, in contrast to the independent security forces, being honest about their errors. She recalls a soldier shooting an eight-year-old girl by mistake during a mission. Lacking medication, the family took the girl to a military hospital. The military paid for her surgery and recovery in full, simply because of the accounts of a few eyewitnesses, says Ahlam.

Ahlam also recalls a particularly positive role that soldiers played in building infrastructure on a larger scale. “Provide us with electricity because we are farmers and the irrigation water will never run,” she remembers asking the troops. “They respected our request and provided us with electricity,” she says.

She expresses deep discontent about the extent to which the U.S. has been able to transfer democratic control to the Iraqis. “It’s been hard for us to accept the country without government.”

When asked about the pullout of American forces, she responds, “Still, the Iraqis need the American military inside.” She sees the Iraqi military as relatively untrained, and still in need of U.S. assistance to get it up to speed.

Ahlam draws lessons from the 2003 occupation. When Paul Bremer became Governor of Iraq, he disbanded the Iraqi security forces, including traffic police, intelligence, and the military. “All these people were targets for the militias,” says Ahlam. “They’ve targeted them and assassinated them in their homes and in the streets.”

Ahlam says the Americans have a responsibility to rebuild what they can of the Iraqi military, correcting for prior mistakes and making the country as secure as possible.

“The vision is not clear enough for my mind,” says Ahlam, darkly. “We don’t know what will happen if the American troops pull out.”

****

Ahlam seems more certain about the future of America’s immigration policy, though equally pessimistic. Her frustrations bubble up as she delves into the recent history of who has been allowed to enter the U.S. Over the past five years, about 60,000 Iraqi refugees have been resettled in the U.S., though the targeted number has been significantly higher. More than 18,000 Iraqi were settled in both 2009 and 2010, but this year, the number has hovered at about 7,000. Iraqis seeking resettlement in the U.S., and approved for resettlement are stuck in limbo in Iraq, Syria and Jordan. Though Ahlam does not see the U.S. as having any responsibility to Iraqis in particular, she readily criticizes the process that creates dashed expectations.

Ahlam says that refugees will keep coming to the U.S. from Iraq. Given that there are still Vietnamese refugees coming to America from the Vietnam war, Ahlam anticipates that “at least for the next 10 years, we will have people come from Iraq.”

*****

Though she struggles with national refugee policy in her work, Ahlam’s children are still her greatest concern, three years after getting lost and wondering if she would be able to find her way back to them.

Her greatest worry is that something terrible happened to her children while she was jailed. She is still missing three and a half months of the story of where they stayed and exactly what they went through.

“For me, I’m beginning to stress about talking to them about these things because my expectation is so bad,” says Ahlam. “It’s not easy.”

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/motherhood.mp3] Ahlam describes her worry over what happened to her children during her  imprisonment in Syria

Despite her traumatic past – from being kidnapped in Iraq, to being held in Syrian jail, to going through a difficult transition to American life – Ahlam still takes deep pride in her experiences.

“I really respect my work – I’m definitely sure of myself. I didn’t do anything wrong. It caused me all this kind of tragedy inside my life. But it’s happened,” says Ahlam. “So I accept it as it is.”

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